Craig has sent me a series of questions, and this one also comes from him. Craig wants to know how you determine the size of a paddock for your grazing animals. This is a great question and not an easy one to answer.
Before we talk about determining paddock size we need to talk about goals. The first thing you need to ask yourself is “What do I want? or what am I trying to accomplish with my grazing management.” If your goal is to raise meat goats on your 2 acre homestead, then you need to manage your grass so your goats have good grazing until they are ready for the dinner table. Another example might be that you are a rancher trying to put gain on some steers before the livestock sale next month. Each example requires a different set of management tools and techniques. After you have determined your goal, we can easily determine the size of your grazing paddocks.
Remember, animal performance comes before anything else. That means that your animals have had enough to eat, your monitoring their pH and examining their overall appearance. As I’ve learned from Ian, looking at the land comes second.
Basically there are two scenarios that I see. You either own the land you are grazing or you don’t. If you own land I will call that scenario one. If you are leasing land I’ll refer to that as scenario two.
If you own your land, congratulations! Determining size of paddocks for scenario one is easy, because I know you own the land and want to care for it. Chances are, even if you have 2 acres that you have invested a lot of money in your land. Because of your investment you should graze the land properly. To determine the size of paddocks you need to give your livestock a paddock based on what you think will feed them for the day, week or month. This depends on how often you move your livestock. How often do you want to move your livestock? If you are already set in a routine of moving your livestock once a week, than stick with it. So this means your are moving your livestock once a week. After your livestock have grazed the paddock you gave them you need to examine it. This is what you are looking for when examining the paddock:
- The livestock grazed or “took” 20% of the grass available to them, leaving 80% of available grass standing or litter (grass trampled onto the soil surface)
- The livestock grazed the “tips” of the grass plants
- There is a 1’’ +/- layer of litter which covers the soil. This is hugely important!!
- If the grass plants have been severely grazed down into the dirt, you need to give them a lot more area for grazing! Remember try to leave 80% of the grass behind
By leaving so much grass behind you are shortening the amount of time it takes the grass plants to recover. This means that you can come back around to that paddock sooner than if your livestock grazed every plant into the dirt. Additionally you are investing in the future productivity of your land by putting down litter which builds organic matter in your soils and enables you to grow more grass every year. Each year will be better than the last.
Now let’s move on to scenario two. In this scenario you are leasing the land you are grazing. I’ve already written a post on why the landowner should pay you to care for and improve his land. If they are unwilling to do this then you need to maximize the amount of grass or grazing you get from this leased land. Basically you want to do the exact opposite as scenario one. Try and graze 80% and leave behind 20%. This will provide your livestock with an ample food source and actually leaving behind 20% of the grass is better than what most conventional ranchers do. You will still be leaving behind some litter, so don’t feel as if you are “raping the land.” The same principles apply as scenario one except you are taking more grass and leaving less behind. Please note that you should not take all 80% of the grass on your first rotation. This will prevent you from growing the maximum amount of grass you could, if you were to take all 80% of the grass at first. When the grazing season is coming to an end, or your lease is up, you can go back through your rotation and take 80% and leave 20%. In the meantime aim for grazing the grass when it is in a vegetative state, meaning before there is a seed head and remember to take the “tips.”