Nearly 15 years ago I surveyed over 300 commercial cattle producers asking them questions about their grazing practices and their attitudes about change. One hundred twenty of them (40%) identified “rotational grazing” as their primary method of managing cattle on pasture. Over 80% of the rotational grazers reported having fewer than 8 paddocks per herd. They weren’t rotational grazing, they were rotational overgrazing.
Overgrazing is grazing a plant before it has recovered from a previous grazing. There are two ways to overgraze a plant; stay in a paddock too long or come back to the paddock too soon. It takes a minimum of 8 to 10 paddocks per herd to give plants an adequate recovery period and keep the graze period short enough so that the animals are gone by the time the pasture is recovering. With fewer than 8 paddocks per herd you are rotational overgrazing.
Eight to ten paddocks still may not cut it. The relatively long graze periods that are required during slow growth often support mediocre animal performance. Shorter graze periods mean animals are moving to fresh feed more often and it generally results in better performance. But that takes more paddocks. How many more? Usually at least 14-16 paddocks per herd.
That may seem like a lot, but you probably need more than that. While you can stop at least some range degradation by eliminating overgrazing, many clients use even more. By using more paddocks they are able to dramatically increase the carrying capacity and promote rapid range improvement. It typically takes at least 25 paddocks per herd to get that kind of result.
If 25 paddocks seems like a lot, just wait. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark on their ranch near Henrietta, Texas. They run stocker cattle in pretty big herds. Last year they started with 3 herds of 1,500 head using 50 paddocks per herd…that’s right, five zero. As the severity of the drought increased they realized that to give the grass more rest and keep graze periods short, they’d be better off combining the herds. They wound up with 4,500 cattle in one herd moving through 150 paddocks. When I was there they were moving the herd twice a day. By lengthening the rest, keeping graze periods short and increasing stock density, Emry said they were able to get an extra month of grazing from the ranch before they destocked. It also decreased their workload. (It takes less time to move one herd of 4,500 animals than it does 3 herds of 1,500.)
Spring has seen plenty of rain come to the ranch this year but the benefits of running one large herd were so big that, drought or no drought, Emry and Deborah are continuing to run all the steers in one mob through their 150 paddocks. When I visited they had 3,500 in the herd with plans to expand in the coming weeks to 4,500.
To some people having 25 paddocks per herd, let alone 150 paddocks per herd, seems impossibly complicated. Our experience is exactly opposite. It simplifies management by offering graziers more control and more options over when and where to graze. Having more paddocks doesn’t constraint management. It makes management possible.