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Published
24 .May.2016

Can you cut costs through better grazing management?

The answer, as field studies prove, is a definite 'yes'. We look at the pros and cons of different grazing systems and show you how to get the best from your grazing. Learn more…

Grazed grass: the cheapest feed on the farm

Numerous studies show that the cheapest and most efficient way to use your grass is to let your animals do the harvesting – by grazing. The table below comes from a study undertaken in the UK. It compares the costs of a range of forage options. Grazing is a clear winner.

Management tips to improve your grazing

Good grazing management takes time, but it's valuable work that easily repays the effort you put in. For beginners, this article is a great place to start.

Grass is nature's answer to the grazing habit. Most grasses have evolved to withstand grazing by locating their growth points at or near ground level. After defoliation, the growing points quickly spring into action. For a herdsman, the big challenge is to reduce the variability of growth and feed intake because they lead to variations in animal performance.

When grass growth is at its most vigorous, usually in the spring, a new leaf is produced every four to five days. At peak growth, a plant can replace all three leaves within two to three weeks. At the other end of the scale – in mid-winter when growth is at its slowest – it can take 30 days to produce one new leaf. The best time for grazing is when the plant is at the two-and-a-half-to-three-leaf stage.

The rate of growth depends on a range of factors including soil temperature, light, water, and nutrient availability. When managing grass it helps to know how much growth you can expect at different times of the year, e.g. <10kg DM/ha/d (dry matter per hectare per day) in winter or >40kg DM/ha/d in spring.

Use every blade for feed

Never let your grass go to waste. Full utilisation is the key to successful grassland farming. Your herd should turn every blade you grow into milk or meat.

Good grazing management maximises your utilisation. For example, if you can prevent plants reaching the fourth leaf stage and dying, you reduce wastage and the build-up of unproductive thatch at the base of the sward.

Monitor your sward heights

Monitoring sward height is a useful way to increase utilisation. It's all about comparisons – between the grass heights in several fields or between the heights in the same field over consecutive weeks. By plotting heights over time you see how your fields perform in comparison with each other – and then you can set yourself some sward-height targets.

There are no hard and fast rules for achieving your target heights. Every farm is different and, since weather is unpredictable, flexibility is key. A single strategy will not suit every farm. For example, you might practise set stocking with your cows and calves early in the year, then switch to a paddock system for your growing cattle. Maximising grassland production is a balance between utilisation, yield, and management input.

Grazing systems

Set stocking

Animals have unrestricted access across a wide area throughout the grazing season.

Pros

Cons

Low management input

Low capital costs

Can work well if sward-height targets are maintained

Lower forage yield

Can be difficult to maintain grass quality and an even sward height

Uneven manure distribution

Lower utilisation due to trampling

Weeds can build up

 

Rotational grazing

Stock moves around a small number of fields – movements based on sward-height, grass-cover targets, or a fixed length of time in each field.

Pros

Cons

Higher productivity than set stocking

Allows the pasture to rest and regrow

Can extend the grazing season

More even manure distribution

More fencing required and water provision increases cost

 Forage production and pasture utilisation are not optimal

 

Paddock grazing

Livestock moves frequently through a series of paddocks – movements based on measured grazing heights or grass covers.

Pros

Cons

Highest forage production and use per ha

Provides very high quality feed: 11–12ME

Higher stocking rates can be sustained

More even manure distribution

Weeds can be controlled through grazing

Reduced need for conserved forage by extending the grazing season

Requires careful monitoring of forage supply

Initial costs of fencing and water provision may be high

More management intensive