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The cost of moving paddocks too early

Progressive Forage Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 02 August 2018

“Mooove me!”

You’ve probably heard those words bellowed as an anxious herd stood at the gate ready to move to greener pastures. But as Dave Pratt of the Ranching for Profit School teaches, the decision to move the cattle to a new paddock shouldn’t be left to the bovines.

In a video featured by the Ranching for Profit School, Pratt explains that the timing of a move should not be based on the quantity of feed left in the pasture being grazed, but rather, the quantity of forage available in the pasture to be grazed.

“The biggest mistake people make in grazing management is providing too short of a recovery period after plants are grazed,” Pratt says. “They succumb to what I call ‘ICS,’ or impatient cow syndrome.”

To further explain, Pratt describes an experience he had with a producer that he says is all too common. In this situation, the producer grazed 16 paddocks with one herd while the remaining 15 paddocks recovered. His overall rest period was supposed to be 90 days, but it quickly turned into a short 37 days.

How did that happen?

Well, with some quick math, Pratt explains that 15 paddocks and a 90-day rest period would allot each paddock six days for grazing. But the error this producer made was on day four of grazing, the cows started trotting up to the gate, the paddock was grazed down and regrowth was beginning to show in the next paddock. So he moved them.

Pratt points out that two days might not seem like that big of a deal, but it’s what happens afterward that poses the problem. He explains that if slow growth is 10 pounds of forage per acre per day, two days is about 20 pounds of forage or 10 tons he missed out on. And if hay is, let’s say $100 a ton, that decision to move the cattle two days earlier essentially cost that producer $1,000.

“I wonder if he would’ve moved the cows if he knew he had to shell out $1,000 just to open the gate?” Pratt asks.

The rest of the story doesn’t get much better. As you can guess, the remaining paddocks continued in that four-day cycle until he got to about the 10th or 11th paddock, in which he moved them at three days and so on. Pratt says by the time he had completed his first cycle, he had cheated the rest period by about five weeks. He was then down to a two-day grazing period.

“Many people would think overstocking caused this problem, but in this case, overstocking wasn’t the initial problem. This vicious cycle is a recovery period problem,” Pratt says, explaining that moving the herd won’t grow the grass any faster.

Instead, Pratt suggests when forage is low to divide the paddocks into smaller sections to ration feed. This could be as many as six sections or as low as two sections.

“You’ve probably heard the rule of thumb that a cow will eat 2 percent of her bodyweight on a dry matter basis,” Pratt says. “But she’ll eat a lot more if you let her. I’m sure on the day that he moves them into fresh feed, they are eating something like 5 to 6 percent of their bodyweight, by the second day maybe around 4 percent, the third day 3 percent and by the fourth day probably 2 percent, maybe even a little less. The cows want to move; they like being fat. Now if we went to daily moves, cows wouldn’t get fat, but they would get everything they need and maybe even a little bit more.”

Pratt says in situations where daily moves aren’t practical, just cutting the paddocks in half would do a better job at controlling intake and rationing feed. That would mean three days of grazing in each paddock or maybe even three and a half days of grazing. That could provide another week of grazing for each paddock in the cell.

“The animals may want to move, but in this case, they don’t need to move,” Pratt says. However, animals with high nutritional requirements, such as the end of gestation or during lactation, should not be rationed in such a system.

Do you see why this example isn’t a stocking rate issue? This is a rest period problem. Rather than moving the cattle faster, this producer needs to slow down, and to do that without sacrificing animal performance, he needs to split the paddocks. Pratt says cell grazing can increase carrying capacity, improve pasture health, support good animal performance and ultimately increase profit.  end mark

Cassidy Woolsey
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