WISCONSIN DELLS — Brian Pillsbury, Wisconsin Natural Resources Conservation Services’ grazing land specialist, lives and breathes grazing. He works with landowners and farmers every day, assisting them in all aspects of managed grazing planning.
However, he is often contacted by people interested in grazing who haven’t created an overall plan, but instead want to immediately start fencing. When he asks what livestock they plan to have or how they plan to use the fence, pastures and paddocks, they simply respond that they hadn’t thought about that yet.
There are six steps a farmer or landowner should walk through if they are interested in setting up a grazing operation, he told attendees to his session at the Grassworks conference Jan. 23. The first step is setting up goals, which will be unique to each operation and can, and will, change as the operation evolves over time.
Once goals are determined, then a grazing plan can be created. The grazing plan should include what species of livestock will be incorporated and how often the animals will be moved through each area, also known as the stocking rate. Stocking rates can vary from continuous stocking (moving the animals every seven days or leaving them in an area for an entire season); rotational stocking (moving animals every three to seven days); an intensive rotational stocking (moving twice a day to every three days) or an ultra high density stocking (moving animals every three to 12 hours).
The speed of the rotations will not always be dictated by the calendar, but rather by the time it takes to grow the pasture, the climate while animals are in the pasture and the time needed for the pasture to rest in between the rotation of animals.
“You need to be able to understand what you can achieve with the plans before you start grazing,” Pillsbury said.
To further that understanding, he recommended also conducting a resource inventory, looking into the land that’s available for grazing, the soils within the boundaries of that land, if there are buildings or a barnyard to consider and if there is a water supply and where is it located on the land. Using a nice overhead photo and a soils map will be helpful in determining which acres are suitable for grazing.
Once a landowner has a better understanding if the lands’ resources, they can then determine the carrying capacity of that land, balancing the livestock and the land available for grazing. Pillsbury referenced a “Prescribed Grazing Plan Worksheet,” available on the Wisconsin NRCS website, which takes into account the estimated amount of forage demand from the livestock selected; the estimated amount of forage supply the pasture will yield; how long animals will be in each paddock before moved; the size of the paddocks and the number of paddocks needed; and the estimated amount of total acres needed.
Whether an experienced grazier or someone just getting started, running the numbers on this worksheet is helpful as it can serve as a check to make sure everything is in balance.
After determining goals and creating the grazing plan, the landowner can then work on the layout and design of the paddocks and pasture system, with Pillsbury suggesting that pastures be made larger so they can subdivided into paddocks for flexibility. He also suggested laying out the system so that good ground is clearly identified and unproductive areas of land are left out of the grazing system. One must also think about what they’ll do in winter months and during “mud season.”
“Get it on paper,” he said.
Once a landowner or farmer has a good plan going, then they can move onto considerations with fencing, water and lanes, if needed. Jacob Grace, a grazing and perennial agriculture specialist at UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, explained how to best plan these physical elements of a grazing system.
Water for the system will either come from a natural source, like a stream, pond or spring, or from a well. Use a well driller’s report to determine how many animals can use the well, Grace said. Whether drawing from a natural source or from a well, it may also be helpful to determine the quality of the water, have a back-up plan to water animals if the water source isn’t functioning and know how to get the water from the source, whether through hauling or a pipeline.
“It’s good to plan for a lot of redundancy,” he said.
Next, connect the watering system to the grazing plan, considering the size of the herd; layout of the paddocks; how much water will be needed and when; the type of animal or livestock; and what size tank may be needed. If the landowner lives in a remote area, they may want to consider a solar pump for their watering system, among other considerations.
Lanes are used mostly for dairy animals, but a landowner may also find it beneficial to incorporate them into their grazing system for other reasons as well. Consult your grazing plan to see if lanes would be useful to include in your operation.
Finally, fencing should be considered — and there are many options when it comes to fencing. Grace recommended inexpensive electric fencing if possible as it is the easiest to work with, in his experience. Perimeter or external fencing, located near roads, etc., may need more reinforcement.
“When in doubt, find someone in your area — an expert that has experience — and they can give you some details,” he said.
These experts can be nearby graziers, attendees at pasture walks, grazing groups and agency staff like Pillsbury and Grace. All have knowledge they’d likely share so that the landowner or farmer can be as successful as they can be when it comes to grazing.