Rotational Grazing

The Rest and Recovery Method of Pasture Management

Forage establishment on fragile land is a proven method of soil conservation. In recent years, many acres of Manitoba Farmland have been converted to forages through various conservation programs. Rotational grazing is a proven means of using forage land effectively. Rotational grazing is designed to obtain the best economic return per acre through grazing while managing the land for the future. The pasture is divided into cells or paddocks. Each paddock is intensively grazed for a short period, then allowed to rest and recover before being grazed again. The amount of time each cell is grazed and then rested relates to the time of year, quality of the forage and the growth stage of the forage.  

Table of Contents

Benefits of Rotational Grazing

Rotational grazing provides a higher live weight gain per acre than conventional grazing systems. A properly managed tame pasture can provide a return per acre equal to, or better than, the same land in other crops.

More efficient pasture use and livestock management result in a higher net economic return to the producer.

A high stocking density is more efficient
Stocking density is the number of animals on a particular piece of land at a given point in time. Concentrating the herd in one paddock of the system at a time translates into a high stocking density. Using small paddocks also increases stocking density.

A high stocking density increases competition for feed between animals, forcing each to spend more time eating and less time wandering.

Competition also forces animals to be less selective when grazing. They will eat species of plants that would be ignored in other grazing systems. This results in a reduction of less desirable plant species in the pasture.

Paddocks allow easier intensive management
There are three phases of forage plant growth. In the initial phase, the plant grows slowly. Grazing during this stage can be harmful to the plant.

The second phase, transition stage, exhibits rapid growth and lush, leafy plant material. Ideally, a well-managed pasture is always in the transition phase, however this is difficult to achieve.

During the final, reproductive stage the plant has a high percentage of stems and seed heads. Given the choice, animals will pass this plant over for more palatable plants.

The challenge is to delay plant maturity by grazing, keeping it in the lush transitional stage as long as possible. Grazing can be controlled to make the most efficient use of forages in the pasture by moving the herd from paddock to paddock to graze the forage while it is in this optimum stage.

Rotation of the herd through the paddocks will be fastest when plant growth is most vigorous, usually in spring and early summer. The rest period required for the forage is shortest when it is growing quickly. The grazing period will be short so that the herd can move to the next paddock before it grows past the transition stage.

Using small paddocks also limits the area an animal can roam, reducing the amount of energy wasted on moving about.

Good forage increases grazing efficiency
An animal grazes most efficiently when forage is six to nine inches high. Under these conditions, a cow can eat as much as three percent of its own body weight of dry matter per day. The combination of lush, nutritious forages and a minimum of energy expended in grazing results in an optimum weight gain per acre. If there isn't enough forage available to satisfy this requirement, the animal must range further or lose performance.

Rotating the herd prevents overgrazing
Overgrazing is not a function of too many cattle, it is a function of time. Overgrazing occurs when a plant that has been grazed is grazed again before it can regrow and replenish its root reserves. If regrazing continues, the plant draws nutrients from its own roots and may eventually die. Short grazing periods will ensure regrazing does not occur.

Closer contact with the herd means better livestock management
A rotational grazing system requires more management input than conventional grazing systems. But because of frequent contact with the herd, there are more opportunities to check animals for disease.

It also provides the opportunity to visually assess the progress of the herd or of individual animals.

Proper management provides sustained production
Pasture is a valuable resource and when properly managed, can provide for today and for the future.

Much of the land presently in pasture is marginal for crop production. Having it in well-managed pasture is a benefit to the producer, as well as society at large. A well-managed soil is not blowing away or silting lakes and water reservoirs.


Rest is the key. Forage must be given the chance to recover before being grazed again.

A cow takes 30 to 90 bites per minute, and by moving her head from side to side in an arc, can bite continuously for up to 30 minutes.

Source: "Managing Saskatchewan Rangeland"

Converting Your Quarter Section

Be prepared to spend more time
In rotational grazing systems, cattle are frequently moved from one paddock to another. The herd can not change paddocks on its own, you will have to be there.

Additional investments are required
Increased fencing is the most obvious expense, but modern materials can help keep the cost reasonable. Cross fencing is usually a single strand, high tensile electric fence. The amount of cross fencing needed will depend on the number of paddocks. The number of paddocks needed will depend on the average amount of time it takes the forage to recover to the point where it may be grazed again.

An electric fencer is a necessary investment. Low impedance electric fencers provide high output and stock quickly learn to avoid the fence rather than test it.

Water Handling

Water may be the major limiting factor in establishing a rotational grazing system. Surface water supplies should be fenced. Keeping cattle out of the water and mud helps prevent disease and protects the water from being contaminated.

A pumping system connected to a tank is the best way to handle water. Many types of pumping systems are available. Solar-powered pumps are becoming very popular as they become more affordable.

Areas around water troughs should be excavated and filled with gravel, especially in moist areas, to allow spilled water to drain away and reduce the possibility of disease.

Fencing Cost for A Quarter Section Pasture

High Tensile Electric Fencing With Four Paddocks

Total Cost ($) Per Acre Cost ($)
Capital Costs

Perimeter Fence (3 wire, 30 ft. post spacing)(2 miles)

posts (30 ft. spacing) 2956 18.48
wire (three strands) 1280 8.00
accessories (insulators, tighteners) 611 3.82
electric fencer 400 2.50
labour (40% of materials)


Cross Fence (4 paddocks single wire)

posts (60 ft. spacing) 739 4.62
wire (single strand) 208 1.3
labour (40% of materials) 252 1.58
Water Development and Cattle Handling Facilities $8,000 $50.00
Annual Costs
Operating Costs
repairs and maintenance 822
energy costs 19
interest on operating at 4.5% 458

Fixed Costs

depreciation over 20 years 750
investment costs at 5% 458

More Information

Ask for the Farm Business Management Update entitled Guidelines for Estimating Farm Fencing Costs.