Strategic fencing creates managed grazing systems, benefiting livestock, forage
One of the practices the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service strongly recommends for livestock producers is a managed grazing system, a practice that is managed for both the benefit of the livestock and the forage. Livestock graze in each pasture long enough to harvest the forage but are removed before too much leaf area is consumed. A basic system may have four or five pastures, while a more complex system will have eight or more.
My career with the USDA-NRCS started while I was still attending Missouri State University. My husband, Jon, and I moved to Ava in 1997 when I took the position as grassland conservationist. Since then, I have worked with many landowners in Douglas and Ozark counties to develop their grazing systems. Jon is the agriculture education instructor at Gainesville High School. So when we take on a project, we expect it to be done to the best of our abilities and be something that lets us use our experience to the benefit of our clients or students.
Five cows, four pastures
Our family’s grazing system experience began in 2001 when we purchased our farm near Girdner, in Douglas County. The farm comprised 100 acres with about 70 acres of forest and about 30 acres of pasture. After purchasing our new home and farm, we bought our first five cows. We decided on five cows because we use the rule of thumb that it takes 4 acres per cow/calf pair to graze year around. We installed some electric fencing to exclude the forest areas and facilitate a minimal grazing system. Ponds provided water for the cattle.
The primary forage on the farm is tall fescue. A little incidental bermudagrass grew here and there but was not a significant forage source. Our first grazing system comprised four pastures.
After a couple of years, we decided to add goats to our farm to eat the multi-flora rose and buckbrush that invaded the fields. We also decided to enhance the grazing system with additional fencing and a water system fed from a well. We built fenced “lanes” to allow movement from field to field and to the water tank in one field. This allowed us to have up to nine pastures (six different fields with one that was further divided using temporary electric fences).
At some point we sold all our cows, and at the peak had 70 mama goats.
When an opportunity presented itself to purchase adjoining acres, we took it. About the same time, we decided to add cattle back to the farm. The new land addition caused another adjustment in our grazing management. Moving the livestock to the adjoining acres was not simple, so more lane fences were added. Additional cross fence and another water system were set up from the well on the new acres. This added land allowed us to expand to about 10 cows with a much-reduced goat herd.
We had always admired the land across the road from our home. It’s a beautiful piece of property that had been meticulously cared for over the years. We had missed one opportunity to acquire the farm and did not pass up the second opportunity when it came. This expansion led to another adjustment in our grazing management. We didn’t have enough cattle to utilize the forages or make the land payment, so we purchased about 20 cows (unfortunately, at the peak of the market) about five years ago.
Five pastures become 12
The “new” farm had five fields that included about 100 acres of tall fescue pasture. Water sources included ponds and a spring-fed creek, but one field didn’t have any water in it, so an adjoining field had to be used for the water source. The other fields were very large and did not allow for good grazing management. The first adjustment we made after the acquisition was to add a water system.
Our second management change was to eliminate the massive amount of blackberries and cedar that had invaded the fields over the years. We used herbicides to reclaim the forages in the pastures.
Cross fences were the next improvement, creating 12 pastures from the existing five on the new farm. The more pastures and the quicker the moves of cattle from one pasture to another, the better the utilization of forages and the longer the forages can rest before being re-grazed.
Three years ago, we began a practice of “stockpiling” two of the fields that totaled about 35 acres. We applied about 200 pounds of triple-seventeen fertilizer in August and then set those fields aside until we needed that forage in the winter. We chose the fertilizer rate because the soil test called for about 34 pounds of needed phosphorus per acre. We generally would start grazing these stockpiled pastures after deer season or around the first of December. That practice let us get a couple more weeks of grazing before supplementing with hay.
This year we again stockpiled the two fields (now four fields with abundant water, thanks to additional fencing). However, this time we decided to use our electric fence system and feed the stockpiled fescue in narrow strips rather than giving the livestock the entire field. We used temporary electric fence to allot about two or three days of forage at a time. We started the strip grazing on Dec. 1, 2018, and moved the cattle to the last strip on Feb 2, 2019. With the stockpiled pasture forage available during December-January, we didn’t start feeding hay until Feb. 4. Our initial investment was about $1,500 for the fertilizer, and we estimated that we saved about $5,000 on hay during those two months.
I’ve learned that one always must be flexible in a grazing system – both because of continuous changes, additions or life events that may occur and also to take advantage of forages as they grow into readiness for grazing.
We have been blessed to be able to raise our sons, Wyatt and Westin, on the farm. We hope we have passed along the importance of good grazing management and stockmanship and that when the time comes, they will be able to continue to build on what we have started.
For more information on farming practices and grazing systems, contact the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service at 417-683-4816, the Ozark County Soil & Water District office , 417-679-4876, or the Ozark County University of Missouri Extension office, 417-679-3525.