How to Make Rotational Grazing Work

By Curt Harler

"With rotational grazing, you control where the cattle eat and where they defecate," says J.B. Harrold of Somerset County, Pa. "It's a big time savings. It gives you flexibility." He contract-feeds dairy heifers for local producers. His operation takes calves from weaning to first pregnancy.

J.B. Harrold's son, Tyler, helps
move the wire for the electric
fence while his father has the
posts. That is how easy it is to
move heifers in a rotational
grazing system.

J.B. Harrold's son, Tyler, helps move the wire for the electric fence while his father has the posts. That is how easy it is to move heifers in a rotational grazing system.
Photo by Allison Harrold.

"It's hard to get the same feed quality with dried hay that you get with rotational grazing," he says. Leaves on dried and baled hay shatter, hurting quality. And when properly done, rotational grazing moves livestock around an entire pasture, allowing the animals to defecate across the area rather than only by a favored tree or, worse, a stream where they congregate.

In addition to rotational grazing at the home place, Harrold set up a system at an uncle's farm and has worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in a 16-county area to help producers set up their systems.

Harrold definitely practices what he preaches. Even in Somerset County - the coldest in Pennsylvania - he gets seven to eight months of grazing, rotating pasture every two or three days. It is cheaper and less labor-intensive than baling, he says.

"It's so easy, my 10-year-old son, Tyler, and the dog can move the heifers without any problem," Harrold says. He figures that moving 105 head takes about 30 minutes a day. Contrast that with two hours to care for the same number of animals in a barn.

"With a quick pasture rotation, we get high-quality feed. Our heifers gain 2 to 3 pounds per day on straight pasture," Harrold says. The pastures are an orchardgrass base with rye and 30 percent clover.

This spring is Harrold's 13th season with rotational grazing. One of the secrets to success is proper fencing.

"The low-impedance portable chargers of today make rotational grazing a much easier endeavor," says Laura Gund with Walnut Grove Farm Electric Fence Systems in Lee, N.H. They sell the Gallagher fence system, from Gallagher Animal Management Systems in New Zealand. Systems range from D-cell to 12-volt. "They are great for rotational grazing of chickens or pigs, all the way to buffalo," she adds.

"By limiting pasture you get a lot better utilization out of your forage," says Gary Duncan, fencing product specialist with Kencove Farm Fence Supplies, Blairsville, Pa. There are two factors that come into play. "Water and fencing tie in together," he states.

Duncan, who uses rotational grazing at his own farm, finds that cattle turned out into a large pasture eat choice morsels and tramp down or pass by good forage. "In a limited paddock, you get much better forage utilization," he says.

Cows like convenience, and that means keeping water close. If livestock have a water tank within 500 or 600 feet, they tend to wander over to the water in groups of two or three, drink, and return to grazing while others take their turn. If water is much farther away, cows move in large numbers to the water supply. Since only a few can drink at once, dozens of other cows mill around, trample the ground, and graze the area close to the water tank down to the nubbins and defecate in clumps.

For that reason, Duncan recommends that producers who go to rotational grazing install water lines with quick-couplers to allow moving water from area to area. While some producers try to design their paddocks around a central water supply, once a farm has more than a half-dozen or so pastures, that becomes a challenge.

Harrold advises avoiding pie-shaped pastures. "I do everything in squares," he explains, noting that squares eat up the least amount of temporary fencing. Medium-sized blocks are then divided into the smaller daily grazing areas. Each area should have access to water.

Harrold has two wells and buried the water mains below the frost line. He and a neighbor used a John Deere three-shank ripper to run laterals. "We can bury 1,000 feet of pipe in two hours," he says.

Since his pastures are devoid of trees, he knows water is important. The cows are never more than 200 feet from water.

Both 10-year-old Tyler Harrold and his sister Allison, who is 7 years old,
often help move heifers around the pastures.

Both 10-year-old Tyler Harrold and his sister Allison, who is 7 years old, often help move heifers around the pastures.
Photo by J.B. Harrold.

Every pasture has a water trough. "I'd rather spend the $100 on another trough than have to dump 100 gallons of water every day and drag the trough around," Harrold says.

Setting up rotational grazing

Harrold groups the heifers by size, running several groups. The 55-acre home pasture is divided into 1-acre paddocks for the smaller animals and 1.5-acre blocks for the larger ones. To accomplish this, Harrold says, "You need a balance between permanent fencing and poly wire temporary fence."

Dairy Use

The University of Vermont surveyed 4,000 dairy farmers in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland to see how they grazed their herds. The researchers delved into issues producers had, real and perceived, with the adoption of rotational grazing.

Survey respondents were categorized into three groups reflecting the three distinct types of dairy farming systems common to the Northeast:

  • Rotational grazing or management-intensive grazing (MIG) - The milking herd gets a fresh paddock every 12 or 24 hours, and cows receive the majority of their forage intake from pasture when adequate pasture forage is available.
  • Traditional - The milking herd is often turned out on pasture when it's available, but the farm does not rely on pasture for a significant amount of forage intake.
  • Confinement - The milking herd does not graze at all.

Just 13 percent of the dairy producers surveyed use rotational grazing. These farms reported smaller herds and lower per-cow milk production levels than either traditional or confinement-feeding dairy farms. Yet the producers were happier. They reported lower stress levels, good profit and financial progress, improved herd health, and reduced impact on water quality. Further, these farmers are less concerned about the long-term survival of their current farming operation.

Non-grazers reported the primary barriers to adoption of rotational grazing as financial, land and labor requirements, and risk.

Duncan and Gund agree that a producer should have a good, solid perimeter fence around any pasture. A typical 100-acre pasture might be divided into 30 3-acre fields, allowing for a full month's grazing at a paddock per day. He also recommends establishing several blocks that are permanently fenced. That fence can be woven wire, barbed wire or electric.

If anything, overbuild the perimeter fence for added protection. Remember, no one likes to touch an electric fence, and your animals don't want to either, Duncan says. This fencing keeps them safe and predators out. Even blind animals are safe within properly installed electric fence.

"A perimeter fence can be the conductor to carry the pulse to the portable fencing, which would mean all of your fencing can be supplied by a good low-impedance charger of proper capacity," Gund says.

"In the spring, you can't keep up with the grass, but in August, it is a good idea to make the paddocks larger so they have more to eat," Duncan says.

Some farmers shy away from rotational grazing because they fear it is labor-intensive, but Duncan and Harrold insist that it doesn't require much.

It takes 1,320 feet of poly wire to do a 40-acre pasture. You can roll that quarter-mile of fencing up on a reel that you can carry in one hand.

In addition, a producer will need 26 lightweight plastic tread-in or pigtail fence posts. About 40 or 50 will do a quarter-mile of fencing. Farmers can carry several step-ins in a suitable carrier (i.e., a golf bag), and reels of the preferred conductor that can be attached anywhere on the perimeter fence.

Metal fence posts with good insulators also work well. Remember that metal posts have no "give" under impact and are a direct path to ground if a wire comes loose.

A short-strand or long-strand fiberglass post with stainless clips is a good alternative, being nonconductive and flexible under impact to a degree, thereby not injuring animals.

Fencing technique

"When planning a rotational grazing pattern, keep it simple," Gund advises. Step-in posts of various heights are readily available.

"Tie back your corners with what you have on hand (baling twine, etc.) to make your fence sturdier," Gund says. Use the best quality you can find. "The more expensive tapes are usually the better value, as they have less impedance than most of the less costly," Gund says.

"The absolute, single most important thing in setting up a fence is to have it properly grounded," states Ken Turner. "A 10-penny gutter spike is not a proper ground!" Turner is president of Parker McCrory Mfg. Co. in Kansas City, Mo., which makes Parmak Precision electric fence components and Baygard accessories.

Gund agrees: "Grounding is the most important factor with any charger: electric, battery or solar." It allows the pulse to travel through the animal and back to ground to complete the circuit.

While the wire gauge will vary by job, Turner recommends using nothing heavier than 12-gauge and nothing lighter than 17-gauge. Typically, he recommends 12.5-gauge high-tensile wire or 14-gauge galvanized.

Other Electric Ideas

Well-made electric netting is about as good as it gets to protect and move your sheep or chickens. It works for beekeepers too. The netting is available in various heights and configurations.

"Your best bet is to find a good dealer/distributor to give you the ins and outs of proper handling of netting," says Laura Gund of Walnut Grove Farm Electric Fence Systems.

When erecting netting, you can knock down the taller grasses by driving your tractor or vehicle around the area where you will be putting the temporary fence. This keeps grass from shorting your carrier.

Beekeepers are great proponents of temporary fencing, usually netting and solar chargers. Bears are a big problem around beehives, so beekeepers need an excellent fence. "You're putting out a bear buffet if you don't have electric fencing," says Wendy Booth, a beekeeper in Nottingham, N.H. Booth is president of the New Hampshire Beekeepers' Association. The bear come for the larvae, not the honey; they can smell larvae from a mile away.

Some beekeepers prefer wire rather than netting. Bear fence should be baited with peanut butter on a piece of aluminum foil.

Booth likes electric fence with 8-inch-square netting. The top couple of wires deter bear, and the lower, tighter mesh protects hive yards from skunks and raccoons. It also discourages humans from invading hive space.

Booth uses a solar system to power her fence, although at $200 a unit, it becomes expensive. Some beekeepers prefer units with four D-cell batteries, but there is always the risk of a dead battery on the night the raccoons or bears visit.

"I swear the bears listen for the 'tick-tick' of the fence and go in when it stops," Booth says.

If hives are near a building, it is cheapest to power the fence from the building.

In New Hampshire, the agriculture department will lend a beekeeper whose hives have been attacked an electric net fence until the producer can get their own. Since a bear will usually return within one to three nights, prompt action is required.

"We have found from our experience that a 12.5-gauge, high-tensile aluminum wire works the best in perimeter and rotational systems," Gund says, noting that the product is four times more conductive than steel wire. Remember that high-tensile aluminum is not a soft wire. This wire comes spooled, not coiled, and has a memory.

The 12.5-gauge is more conductive than the smaller sizes, is easier to handle, and can easily be repaired with a Gripple, Gund says, adding, "Using this wire requires fewer posts and is a safer wire to have around animals."

"Gauge has little to do with the shock," Turner notes. Rather, a farmer should choose wire gauge based on whether the fence is intended to be temporary or permanent, and on the kind of livestock it will enclose.

In any case, if done properly, there will be a wire insulator at each fence post, whether it is a steel T-post or locust wood.

"The return to ground should be a galvanized or copper-clad rod that is a minimum of 6 to 8 feet," Turner says. In cases where the fence extends three-quarters of a mile or more, a good installer will have three such grounds.

As the technology gets better, units have become more efficient and give better output. Right now, Parmak is waiting on UL approval for a new transformer with better output and increased resistance to lightning damage.

For cows, Duncan recommends a single strand of hot wire 30 to 32 inches off the ground. While a calf can duck under the fence, it will usually return to its mother. For sheep and goats, a triple strand works best.

Gund says the size of the energizer depends solely on the size of the fence. There are solar units and battery units available for every situation. "Spending time talking with a knowledgeable dealer will be invaluable, as he can tailor your fence to your needs," Gund says.

Producers who watch their forage quality closely may move sheep daily. Remember, the reason livestock will want to leave a pasture is because the grass is greener elsewhere. Keep them in good forage and they are less likely to roam.

In the best of all pasture worlds, there would be no weeds or vegetation along the fence line, but that's not the reality. One solution is low-impedance electric fencing. A low-impedance system's charger is designed to shock through vegetation and light litter that comes in contact with the charged wire. Grass, weeds and vines will impede, or stop, the flow of electricity by grounding out the system. A low-impedance fence charger has sufficient "oomph" to power the electric shock through most vegetation.

Keep in mind that Ohm's law is just that: a law. Every blade of grass that comes in contact with the fence will suck off power. The scattered weed here or there will not be a major factor, but it will be a factor.

"The cleaner the fence, the better the charge. We recommend a commercial weed killer like Roundup," Turner says. He says a farmer absolutely should not use anything that is flammable, like gasoline. Spray the weed killer under the fence and a few inches on either side.

"A low-impedance design, whether battery or AC, will shock through a reasonable amount of vegetation," Turner says.


The decision to go with an AC-powered or a battery-powered charger will largely depend on the pasture's location. Fields located near buildings or other sources of power are better served by an AC system. "If you have the power available, go with a power line unit. It eliminates battery replacement. In remote areas, battery is the only choice," Turner says.

Solar units can be handy for some applications where the fence is not near a building with electricity.

A 6-volt charger will serve small to medium-size pastures under 5 acres. For larger pastures, a 12-volt unit is better.

No matter who your vendor is, Turner recommends farmers look for the UL (Underwriters Laboratories) sticker on any charger they buy. "If it is not UL-listed, it is potentially hazardous," he warns.

To know you have done your job correctly, Gund advises using a digital voltmeter or joule meter, but not a voltmeter intended for household use, as it is likely not calibrated for the voltage a fence will carry.

Duncan encourages producers to give intensive rotational grazing a shot. He notes that the "intensive" part of the term does not refer to labor.

"Even in the snow, cattle will eat through the snow as long as it is not crusted over," he says. He figures the reason most producers feed purchased hay in the winter is because they have always done it.

"By the time you warm up the tractor, fetch the bale, haul it out to the cattle and add in what they waste, you have more invested than the 10 or 15 minutes it takes to move the poly wire," Duncan says.

"Check the fence occasionally," Gund urges. Sometimes branches fall on a fence and short it. Try to keep the grass down. Use your digital voltmeter and check the voltage on a regular basis.

Producers like Harrold are happy with the setup. He points to a plot he obtained three years ago. With rotational grazing, he doubled the carrying capacity of the pasture. That kind of success shows why producers should consider a trial on their property.

Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from The Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer.