Some Tips on Grazing Cattle
With the cost of harvesting hay crops, many livestock owners will evaluate whether grazing is a less expensive option for harvesting than conventionally mowing, raking and baling a field…. or mowing and chopping for silage. Results from various farmers are always mixed. Some want no part of grazing, some are nothing but graziers, and others conduct a mix of the two.
The equipment and manpower controlled by the farmer often makes a difference in the decision. But so does the experience level of the person controlling the grazing. Knowing how to build fence lines to control cattle, and do so quickly and efficiently, is an important part; thinking like a cow is another. Some operators fence bottlenecks or confusing areas for the animals, who then beeline toward the herd when chased, and get caught in a dead end fenceline, or break through the wire. Bad experiences like these cause some farmers to not want to graze animals. For high production herds, the drop in milk due to changes in climate, grass condition, and stress are also negative reasons for grazing. And finally, thistles, refused weeds, and briars in the fenceline provide the icing on the cake for those who are having negative feelings about grazing.
These problems can be overcome. At the price of labor, fuel, and equipment, it just doesn’t pay to roar large tractors around clipping 6 or even 8 inches of 4th cutting, when considering time, field losses, and real expense. After years of grazing a 60 cow herd on our farm, we offer the following tips:
1) Alternate pasturing with mowing.
Just like any field management, grazing is one form of harvesting. So the fields must be maintained as mowable, manageable tracts. If the field is grazed early, i.e. “first cutting”, then the next scheduled cut must be done with a mower. If the first cutting is mowed, second can be grazed, but it is possible that third may again need mowed to control weeds.
2) Build temporary fences.
High tensile is a wonderful fencing tool, and is necessary for some areas, but don’t over-do it. HT fences need to be maintained with hand cutting and/or annual herbicide treatment. Otherwise they will be completely and unforgiveably overgrown with briars. We use mild steel wire, because we have found that the braided products cannot be trusted. Wire filaments break in the braided wire, losing continuity, yet the braid is intact and so nearly impossible to find. While steel wire is heavier, we use a large garden hose reel on wheels to wind up the steel wire. They are a little flimsy, a homemade farm shop model would work better, but the concept is great. Take your wires down at least yearly, more often if possible, and mow along these areas.
3) Think like a cow.
Cattle are extremely stupid animals, but being creatures of habit, they can easily be managed if consideration is given to their point of view. They always want to eat what’s best, like children, so they will walk the entire field, usually to the far end, and work their way back choosing the best plants. When cattle are stressed, they crowd tighter; when relaxed, the spread out more. The strongest boss cows smash into the center of the mass (where is it safest) and the weaker cattle and cripples are on the outside of the group. Cows can be chased, but they must not view you as a threat. Walk with them and among them. When redirecting to new fields, take the first 5 or 10 cows (even 2 will work) and walk calmly behind them. Do not try to drive the whole herd, because the leaders are afraid and will stop. Let the rest of the herd follow you, whether 50 or 200. Take the first 10, you’ll get ‘em all. Don’t leave the main group to chase stragglers. They are like unruly children who cause minimal harm if ignored. They will come back to the group. And lastly, remember when bringing cows back to the barn, they always try to beeline for the barn. Make entrances at the barn side of the pasture, don’t created fenced areas that trap them. It is difficult to get a cow to walk away from the barn in order to get to the barn. She does not think like Christopher Columbus.
Hopefully these tips will help in your grazing considerations.