The bovine, a ruminant, is designed to ingest large volumes of biomass by grazing on grass, other pasture plants, and hay. The animal digests (ruminates) this matter in its rumen, or four-part stomach.
Grazing management calls for moving animals in a rotation from paddock to paddock over time, with new paddocks being created by moving flexible fencing. Eventually the cattle are cycled back to the original paddock, ideally after the land has had sufficient rest to regrow the grass. This will foster deep roots, which are important for building topsoil and making soil minerals available to the cattle. The plants may be green or brown when the cattle are grazing; either will provide good nutrition.
Grazing with a high density of animals per acre is recommended, as long as the animals are moved to a new paddock at appropriate intervals. While grass will begin to regrow in as little as four days, re-grazing the growing tips stunts the plant’s potential growth. Allowing adequate time for paddocks to rest and rejuvenate is more important than the frequency of the rotation.
Rotating a herd of cattle, or perhaps different groups of cattle, through numerous paddocks requires a systematic approach. A grazing plan must be developed, but the original plan will need to be modified based on the weather, the cattle, and the rate of growth of the grass. Also, see our report on our winter grazing trial in Massachusetts, funded by a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant.
Finishing (fattening) cattle for market in a time frame that is economical, calls for moving the animals frequently to new pasture so that they have continuous access to the top third of the plants, which is where the energy calories are found. See a short video demonstrating a tumble-wheel, which enables one person to move an interior fence quickly and easily. Also see the Husbandry page for more details on fencing.
Most cattle are grazed predominantly on permanent perennial pasture. Many cattle in the finishing (fattening) phase of production are also grazed on annual grasses planted by no-till methods. Experience has taught us that grazing a mix of cover crops (known as a “cocktail”) further enhances the cattle’s rate of gain in finishing.
The rumen needs an appropriate balance of protein, minerals, and energy to function optimally. Any large imbalance leads to dysfunction and illness (such as acidosis from grain feeding on a feedlot). We have observed many times that when cattle are offered a mix of grasses and other forage, and a choice of mineral supplements, they are remarkably capable of choosing what their bodies need.
A Brix meter (refractometer) can be used measure the quality of nutrition in the grass. If the energy in the plants is inadequate, numerous methodologies have been developed to improve the quality of the pasture, including foliar sprays and a Yeoman plow for stirring subsoil.