This month’s Field School session was all about small livestock and rotational grazing. We spent a very chilly morning out at Dodson Farm with self-proclaimed Crazy Chicken Lady Tabitha Dodson. Tabitha’s not all that crazy though, as she was proclaimed the Washington County Farm Conservationist of the Year by the TN Association of Conservation Districts. Along with Tabitha, we were accompanied by Mike McElroy, the NRCS District Conservationist from Greene County. Mike knows a thing or two about rotational grazing and probably could’ve spent the whole day talking to us about rotational systems and fencing options.
We toured Tabitha’s farm, looking at her exterior and interior fences and discussing the the soil health and field productivity benefits for rotating livestock. In TN, an acre is capable of producing up to 4,000 lbs of forage. However, under unmanaged grazing systems, an acre will only yield 35% of its potential. Rotating once or twice a week boosts the yield up to 50%. Every other day rotation systems can reach 60% and daily rotational systems can yield up to 75% forage potential. In an unmanaged grazing system on average TN soils, a farmer would need 5-6 acres per 1,000lbs of livestock to provide year round forage. With daily rotations, the concentration of livestock can be much higher, though this will greatly depend on the fertility of your soil.
Portable electric fences are used to create small paddocks within a larger pasture, confining animals to a limited space for a period of 1-5 days. Generally, it is best to move livestock off of pasture once the grass has been eaten down to 6 inches. This has benefits not only for root growth and soil health, but also drastically reduces parasites, which lay their eggs as the base of the grass stems. If livestock are eating grass taller than 6”, they are much less likely to ingest parasite eggs. The animals’ manure helps fertilize the field, and keeping the forage tall keeps the plant roots strong and allows the forage to regrow quickly.
Paddocks need to be rested for 30-40 days after they’ve had livestock on them. This means that for a daily rotation system, you would need 30-40 paddocks. An every other day rotation system would need 20 paddocks. Fortunately, the NRCS can provide a cost share to offset the cost of installing internal fencing for rotational grazing systems. You can check this website for more information about the program in TN.
Forage is the best food for grazing animals and it reduces the cost of purchasing hay. Depending on the weather, even farms with strong rotational grazing systems must still supplement with hay. However, with a well designed system and some luck with the weather, livestock can be grazed on pasture through the winter.
Contact your county NRCS office for more details. A NRCS District Conservationist can visit your farm and help you craft a conservation plan. The NRCS has dozens of cost share programs that you may qualify for, that can help reduce your farm’s environmental impact and increase your bottom line.