Fringe Benefits of Rotational Stocking
R.L. Dalrymple, Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Oklahoma
A rotational grazing unit, with its increased paddock numbers and higher stock densities, coupled with appropriate management can provide the benefits of rotational stocking. The cumulative benefits, which are ever evolving, depend heavily upon the level of management within the unit and the benefits the manager is trying to achieve.
For our purposes, let us assume that the grazing unit is a well-managed system with 8 to 24 main paddocks per herd. Because many of the fringe benefits are also dependent upon high quality electric fences, let’s assume that these fences are part or all of the fencing of the unit.
Major and Fringe Benefits
Benefits may be considered in two basic categories: 1) major benefits and 2) fringe benefits. Perhaps some thought on word definition is in order. Webster’s Dictionary defines "major" primarily as, "greater in importance." The reference defines "benefit" as "advantage" or "help". So a major benefit might be defined as, "a greatly important advantage."
Most graziers consider the major benefits of rotational stocking as: 1) increased livestock product yield per unit of land area and 2) livestock performance control. These two benefits are primarily financially driven at the grazier level.
"Fringe benefits," as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, are "marginal, secondary, additional advantages." So outside and beyond the major benefits are innumerable fringe benefits to rotational stocking. In many cases, the economic accumulation of these benefits can outperform the economics of the major benefits.
Fencing Fringe Benefits
Inherent in today’s rotational stocking management is the incorporation of high quality, long lived, high powered, low impedance, electric fencing. In effect, it is a fringe benefit because it is quick and easy to construct and the most economical of all common fences. High quality, one-wire fences usually cost about $400 per mile for materials. Fencing, and in particular electric fencing, makes rotational stocking more physically feasible and economically viable. These fences are assumed a part of the "wholeism" management of a rotational stocking unit operation. Temporary polywire type fences also may be a part of the unit. They offer considerable fringe benefits due to their ease and the flexibility of use.
Plant Fringe Benefits
The first impact of rotational stocking is at the plant or vegetation level. Itemized below are some plant related fringe benefits:
Managing for forage plant vigor, quantity and quality through control of the recovery period, intensiveness of grazing (shorter vs. taller) and residue left at seasons end.
- Managing for revegetation and/or plant succession in true native vegetation stands, plus pseudo-native and introduced swards. Adequately managed rotational stocking allows whatever plants are present to develop to the highest level capable, relative to the unique inputs of that location.
- Rotational stocking allows innumerable forage mixtures to perform well within a given season. The short grazing periods, relatively uniform grazing and adequate recovery periods are all responsible for this success. Examples are: bermudagrass-crabgrass mixtures, crabgrass-lespedeza mixtures, rye-wheat-ryegrass-vetch mixtures, etc.
- Rotational stocking allows and makes successful several multiple forage cropping and double cropping mixtures. The same factors as above cause this success. Examples are: bermudagrass-cereal rye-annual ryegrass-legume-crabgrass-johnsongrass forages in a given paddock, winter pasture-crabgrass in a given paddock, etc. Each grazing causes the use and release of one or more of the forage components.
Multiple paddocks, allows the practice of integrated forage management. It is possible to have a different forage, or forage use, within each paddock.
- Planting of many forage seeds is practical through tread-in by livestock during grazing with relatively high stock densities. The stock, in effect, become a piece of equipment by assisting with final seed placement.
Some forage seeds may be dispersed through livestock by feeding seeds and allowing the livestock to disperse them into the paddocks in their manure. This is a very inefficient system, but somewhat useful. This happens automatically in all grazing units when livestock eat a seed and pass it in another location. It cannot be stopped.
- Nutrient recycling from manure and urine can be managed relatively easily in a rotational grazing unit. This recycling causes the reuse of any nutrient consumed. At each deposit more forage grows, fewer numbers of weed herbage emerge, and the weeds are more palatable, causing more weed use and greater other forage production. Nutrient recycling goes on indefinitely.
- Higher stock densities cause increased browsing of broadleaf weeds, more physical abuse by trampling and lower weed populations. This happens in both fertilized and non-fertilized situations. Most weeds are either preferred or acceptable to grazing beef cattle. Relatively few weeds are useless as livestock feed.
- In this situation we might consider the analogy that fencing functions as a sprayer and the livestock are, in effect, the herbicide or mowing equipment.
- Higher stock densities result in excellent woody plant, small sprout, bush or tree control through browsing since physical impact results in less woody plants. In many paddocks, these plants are kept at a low level through stock impact.
- There have been cases when aphids, army worms, or leaf diseases infested certain paddocks and were controlled through grazing and trampling at high stock densities, thus illuminating the need for chemical controls if that were an option.
Livestock Fringe Benefits
Rotational stocking sets up the possibility of many fringe benefits to livestock management. Itemized below are some livestock related fringe benefits:
- The grazing unit sets up a "machine" that can be employed to help manage stress on livestock. Because of relatively frequent, closer, and hopefully gentler handling of livestock, they become more docile and easier to manipulate. The constant rotation of livestock to another paddock causes them to become more settled and easier to handle.
- It is well accepted that good electric fencing is a catalyst for getting livestock to settle more quickly and easily.
- Sick livestock are easily detected and less time is needed for such detection in a rotational stocking unit. Sick livestock tend to be the last in a rotation line and are thus easy to observe and separate from the herd for treatment.
- Livestock movements from one paddock to another automatically have a limiting effect on fly populations. Flies do not move far from the manure pat, and many make contact with a host only by the host passing immediately by them. This phenomenon functions to a degree on even very small, less than 50-acre units, but it works best on larger units because of the greater distances and increased time between fly eggs, flies and livestock-host close contact.
- The use of a portable fly and lice wipe, salt and mineral feeder (all one tool) is made more useful and almost 100 percent effective because all the livestock are relatively close to the tool. Rotational stocking (cattle all close by) facilitates the use of the tool and the tool facilitates rotational stocking. Livestock naturally key on the tool for its use and trail it to the next paddock as it is moved. The tool is as low stress as is imaginable for both livestock and human in the prevention and control of external parasites and mineral/salt supplementation. There have been cases where one herd of a two-herd system had fly control via a wipe and the second herd never developed a serious fly population -- possibly due to that control and regular livestock movement to another paddock.
- Internal parasites may, or may not, be controlled through rotational stocking. There is data to support both cases. Rotational stocking sets up the possibility of limited or controlled internal parasites, but not the surety of it. The system, however, sets up a very easy means to observe livestock visually for potential parasite problems and an easy means to sample manure from any or a combination of individuals for fecal testing. There is also data to support not doing unnecessary deworming when stock are on high quality abundant forage which can be set up, in part, by rotational stocking.
- Rotational stocking automatically sets up the easy feasibility of automatic creep grazing. This is so because of the number of paddocks containing the same or different forage, some of which is of a higher quality, higher palatability and has greater availability through creep accesses. Creep grazing accesses are easily engineered under electric fences or through any fence. There are many designs.
- The paddocks of a grazing unit can be easily organized for strip grazing -- the highest practical management level of rotational grazing. Strip grazing will provide the greatest potential of product yield and fringe benefits.
- Single wire electric fences, and to some degree multiple wire electric fences and non-electric fences, can be used as a feed trough or hay bunk. This is because supplemental feeds can be scattered directly under the electric wire, thus saving the cost of feeders. This approach adds human safety because the feed person can be on the opposite side of the fence from the stock. The technique also provides a "clean plate" for the feed because most manure and urine is dropped more than two feet from the fence. The electric wire prevents stock from trampling the feed into the soil or crumbling and wasting it. When this is done with electric fences, it automatically causes livestock to be calmer at feeding as they avoid and respect the electric fence.
- The rotational stocking unit readily permits the mixing or combinations of livestock species and classes in the same or different paddocks to accomplish objectives not possible with one livestock species or class or with one pasture in continuous stocking. Cattle and sheep combinations are an example, but the list is more extensive. I know a stockman that has cattle, hair sheep, wool sheep and goats all in one grazing unit.
- The grazing unit readily accommodates the use of special stock for weedy plant and brushy plant use the more effective use of "guard animals." Donkeys, sheep, goats, cattle, and guard dogs or other animals can all be employed for this job. This technique can be extended to cause livestock to do "seedbed preparation" in summer fallow winter pasture fields to offset machinery use and labor.
Soil, Water, and Environmental Fringe Benefits
Rotational stocking, done appropriately, can benefit the soil environment. Itemized below are some soil, water and environmental related fringe benefits:
- Rotational grazing, with adequate recovery periods, increases forage production. Runoff water and water contained in streams and impoundments is clearer and presumably of higher quality for stock and human use. This is possible because rotational stocking, wisely done, allows the control of residue height (stubble) left after each grazing and a more rapid regrowth.
- These grazings also cause and allow the accumulation of litter (horizontal residue) directly on the soil surface. This litter helps prevent erosion.
- Greater herbage and residual vegetative cover leads to less soil erosion. The combined effects of this protection cause interception of raindrops plus a “tarp” or “duck’s back” on the soil surface to restrict and nearly eliminate soil erosion.
- Rotational stocking causes the buildup of physical organic residue. This organic residue composts on the soil surface and slightly into the soil surface to build and improve that horizon of soil.
- There is some indication that rotational stocking will increase chemical the organic matter content of soils. However, in Oklahoma nearly three decades of rotational stocking on formerly tilled cropland did not show any increase in chemical organic matter in the upper soil profile. It took eons of time to build high organic matter soils and three decades may not be long enough to rebuild those losses.
- The rotational stocking unit and its necessary fences often set up a means to control livestock access to reservoirs, ponds, lakes, streams and rivers and the associated margins. This is done by fencing these water sources out of the main units and building controlled accesses (usually with electric fences) for stock water. These accesses increase edge vegetation cover, maintain or improve water quality, protect and improve riparian habitat and limit waste and parasite recycling in the water, plus they improve wildlife habitat.
Social (Human) Fringe Benefits
While the grazier’s interest in rotational stocking is likely centered more on forage, livestock and economic advantages, there are "people" advantages, some of which I have already listed. Here is a list of some more grazier friendly items:
- One grazier said, "The biggest advantages to me personally is that there is only one gate to open." In his one-herd case, all livestock were in one paddock at a time, allowing him to leave all other gates open and travel nonstop to that paddock. Conversely, with stock in every pasture, many gates had to be opened and closed to check the livestock, etc.
- When a well-organized grazing unit is set up and operating, less total time is needed to check livestock, etc., because they are in a known, relatively confined, area.
- Labor needs are more predictable and regular. This results in less total time needed and more efficient management. This is more important for large operations. This time management option can result in getting more done with the available time, or in needing less total labor (people) for the same jobs. It takes more time to plan and set up the unit, but once in place, it takes little time to operate a good unit.
- A grazing unit and rotational stocking can be a wholesome teaching tool for youth (and others) interested in responsibility training and biological systems management.
Economical Fringe Benefits
The economic advantages to lowering input costs and raising net value of the product per acre are scattered throughout this summary. Cumulative advantages to fringe benefits of rotational stocking can total $100 per acre or more (Newport, 1993). However, not all fringe benefits apply to all grazing circumstances, so the value may be more or less than stated.
A fringe benefit to a given grazier may be a disadvantage to another grazier. For example, woody plant control on a unit with abundant woody plants may be desirable. However, the grazier managing a unit sparsely populated with woody plants may wish to preserve and increase that component for wildlife interests or their perception of aesthetics.
This summary has been written from the prospective of a grazier whose goal is to produce good conservation cover, good forage production, and good livestock production in an environmentally friendly unit.
Newport, Alan. 1993. Fringe benefits. Oklahoma Farmer Stockman. June issue. pp. 6-7.
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