WILLMAR, Minn. – Graziers have long known that rotational grazing increases forage production because plants get a chance to rest and rejuvenate. Now, the grazing community is finding that rotational grazing is also good for soil health and erosion control.

When livestock graze through a series of paddocks, the pruning, manure and hoof action all affect the soil. Roots grow deep. Healthy organisms in the soil thrive. Good soil structure is formed.

With thick grass and a variety of plant species growing in pastures, the soil is kept safe from the raindrop effect. This refers to rain that can hit the ground at up to 20 miles per hour. If the soil is bare, it shatters and follows the water downstream.

“The soil needs diversity and we want to armor the soil, to protect the soil surface either with dead residues or living cover,” said Jennifer Hahn, Minnesota Soil Health Coalition coordinator, Luverne, Minn.

Hahn was part of a team presenting information on rotational grazing for soil health at the Minnesota Cattlemen’s Convention held in December.

Along with Hahn was Holly Hatlewick, Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) administrator.

Hatlewick presented demonstrations that showed continuous pasture offers more soil structure and adhesion than bare cropland. Rotationally grazed pastures offers even greater soil structure, water infiltration and ability to store water vs. continuously grazed pastures.

Pasture results and opportunities

Another team member presenting at the Cattlemen’s Convention was Brian Pfarr, Redwood County SWCD resource specialist.

About 10 years ago, Pfarr calculated that it took about three acres to support a cow/calf pair on his continuously grazed 60-acre pasture. In dry years, he still had to feed the cattle hay in August and take them off in September.

He went to the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office and began working with technicians on ways to turn the pasture into paddocks.

“Instead of this one whole pasture, we actually divided it up into six pastures,” Pfarr said. The NRCS staff came up with ways to get water to the cattle in all six of the paddocks. Interestingly, they found ways for the cattle to use a creek and a livestock pond as water sources while protecting the stream banks.

The pastureland includes upland and lowland that are treated differently now, he added. The cattle are never in a paddock for more than 5-7 days, and they stay out of the paddock for 30 days to allow the plants and soil to rejuvenate.

The benefits have been incredible, Pfarr said.

Within eight years of the new rotational system, experts identified 23 native species of plants and flowers that returned to the pastures – without seeding by Pfarr. Large patches of Canada or Bull thistle disappeared. With a good, lush growth that got up before the weeds did, the whole pasture no long had to be sprayed. Now, Pfarr spot sprays 60 acres in about two hours with just a four wheeler.

“I don’t have to spend the money on pesticide, and it’s just so much easier,” he said.

Fly problems disappeared.

“The cattle go through the tall grass that flushes the flies away. The cattle are cooler. We don’t have to do ear tags anymore (to treat cattle) so we don’t have to put cattle in the chute,” he said.

The Pfarrs now successfully support a cow/calf pair on 1.6 acres. They haven’t needed to feed hay in August, but there also hasn’t been a drought lately.

Pfarr applied for and received several cost share opportunities and grants to create the new rotational grazing system.

Through the NRCS, he received financial assistance to help pay for 13,420 feet of electrified high tensile wire and wooden posts, about seven years ago. Before that, he had woven wire with two strands of barbed wire around the continuous pasture. Every year, he spent 12-15 hours fixing fence, but with the high tensile fence, it takes only about 3-4 hours of maintenance per year.

“Once you put in a good fence, have good infrastructure, you don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “The biggest financial consideration that I have is the time (I now save). I feel comfortable if I don’t go out there for two to three days, my management went way down on this. I didn’t have to worry about every day when I went to work, am I going to get the phone call that the cattle are out on the highway? That really took the stress out of it.”

The Pfarrs are now planting cover crops on their cropland adjacent to the pasture. That’s provided more low cost feed for the cattle, plus the cattle are spreading their own manure.

“Without the NRCS help, I wouldn’t have been able to do this, because let’s be honest. As cattle guys, it’s the infrastructure – the fencing, the watering – the things that we need, to get over the hurdle,” he said. “If we didn’t have the NRCS to get started, I probably wouldn’t have done it, because it was fairly costly.”

For more information, find a local rotational grazing operator and ask them a question! They’ll be happy to talk about what worked for them, and where to find programs that can help. The Minnesota Soil Health Coalition number is 651-485-7848.