Everyone with livestock and grazing land can benefit from rotational grazing.
Most farmers are experimenting with rotational grazing because of the economic savings. Both start-up and maintenance costs are less than for green chopping. The only capital cost specific to rotational grazing is fencing. Costs for new fencing range from $450 per mile for mobile electric fencing and fiberglass posts to $900 per mile for high-tensile electric fencing. Use of used materials can cut these costs considerably. Setting up the whole system (using new fencing, fencers, and water systems) costs from $40 to $70 per acre. The higher price range includes the cost of constructing livestock lanes.
If you haven't already invested in confinement feeding systems, this represents a tremendous savings; if you have, maintenance costs are reduced since your confinement system needs to be operated only during the cold months. Once in operation, grazing will reduce equipment, fertilizer, pesticide, and labor costs.
Feed costs, for example, which can account for 65% of total livestock production costs, can be drastically reduced. Studies by the Wisconsin rural development Center comparing rotational grazing to confined feeding systems document this. One dairy farmer saved an average of $130 per head in annual feed costs between 1987 and 1990 by using rotational grazing instead of green chopping. In addition, veterinary expenses, fuel, and labor costs were reduced. These savings were gained without any loss of mild production.
Many farmers are reluctant to try rotational grazing because of the time it takes to move livestock. However, on average, the farmer mentioned above found it to be less time consuming (3 hr/acre per year) than green chopping (8 hr/acre per year). Grazing may also decrease your need to make hay which takes an average of 7 hr/acre per season. This farmer spent only 15 minutes moving the fence each day, but to cut, haul, and feed greenchop required on hour per day.
What if you have to move a huge heard? A large-scale stocker farmer prefers to move 250 to 500 head at a time since he has found that it takes no more time to move large groups of cattle than it does to move small groups (such as 50 or less).
Well-managed perennial pastures have several environmental advantages over tilled land: they dramatically decrease soil erosion potential, require minimal pesticides and fertilizers, and decrease the amount of barnyard runoff.
Data from the Soil Conservation Service shows that in 1990, an average of 4.8 tons of soil per acre was lost to erosion on Wisconsin cropland and an average of 2.6 tons of soil per acre was lost on Minnesota cropland. Converting erosion-prone land to pasture is a good way to minimize this loss since perennial pastures have an average soil loss of only 0.8 tons per acre. It also helps in complying with the nationwide "T by 2000" legislation whose goal is that erosion rates on all fields not exceed tolerable limits ("T") by the year 2000. Decreasing erosion rates will preserve the most fertile soil with higher water holding capacity for future crop production. It will also protect our water quality.
High levels of nitrates and pesticides in our ground and surface waters can cause human, livestock, and wildlife health problems. Pasturing has several water quality advantages. It reduces the amount of nitrates and pesticides which leach into our ground water and contaminate surface waters. It also can reduce barnyard runoff which may destroy fish and wildlife habitat by enriching surface waters with nitrogen and phosphorous which promotes excessive aquatic plant growth (leading to low oxygen levels in the water which suffocates most water life).
Many native grassland birds, such as upland sandpipers, bobolinks, and meadowlarks, have experienced significant population declines within the past 50 years. Natural inhabitants of the prairie, these birds thrived in the extensive pastures which covered the state in the early 1900s. With the increased conversion of pasture to row crops and frequently-mowed hay fields, their habitat is being disturbed and their populations are now at risk.
Rotational grazing systems have the potential to reverse this decline because the rested paddocks can provide undisturbed nesting habitat. (However, converting existing under-grazed pasture into an intensive rotational system where forage is used more efficiently may be detrimental to wildlife.) Warm-season grass paddocks which aren't grazed until late June provide especially good nesting habitat. Game birds, such as pheasants, wild turkey, and quail also benefit from pastures, as do bluebirds whose favorite nesting sites are fenceposts. The wildlife benefits of rotational grazing will be greatest in those instances where cropland is converted to pasture since grassland, despite being grazed, provides greater nesting opportunity than cropland.
Pesticides can be very damaging to wildlife. though often short lived in the environment, some insecticides are toxic to birds and mammals (including humans). Not only do they kill the target pest but many kill a wide range of insects, including predatory insects that could help prevent future pest out breaks. Insecticides in surface waters may kill aquatic invertebrates (food for fish, shorebirds, and water fowl.) Herbicides can also be toxic to animals and may stunt or kill non-target vegetation which may serve as wildlife habitat.
Increased Pasture Productivity
Rotational grazing can help improve long-term pasture quality and fertility by favoring desirable pasture species and allowing for even manure distribution. Rotational grazing also can increase the amount of forage harvested per acre over continuous grazing by 1000 to 2000 lb dry matter per acre.