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Rotational Grazing for Climate Resilience

In the Northwest, drought, increased temperatures, and extreme precipitation events are expected to intensify. Impacts from climate will limit productivity of farm and rangeland operations because of increases in livestock heat stress, soil erosion, and nutrient runoff into waterways, as well as reduction in forage quality and quantity. Using management practices that consider climate change can help to maintain productivity in the face of these challenges.

Rotational grazing could help ranchers, pastoralists, and farmers to mitigate and adapt to some climate change impacts. Rotational grazing involves the frequent movement of livestock through a series of pasture subdivisions called paddocks. This frequent movement allows plants to rest and regrow to grazing height while livestock graze other paddocks. The length of grazing and rest periods is ecosystem dependent and differs depending on forage yield. Each paddock must contain forage, water, and adequate shade. Rotational grazing has been implemented with livestock including cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.

A figure using icons to show how rotational grazing works in a pasture.

 

Advantages

Rotational grazing has many potential environmental and economic advantages.

Disadvantages

  • Requires more fencing and labor (though virtual fencing is an effective alternative to traditional fencing)
  • Requires water and shade to be accessible in each paddock
  • May result in soil compaction and degraded water quality if livestock are not moved regularly
  • May increase internal parasites in irrigated rotational pastures (compared to rangelands)
  • May only be effective on rangelands when combined with lower stock density

Additional considerations

Rotational grazing can be practiced on pastures and rangelands. Consult with pastoralists, ranchers, or other specialists currently practicing rotational grazing to create a system that fits specific farm, pasture, or rangeland needs. University Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or other reputable grazing consultants can help (see Additional Resources). Agricultural producers interested in adopting rotational grazing on their land should keep rotational grazing layouts that are easy to implement.

A fence divides two pastures. The pasture on the left has more diverse plants. The pasture on the right is shorter and less diverse.
The left side of the fence shows grazing land managed for sustainable production using higher density grazing and periods of rest, and the right side of the fence shows the effects of season-long grazing. The left side has increased plant diversity and ground cover. Credit: USDA NRCS

To extend the grazing season, hay or forage land not currently being grazed could be brought into the pasture rotation for grazing in the summer and fall. Consider interseeding to improve and diversify forage in pastures. Observe paddocks closely to ensure that enough forage remains (moving animals before overgrazing occurs) and adequate pasture rest times occur per rotation. Allow animals with higher nutritional requirements access to the best forage possible. Consider supplemental feeding to meet the needs of livestock. 

A good perimeter fence is required for rotational grazing. Virtual fencing or electric fencing such as single-strand high-tensile wire works well for pasture subdivisions. Movable or fixed water tubs connected to main pipelines can meet livestock water needs. Supply lines made from polyethylene tubing laid on the ground surface along fence lines can serve multiple paddocks. 

In places where livestock are frequently moving, laneways can mitigate mud and erosion. Heavily used laneways may need underlayment with geotextile fabric and surfacing with durable material. After each milking, dairy cows should be moved to a fresh paddock. Beef cattle, horses, sheep, and goats can be moved less frequently (either daily or every few days). Protect animals from severe weather elements by giving them access to shade or shelter in each paddock.