The Basics of Grazing Cattle 

The Basics of Grazing Cattle

In this post we’ll be covering:

  • Why you need to rotate cattle
  • How to check for gut fill
  • What manure is telling you about the condition of your cattle
  • Determine and implement an adequate recovery period for your grass

Today I’d like to talk about grazing cattle. Many of us find cattle intimidating because they are so big and powerful. While cattle do deserve our respect and attention, they can be managed easily when you keep things simple.

Good management starts with observation. Observing your cattle’s behavior and appearance can tell you a great deal about how they are performing. It’s easy to do, once you know what to look for. And, in order for your cattle to perform on grass, whether your goal is dairy or beef production, they need to be moved to new grass frequently. Why do your cattle need to move frequently? There are many reasons, but, as I promised earlier, I’m going to keep it simple. Simply put, your cattle need to be moved so they have fresh grass to eat. New grass plants have more energy in them. This energy is what enables the cow to produce high quality milk or the steer to fatten up for beef production. The energy I’m referring is located in the tips of the grass plants. As you work your way down the plant, toward the ground, the less energy there is, and the cellulose content rises. So, in order to maximize beef or milk production, it makes sense to maximize the amount of energy your cattle are getting. To give them the most energy, you need to control their grazing. To control their grazing, I highly recommend electrified polybraid (not polywire), fencing reels and step-in posts. These tools are so powerful and inexpensive that it makes a lot of sense to use them. With these tools and most importantly, your management decisions, you will create paddocks to limit the amount of grass they have access to. Normally, they will stay in a paddock for 24 hours. Sometimes, they might be in a paddock for 3 days, or 3 hours. These are extreme examples and I recommend to you that you start with 24 hour paddock moves.

Determining the size of paddocks for you cattle can be tricky if you are just starting out. Everyone’s farm is different, and we have extreme temperature variations in the United States. To simplify all of this, you can use two methods of observation to determine if your cattle are being limited (too little grass) or given too much grass. These two methods are:

  • Gut Fill
  • Observing Manure Quality and Texture

We can understand what is going on inside of a cow/steer by looking at their gut fill and manure. Let’s start with gut fill. This is such an easy way of judging if your cattle are performing that I just love it! Determining gut fill can be done when looking at the left side of the cow. What left side you ask? Imagine you are riding the cow like a horse (wouldn’t that be fun!), the left side is the side that your left leg would be hanging over. Look at this area (see picture below) to determine gut fill. If the cow has an indentation in this area, you have limited her. If this area is flush you have done a good job meeting her nutritional requirements. If you see an indentation, this is a red flag, and on the next paddock move, you need to give her access to more grass or you need to move her more frequently. You goal is to always, even in the winter, have the gut fill of all your cattle flush or slightly bulging. Proper gut fill not only enables the cow to produce high quality milk/beef, but ensures that you will not have any fertility or health problems down the road. If your cattle are limited for just five days, your chances of running into problems increase dramatically! Using the “gut fill technique” is an easy and effective way to determine if your cattle are getting proper nutrition. Try implementing this technique and you and your cattle will be happier.


Moving on to manure. This is where the fun really begins! After you have looked at the gut fill on your cattle, it’s time to observe their manure. A good manure pat should only be a few inches high, and have a nice pond in it. It shouldn’t be fibrous and tall. It also should not be runny. If the manure is too runny, the cow needs more roughage. This is common the spring. Lush spring grass if full of protein! Try putting out some dry hay for them. This will fix the problem. Wait 12-24 hours and reassess their manure. Now, to the other extreme. If their manure is piling up and fibrous it’s an indication of too much roughage. Your cattle need more energy. One way to remedy this is to move your cattle through the paddocks faster, thus giving them more plant tips, which contain more energy. It is common for your cattle to have cellulosic manure when you are feeding hay. One way to combat this is to give them stockpiled grass in the winter, along with hay. Not only will this enable them to have quality manure, but it will also significantly reduce your feed bill! During the wintertime and if you live in a climate where you have to feed hay, like the pacific northwest or the northern mid-west, it will be hard to avoid manure that is cellulosic. Don’t concern yourself too much with it, and apply this principle during the growing season. If you are made of money then you have the option of feeding haylage or silage to get their manure pats to the desired consistency during the dormant season. Just ensure that your cattle are getting enough to eat (gut fill). To recap, the manure should be a few inches high, have a nice pond in it, and be the consistency of pumpkin pie. Take your boot and smear a few manure pats to determine consistency. You can also use your finger if your a feeling particularly courageous.

Now we move on to recovery periods. This will vary greatly depending on where you live in the world. A simple rule of thumb is to wait until the plant has four leaves before you come back and graze it. Most of the time, this means that the plant is recovered enough to graze again. Many plants are different heights at maturity, so I like the four leaf rule.

With some keen observation and good management, it really is that simple. I hope you’ll take these ideas into consideration and add them to your management toolbox. I hope you enjoyed my post, and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section.

Main points:

  • Rotate your cattle
  • Check for gut fill and manure piles
  • Ensure adequate recovery period for grasses

Chris Stelzer

Chris Stelzer is a published Author, founder of Agricultural Insights and creator of many resources that help family farmers and ranchers grow their businesses. His flagship courses are the Grazing Mastery Program and The Farm Marketing Mastery Program. 

Chris Stelzer

related posts:

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get in touch