Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.
What is Rotational Grazing?
Rotational grazing of livestock is a method of using the animals' available forage space in a more controlled, efficient way that also benefits the land itself.
It involves moving animals in and out of smaller sections, or paddocks, of the land on a schedule that's dictated by the growth of the pasture plants. The animals have to be managed pretty intensely for this method to work well, but it's definitely worth the time and effort.
For example, if you have ten total acres of pasture, you don't allow your animals access to graze all ten acres at once—instead, you move them across the land in sections of one or two acres at a time.
Who Can Use It Effectively?
In order for rotational grazing to work, you need to have the right amount of animals on the right amount of pasture.
We generally think of animals as "animal units" when it comes to this type of grazing. An animal unit means 1000 pounds of animal. Depending on the type and quality of forage in your pastures, and the time of the growing season, you might need 1-5 acres for each animal unit.
I've used rotational grazing for years, and although it's harder work than simply letting animals graze at will, the benefits are undeniable.
What Are the Advantages?
Rotational grazing can produce savings in feed costs and result in healthier animals and healthier pastures.
You can also use rotational grazing systems to remove unwanted plants from your pasture, such as thistles and livestock-safe brush, because when the animals aren't given the option to ignore these less-palatable foods, they will eat them instead!
Permanent or Temporary Fencing
In order to create the paddocks needed for a rotational grazing system, you have two options:
- Use permanent fencing to create permanent paddocks.
- Use temporary fencing to create temporary paddocks.
My experience has been with both systems, and I much prefer the temporary paddocks. To create temporary paddocks for rotational grazing, I prefer to use electric net fences.
Temporary Grazing Paddocks
The important facts to determine about your temporary grazing paddocks are: How large and for how long?
Let's return to this notion of "animal units." Remember that an animal unit means 1000 pounds of livestock. This might be two-thirds of a cow, four adult sheep or goats, a horse, or 15 lambs or goat kids. It doesn't really matter what type of animal it is, as long as they are grass-eaters. You can also use rotational management with poultry and pigs, but they don't fit in the "animal units" model.
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In order to know how large you should plan to make your temporary grazing paddocks, you need to know how many animal units you have.
When I was rotationally grazing a mixed flock of hair and wool sheep, I had an estimated two animal units, or 2,000 pounds of animal in my main group (I grazed the little lambs alongside their mothers). Because of how my pastures performed, I was able to create relatively small paddocks for grazing, usually 1/2 acre - 1 acre per animal unit.
In general, one animal unit can graze one acre for a few days. Depending on forage quality and the time of the growing season, one animal unit might need three acres for the same time period.
The next important part of rotational grazing is how long you'll leave your animals in a paddock before you move them along to the next.
How long you can leave your animals in a given temporary paddock depends on the quality of the forage (grasses, legumes, etc.) and how densely you've stocked your animals.
My advice for determining when to move your animals on? Watch the paddock, every single day. You should be observing the area your animals are grazing, frequently.
When forage is becoming scarce, and before plants are eaten down to the ground, move the animals on.
Paddocks need a rest period after being grazed. This allows the forage to regrow without damage from the animals. How long the rest period needs to be varies depending on forage type and time of the growing season, but figure on ten days to up to 50 days for low quality pasture in hot weather.
What Are Electric Net Fences?
Now that we've covered the basics of rotational grazing, let's discuss my favorite type of fencing for this type of livestock and pasture management.
Electric net fence, sometimes called "sheep netting" or "goat netting," is comprised of plastic wire and metal poly-wire, which is the part that carries the electric charge. The wires are woven together to form a net (hence the name).
When you purchase an electric net fence, it's already assembled with built-in stakes. The stakes give the fence stability, and each stake has a post on a "foot" that you drive into the ground by simply stepping on it. It actually couldn't be easier!
There are different sizes of electric netting depending on the type of animal you intend to use it with. Heights tend to range from 33 to 48 inches, with the tallest fence meant for goats (or, in the case of my escape-artist sheep, they're meant for sheep).
I've used electric net fences for sheep, calves, goats, chickens, and pigs. And had great experiences with all!
Best Portable Electric Fences
It's important when shopping for this type of fence to make sure you purchase "portable" electric netting. There is also a permanent type sold by some brands, and it won't work for the type of rotational grazing I'm talking about.
Other things to look for in choosing the best electric net fence is how durable the actual netting is, and how easy it is to make repairs. You should also look for information about how easy it is to connect multiple fences together—for instance, two fences that are 165 feet each, to make a larger paddock. Customer reviews are a great place to look for this specific info.
There are several brands of electric net fences that farmers and homesteaders like myself recommend. I personally prefer Premier or Kencove for my electric netting needs.
In my experience, Premier is the brand more reasonably priced for quality and I never had trouble connecting their fences together and charging several with a single solar-powered electric fencer.
How to Use Electric Net Fences for Rotational Grazing
So, you've figured out how large your temporary paddocks should be, how many animals you're going to graze in each group, and you've learned how to set up your electric net fence. You're ready to begin using the fences for rotational grazing.
A note on charging your fence: I recommend a low-impedance electric charger, or "fencer," for this type of grazing. You'll often be put in situations where your fence is touching tall foliage, and this will eat up the charge in your fence if you don't use low-impedance. I also strongly recommend a solar-powered fencer, like the one I've linked below, so that you don't have to fuss with batteries or extension cords. Also, remember that you have to ground your electric circuit (I use a copper rod driven into the earth for this purpose).
1. Start By Setting Up Your First Paddock
Begin your rotational grazing by setting up your first temporary paddock using your portable electric net fence. One of the great things about these fences is that you can move them while the animals are in them—simply move the posts one by one, gradually moving the entire fence. I've found this works best when I set up the fence as a rectangle; the next paddock I'm moving to is directly adjacent.
2. Watch the Grass and Move Fence Accordingly
Once you have your first temporary paddock set up, it's time to start watching the grass. Don't allow your animals to graze on it too short—three inches minimum height. Move the fence and the animals to your next paddock when they've grazed the first one appropriately. Move the fence charge and the copper ground rod right along with it.
3. Rinse and Repeat
Rotate your animals across all your available grazing land in this fashion.
Troubleshooting Common Problems
Rotational grazing with portable electric net fence is, like most things, inexact and imperfect. Here are some issues I've run into along the way, and how to deal with them.
Animals escaping while moving fence
Don't lay down fence panels while moving fence; remove animals that have learned to escape while fence is being moved; have another person control the animals; use feed to keep them busy
Fence posts won't go in ground
Ground could be too hard; sharpen foot posts
Fence won't get hot (charged)
Check fencer for power; ensure not too much fence for fencer; make sure positive/negative hooked up correctly
Smaller animals caught in fence netting
Fence with smaller spaces in net is needed, or remove young animals until larger
Chickens flying/gliding over fence
Clip flight feathers or use taller fence
Pigs digging under fence
Use rocks or logs near the fence line to discourage digging
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rachel Koski Nielsen
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