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Sheep farming made easy Part 11: Grazing management

Avaluable asset on any farm is grazing. The value of this asset can be increased even more with proper management.

Grazing management is how and when you control the grazing habits of the animals on your pastures. What animals, how, when, and for how long they graze a pasture determines the species make-up of the pasture and its long-term viability, how much forage it yields, and how well the animals perform. Overgrazing and undergrazing pastures are detrimental to both plant and animal health, as well as soil and water quality.

Figure 1: Illustration of different grazing systems.

Grazing systems

Continuous grazing

Continuous grazing is a one-pasture system in which livestock have unrestricted access to the whole pasture area throughout the grazing season. It is a simple system to implement and manage, with minimal capital investment and movement of animals. If sufficient forage is available, continuous grazing often results in a higher individual animal performance than other grazing systems.

However, continuous grazing usually results in poorer forage quality and quantity. Pastures are usually grazed unevenly by livestock, as livestock overgraze the plants they like and undergraze the plants they don’t like. Manure is also distributed unevenly.

Stocking rates are usually lower, so the land is less productive. Weeds and other undesirable plants usually persist. Parasites can be a problem if stocking rates are too high.

Continuous grazing. (Source: Flickr.com)

Controlled grazing

Controlled grazing gives the producer more control over grazing animals. It has many different names and variations.

Simple rotational grazing

Simple rotational grazing is a pasture system in which more than one pasture area is used, and livestock are moved to different pasture areas during the grazing season. Pastures need rest periods to recover from grazing and allow plants to regrow. The longer a pasture rests, the less infected it will be with worm larvae.

Simple rotational grazing usually increases forage yields and quality. Stocking rates can usually be increased. Weed control is better. On the other hand, fencing costs are higher than with continuous grazing. Unless a central laneway system is used, each paddock needs to have water access. In some climates, the animals should have access to shelter or shade in each paddock.

Intensive rotational grazing Intensive rotational grazing is a system with many pastures, frequently called paddocks or cells. Livestock are moved from paddock to paddock based on forage growth and utilisation. The number of paddocks and frequency of rotation depends upon many factors, including the class of livestock and production goals of the manager. After three days, livestock will start to graze regrowth of plant material. It is usually recommended that livestock be rotated every three to seven days to a new paddock.

Intensive rotational grazing usually results in the highest forage output per hectare. Stocking rates can typically be increased over those utilised in a continuous or simple rotational grazing system. Manure is more evenly distributed in paddocks. Weed control is better, as animals are usually forced to eat everything in a paddock.

Intensive rotational grazing requires a higher degree of management and skill. This is why it is often called “management-intensive grazing”. Initial costs will be higher due to fencing materials and water distribution systems. Providing water and shelter or shade in each paddock can be a challenge.

Intensive rotational grazing could worsen internal parasitism in sheep and lambs, if pastures are grazed for too long or pasture rest periods do not allow for sufficient die-off of infective parasite larvae.

Rotational grazing. (Source: Flickr.com)

Strip grazing

Strip grazing is a grazing management system that involves giving livestock a fresh allocation of pasture each day. It is usually organised within a paddock grazing system and the animals are controlled by the use of an electric fence.

Creep grazing

Creep grazing is when young nursing animals are given forward access to fresh, ungrazed pasture through an opening in the fence. To be effective, the forage in the creep area must be superior to the forage in the non-creep area. The greater the difference between forage in the two areas, the greater benefit to creep grazing. In addition to better nutrition in the fresh paddocks, infection with infective worm larvae will be lower.

Providing shade on pasture. (Source: Flickr.com)

Year-round grazing

Year-round grazing is possible even in cold climates, though extending the grazing system is probably a more realistic goal for most producers. Tall fescue grass is the best grass to stockpile for winter grazing. Small grains, root crops, and crop aftermaths are other options for extending the grazing season. Warm season grasses can improve forage availability in the summer when many cool season plants go dormant.

Mixed species grazing

Mixed species grazing is when two or more species of domestic animals are grazed together or separately on the same grazing area in the same grazing season. The rationale for mixed species grazing is based on the principle that animals have different grazing preferences and dietary overlap is minimal in a diverse sward.

An additional benefit to mixed species grazing is parasite control. Sheep, cattle, and horses are generally affected by different gastro-intestinal parasites, whereas sheep and goats share the same parasites.

Resting a pasture. (Source: Flickr.com)

We thank the ARC Institute for Agricultural Engineering in South Africa who made their manual on sheep production and facilities available to the readers of ProAgri. Next month we shall look at predator control. Stay tuned for more!

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