Choosing the right grazing system starts with doing some homework.
“Each operation is different,” says Aaron Berger, Extension beef specialist for the University of Nebraska based in Kimball. “You have to look at it all and make the correct decision based on your operation.”
Traditionally, many producers allow cattle to roam over a wide range of pasture. They will have fencing in place and a reliable water source, as well as grass species that under normal conditions will extend the grazing system into late fall.
But for producers with limited acres, Berger says there are some proven systems that will allow maximum use of pasture ground.
“That season-long grazing system is still used quite a bit, with pastures that include native and introduced grass species,” he says. “The benefits there are pretty simple. Your stocking rates are low to moderate, and the cattle pick their preferred places to graze.
“But with a system like rotational grazing, you keep the cattle moving through those pastures and allow for sufficient regrowth.”
Berger says eight pastures work well in a rotational grazing system, but four pastures are also adequate. He says ideally all pastures would include cool- and warm-season grasses to allow grazing throughout the summer.
“Out here and west of us, the effective growing system can be fairly short,” Berger says. “We need those warm-season grasses to be able to graze in July and August. In areas where there is more rain, you might be able to stretch out brome and fescue pastures.”
He says labor and capital investments must also be considered before moving to a rotational grazing system.
“You want to look at it as return per time invested,” Berger says. “You want the ability to improve and harvest more grass.”
Systems could also depend on weather. Erika Lundy, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist based in southwest Iowa, says severe drought continues in much of western Iowa and other areas. She says many pastures were over-grazed last fall, meaning they will need to catch up quickly this spring.
“You probably want to look at keeping cows in a pasture that is easy to renovate to allow that other grass to rest,” Lundy says, adding if rain is plentiful and grass growth is rapid, a strategy such as flash grazing might be considered.
Some producers could choose to remove a pasture from their grazing program and seed warm-season grasses. Lundy says this should help provide quality grass in the hot summer months.
Berger says with any system, water needs to be readily accessible to cattle. He says new technology such as solar wells can help producers avoid having to haul water out to the pastures.
When it comes down to making the decision, Berger says the producer has to determine what they can handle.
“You need someone who really likes working with grazing systems and working with cattle,” he says. “The challenge for most people is time because for some, they can’t be out there every day.”