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A Grazing Management Primer

Grazing management is the science and art of manipulating grazing animals and the pastureland upon which they feed. The effects of grazing management on both land and animals will be good or bad depending on the knowledge and skill of the manager. In the short run, it is possible to increase animal production at the cost of damaging the land just as it is possible to improve the land at the expense of the animals. An area may be overstocked and for a short time thus increase the pounds of animal produced per acre. If all or most of the animals are removed, for a short time an area will produce more pounds of forage per acre. Neither option, however, is viable if the goal is to promote a profitable and sustainable operation. In the long run, a program must address the needs of all members of the plant- soil- animal- complex if it is to be both financially and ecologically sound. If we can orient our thinking to the long-term effects of our management practices, it becomes easier to make the good decisions that will bring about a stable and healthy operation. In order to make sound decisions, it is necessary to have both knowledge and information. Information is facts that are relevant to our task and knowledge is the ability to make use of these facts to promote the desired results. One of the hardest concepts for most ranchers to grasp is that rather than being in the "cattle business” or the "sheep business” or even in the "grass business" they are really in the solar energy business. All production requires the input of energy. Whether the product is steel, meat or great literature energy is required to fuel the process of creation. The true source of this energy is always the same. Sunlight, Coal and petroleum are merely fossilized sunlight that was harvested eons ago by green plants using the same process that green plants use today to convert solar energy to biological energy. Nitpickers might argue, correctly, that sunlight is actually one form of nuclear energy. The fact remains that for millions of years and for the foreseeable future, sunlight is by far the most significant source of energy available to the earth. All life depends upon photosynthesis, the process by which green plants convert sunlight to biological energy. Even those organisms that spend their lives beneath the soil surface or at the bottom of the ocean derive their substance from materials whose energy originated as sunlight. The success or failure of farmers, ranchers and other land managers of all kinds depends upon how wisely and well they make use of this process. The success or failure of these land managers will ultimately decide the success or failure of humanity and the earth, as we know it.

This program deals with planned grazing management, which for our purposes is defined as follows:

Planned Grazing Management

The planned manipulation of grazing land and the animals that live on it to achieve a stated set of goals. The grazing is "planned" in that it is carried out in a thoughtful manner in accordance with certain principles but also it is "planned" in that it is used as a tool to bring about planned changes in ecological, financial and human conditions.


To produce the most value of product at the least cost while improving our land base. "Land" meaning the soil-plant-animal complex that makes up our production unit. "Product" meaning wealth in the traditional sense but also such things as wildlife, environmental improvement, knowledge, or any other "product" needed to meet the stated goals.


Optimize the amount of sunlight that is converted first to biological energy (forage) and then to animal product.
• Use grazing as a tool to modify the kinds and amounts of plants produced and to improve and stabilize
the soils upon which they grow.
• Manage grazing to achieve the desired animal population and performance.

Factors Manipulated with Grazing Management

1. Stocking rate: The number and pounds of animals stocked per unit of grazing land for the grazing season.

2. Stocking density: The number and pounds of animals present on a given area at one particular time.

3. Stocking mix: The number and pounds of each type of animal in the total of animals grazed.

4. Recovery period: The amount of time that a given area is rested between grazings and the timing of these periods.

5. Graze period: The amount of time that a given area is grazed between rests and the timing of these periods.

6. Animal impact: The effects on the soil-plant-animal complex due to the presence of animals.

7. Herd effect: The effects on the land and vegetation brought about by animals in an excited herd mode.

8. Animal behavior: Animal actions and reactions that can be understood and used to bring about desired results.

Methods for Improving Animal Performance Through Planned Grazing

1. Control the physiological age [maturity] of forage presented to animals.

The value of forage to a grazing animal is more dependent on the age of the forage than it is upon the species of the forage. Forage that is too old has low digestibility and protein levels while forage that is too young lacks energy and the fiber needed for proper rumen function. A weed at the proper state of maturity can be much higher quality forage than is alfalfa that is overly mature or too young.

2. Present clean, even aged forage of the proper species at the proper state of maturity.

A forage sward that is uniformly at the best balance of quality and quantity allows the grazing animal to get the best return on the
energy it expends grazing. 

3. Present forage sward of mixed species that is dense and uniform in height.

No one species of forage is capable of providing the total nutritional needs of grazing animals. The more forage species present in a pasture mixture, the higher the availability of nutrients over the entire year. The more nutrition an animal can get in each bite, the less energy will go into work rather than gain. Promote uniformity of graze and prevent over grazing with high stock density.

4. Provide quality forage for as much of the year as possible.

Mixtures of species offer more opportunities to have green forage over a longer time period. By controlling the age of forage presented to animals we control the quality of forage presented. By subdividing pasture areas, it is possible to reduce the amount of forage wasted through trampling and dunging.

5. Match forage quality with nutritional needs of livestock. Use livestock to promote forage quality.

Grazing multiple species on the same area can greatly increase forage production. Sheep prefer forbs (weeds), goats prefer browse (brush) while cattle prefer grass. Weeds eaten by sheep not only do not compete with grass, they become forage. Dry mature cows, or other classes of stock with lower nutritional needs, can be used to clean up forage left by animals with greater needs. The forage available on the next grazing period will then be more uniform and of higher quality.

6. Reduce stress on livestock with good stockmanship.

Observe animal behavior and learn to out think them rather than trying to out muscle them. Stockmanship boils down to getting animals to do what must be done with the least amount of stress and understanding what really "must be done". 

7. Match animal production schedule with forage production.

Forage should supply nearly all of the nutrients needed by grazing animals. The stages of animal production, which require the highest plane of nutrition, should be scheduled to occur at the times when nutrient production by forages is the greatest.

Planned Grazing Management as a Tool for Land Improvement

To improve land it is necessary to:

1. Improve the water cycle.

2. Improve rate and quantity of nutrients cycling.

3. Increase biological energy flow.

4. Optimize level of biological succession.

All of which can be accomplished through good grazing management.

To improve the water cycle

A. Maintain soil cover, either live plants or litter in order to increase water infiltration and to decrease evaporation. Under good grazing management, bare ground will be reduced as will capping of the soil. Uniformity of grazing promotes health of both mature plants and of seedlings.

B. Increase soil organic matter content and thus soil tilth and soil life. The cyclic growth and die back of plant feeder roots is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter. Proper rotational grazing stimulates this process. Soil organisms are stimulated by the nutrient pulse forage plants release into the rhizosphere when bitten and by the energy surge of manure, urine and trampled plant material that comes with each graze period.

C. Maintain enough plant canopies to break raindrops, trap snow and moderate temperatures.

To improve rate and quantity of nutrient cycling

A. Increase the number of species of plants and animals present. The pulsing action of animal impact with high stock density grazing combined with a lessening of over grazing promotes increases in the numbers of species present.

B. Maintain a large percentage of the plant population in a vegetative state. As stock density increases, uniformity of graze improves so that by controlling recovery periods, the forage sward can be kept at the desired age. Use of multiple species of graziers increases the number of plant species utilized and improves both nutrient cycling and energy flow.

C. Return un-grazed plants to the soil surface to decompose. The amount of forage refused decreases under high stock density. Herd effect and dormant season high stock density grazing is used to break down old material.

D. Increase soil organic matter content and thus soil biological activity. The cyclic growth and die back of plant feeder roots is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter. Proper rotational grazing stimulates this process. Soil organisms are stimulated by the nutrient pulse forage plants release into the rhizosphere when bitten and by the energy surge of manure, urine and trampled plant material that comes with each graze period.

E. Avoid any practice that decreases bio-diversity or biological activity.

To increase biological energy flow

A. Maintain green and growing plants on the area for as much of the year as is feasible in order to capture and convert solar energy to biological energy. Mixtures of warm and cool season plants combined with control over when, for how long and to what extent an area is grazed can extend the growing season.

B. Maintain a large percentage of the plants present in a vegetative state since young tissue is both efficient in photosynthesis and nutritious. Avoid removing too large a percentage of the leaf area to speed plant recovery and to increase energy production. As stock density increases, uniformity of graze improves so that by controlling recovery periods, the forage sward can be kept at the desired age.

C. Use mixtures of plants, warm and cool season grasses-legumes-forbs-browse. Controlling stocking rate, stocking mix, timing of graze and stock density in ways dictated by the results recognized by monitoring will allow complex mixtures to flourish.

To optimize level of biological succession

A. Decide which stage of succession best fits your needs and tailor management to suit that level while understanding that all parts of the soil-plant-animal complex are in constant and dynamic interaction. By manipulating water cycle, nutrient cycle and energy flow the quality of long term growing conditions are determined. High succession requires good long term growing conditions. All aspects of these processes must be
good for succession to advance.

B. Monitor the results and change management anytime that results don't meet your landscape goals.

Forage Quality

1. The feed value of forage is more dependent on the physiological age of the forage than it is upon the species of plant.

2. To be high in feed value, grazed forage must be as complete a ration as possible. Fiber content, protein content and energy content must be in balance.

3. No single species of plant can provide the needed balance of nutrients over the grazing season.

4. In general, the stage of forage plant growth that gives the best animal nutrition is also the stage when the growing plant is least damaged by grazing.

Over Grazing

Over grazing is damage to a plant (brought about by grazing) that reduces the plants' ability to function normally.

1. Occurs only to plants and on a plant-by-plant basis.

An area cannot be overgrazed only a plant. In most continuously grazed areas, it is possible to find plants dying from over rest while nearby other plants of the same species are severely overgrazed.

2. Damage is caused by the frequency of grazing rather than by the severity of grazing.

Long-term damage occurs when leaf is removed before it has the opportunity to produce at least as much energy as was required to produce the leaf.

3. Severe grazing is natural and in most cases not damaging but beneficial.

Severe grazing increases plant vigor by speeding the rate of nutrient cycling and increasing the amount of energy flow through the system. Severe grazing late in the season can be the exception since the end of growing conditions will halt leaf function and energy production before the plants can replace depleted energy stores. Severe grazing will usually bring about the need for a longer time period for the plant to recover from the effects of grazing. Severe grazing is a powerful tool that requires care and thought when used.

4. A plant can be over grazed only when it is growing on stored energy.

Plants which are producing energy in excess of their needs for maintaince and normal growth are not damaged, long term, by grazing.

5. With continuous grazing, you will always have both over and under grazing.

Reducing stock numbers will not stop over grazing.

Lack of Grazing

1. Lack of grazing is harmful to grasslands. With continuous grazing, some forage plants will escape grazing while they are in the immature state and will become fibrous and unattractive as forage. These plants continue to take up water, sunlight and mineral nutrients as they age but do not contribute to the usable forage base. With no grazing, all forage plants soon become overly mature.

2. If forage plants are not grazed, or reduced in some other manner, they become moribund due to shading of new leaves by the old plant material. If this continues long enough, it can cause premature death of the plant. These overly mature plants also create a local environment that is hostile to seedling plants.

3. As the percentage of senescent plants in the plant community increases, both the rate of nutrient cycling and the flow of energy through the system are reduced. This degradation of the long term growing conditions brings about a competitive advantage for the weedy plants that are adapted to the poorer conditions.

4. Plant communities with large numbers of low vigor individuals are more subject to wide species shifts when subjected to stress by abusive grazing, climate, fire or other strong effect occurrences.

Walt Davis - 1985

Reading List for Grazing Management Information

Holistic Resource Management
by Allan Savory
pub. by Island Press
P.O. Box 7
Covelo , CA 95428-9901

Holistic Resource Management Workbook
by Sam Bingham with Allan Savory
pub. by Island Press

Grass Productivity
by Andre Voisin
pub. by Island Press

Intensive Grazing Management
By Burt Smith et al.
pub. by The Graiziers Hui
P.O. Box 1944
Kamuela , Hawaii 96743

The Stockman Grass Farmer
P.O. Box 9607
Jackson , MS 39286-9909

Forages , The Science of Grassland Agriculture
edited by Heath , Barnes and Metcalf
pub. by Iowa State University Press
Ames , Iowa

How to Not Go Broke Ranching By Walt Davis


Calculating Recovery Periods and Graze Periods

1. A grazing cell is any group of subdivisions (paddocks) grazed as a unit.

2. The recovery period for a paddock equals the sum of the graze periods of the rest of the paddocks in the cell.

Nine Paddock Cell

3-day graze, 3-day graze, 3-day graze,
3-day graze, 3-day graze, 3-day graze,
3- day graze, 3-day graze = 24 day recovery

Recovery period = the sum of 8 graze periods of 3 days each or 24 days.

Nine Paddock Cell

6-day graze, 6-day graze, 6-day graze,
6-day graze, 6-day graze, 6-day graze,
6-day graze, 6-day graze, = 48 day recovery

Recovery period = the sum of 8 graze periods of 6 days each or 48 days.

3. Both recovery and graze periods must be tailored to the growth rate of the class of forages that you wish to promote.

4. Recovery and graze periods must also be adjusted to match growing conditions.


5. Over grazing occurs in two ways.

a. Stock stays too long in a paddock and eats young re-growth.
b. Stock returns to a paddock before the forage has recovered from the last graze.