Intuitively, it would seem the easiest thing about raising cattle is the part where the cows eat grass. Really, how complicated can it be to just put the cows out where the grass is and let them graze? Actually, it is a lot more complicated than what it might seem at first brush because of the grazing habits of cattle (which also applies to other herbivores).
You see, cattle and other large grazing animals are a lot like us in that they are lazy. They won’t walk farther than they absolutely have to unless they are encouraged. What this leads to is uneven grazing, with parts of the pasture overgrazed and other parts with too much remaining forage.
To counteract this, ranchers utilize several different techniques that make the cows move around the entire pasture to graze. A simple option that is often used is called rotational grazing. It works by dividing the pasture into smaller pastures. Each small pasture is grazed by the herd all at once, and then the cows are rotated to another pasture. The idea is that between each bout of grazing, the grass in each pasture is able to catch a rain and do some re-growing.
A variation on this concept is known as high density or “mob” grazing. In this method, the small pastures are subdivided into tiny paddocks where the herd grazes for a very short period of time. This can be even as short as a day or two. The paddocks are usually created by temporary fences.
The idea is that the hoof action on the grass and ground, and the higher concentration of the manure increases the fertility of the soil. This area is then rested for longer than it would be in a traditional rotational grazing strategy, even for time periods of one year or longer. The advantage to mob grazing is grass growth is improved, while the disadvantage is that it requires more work to move fences daily.
There’s another grazing option out there that doesn’t require building fences for, which is to place cattle in a particular location using good cattle handling techniques. These low-stress techniques, pioneered by the late Bud Williams, incorporate the principles of rotational grazing, but require a firm grasp of cattle behavior.
How it works is by moving the herd to a location after their morning drink away from a water source. This has to be done in such a way where the cows and the calves stay paired up. This because if the pairs are split apart when moving the cattle the herd will quickly return to where it started, with the cows and the calves trying to meet up where they were last together.
If you keep the cows with the calves, the whole herd can be moved to a location that is ready to graze. The cattle will graze there and work its way back to water later that day for a drink. This technique is especially useful in the arid west, where the riparian areas around rivers and creeks are more fragile. Training the cattle to drink and then move somewhere else helps to preserve the green areas around the water.
Ranchers use any one or a combination of these and other techniques to make sure pastures are grazed evenly. Even grazing leads to healthy stands of grass, which in turn leads to healthy cattle (not to mention plant and wildlife too!). Now the next time you drive by a herd of cows out on grass, you’ll know there’s a little more going on that just grazing.