As someone who did not grow up around electric fences or cattle, this service year has thrown me into the deep end with a 12-volt battery waiting for me at the bottom. When thinking of cattle grazing and ranching, one might easily imagine either a crowded feedlot cesspool of stink with small enclosed paddocks of mud, or wide open spaces of windy green pastures smattered with the smallest black dots, just big enough to be recognized as cows, as they chomp their way through fields unencumbered by gates or fences.
I, however, invite you to envision another type of grazing. One that, among showing promising results for increased carbon sequestration, forage production, and ecosystem health, also involves many, many, many miles of electric fence. The basic principle of rotational grazing is to use non-permanent fencing (e-fence) to create smaller paddocks that the cattle can be rotated through, so that once they return to the first paddock, the grass will have had sufficient time and growth promotion from the earlier feeding to be ready again.
This system has many advantages from both an ecosystem and herd production standpoint. In a way, rotational grazing is looking at how cattle can be used as multi-taskers.
Not only are the cattle eating forage for consumption, but through the timing of the grazing and the nature of the forage, the cattle are acting as invasive species mitigators, fuel reduction managers, free compost spreaders, and early grazers for increased perennial grass growth in the later season. By promoting perennial grasses in a rotational grazing system, soil erosion decreases, water infiltration increases, and the growing season, and therefore grazing season, lasts far longer than any other pasture dominated by annuals (which, unfortunately, is most of California’s rangelands).
In the most innovative systems, pastures have the potential to be dynamically functional, with integrated recreation, educational opportunities, and multi-use agroforestry systems, while at the same time maintaining open space from development and industry.
The downsides of rotational grazing, however, can come from economic costs, land access, and increased, intensive labor. For one, water sources and fixtures are potentially harder for the cattle to access if they are rotated around frequently, which many ranches might not have the permanent or ephemeral infrastructure to set up. One might note that a rancher who is trying to shift to a rotational grazing system from a traditional grazing system vs. a rancher who is starting a rotational system from scratch would have different economic pressures depending on what infrastructure is already built, as well as access to land and capital, etc. For another, even if the pasture is enclosed with permanent fencing, the inner paddocks of electric fencing need to be constructed, maintained, taken down and then reconstructed again throughout the whole process. Though e-fencing allows more flexibility and variation of paddock size and shape throughout the grazing rotation, as well as flexibility and change for the future years and grazing plans, that flexibility and processes require added hours of labor and costs to the operation.
Let me state, once again, that I had no previous experience with electric fencing. So, let me take a brief pause and quickly outline some do’s and don'ts of the e-fencing game.
Don’t touch a live wire with one hand and an uncharged wire with the other hand; the electric current will TRAVEL THROUGH YOU, and you will feel like your heart got taken on the worst roller coaster of its life.
Don’t kneel down on the ground and touch a live wire, again, the current will travel through you. The kind of shoes you’re wearing is also very important.
Don’t lean out of a Kubota and try to test the live wire- you will get shocked.
Basically, never let your body become the ground for the electricity to travel through.
Be careful when opening and closing the constructed e-fence gates, you will probably get shocked.
When connecting two pieces of line, be sure to wrap the metal wire around itself, as only then will the current travel through the connection with the same voltage.
And be sure to always sing to the cows, they could always use a bit of entertainment- even if they are possibly one of the most confused audiences you will ever perform for.
Now, let’s get back to it! Perhaps, rotational grazing is not the ultimate and only solution to cattle production. For one, meat consumption in the U.S. would have to drastically change in order to not rely almost completely on feedlot operations, which, my friends, is a whole other conversation. Secondly, there is an insufficient amount of land needed to produce the same amount of cattle in a rotational grazing style vs a feedlot system. An NRCS USDA pamphlet, Pastures for Profit: A Guide to Rotational Grazing from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension in 2002 highlights all the benefits and systems that need to be established to create a successful rotational grazing system. Under the section, “Economic Benefits”, it states, “Most farmers try rotational grazing because of the economic savings” and this has every possibility of being true (2). However, during my year of service, I have not seen many examples of that being the case. The rotational grazing operations that I have come in contact with, seem to be the only cattle operations in the area using such practices. Furthermore, like many of the questions we are posing ourselves these days, this question ultimately rests on land and access to land. Depending on whether the rancher leases or owns the land, the grazing operation has a different starting budget than it’s neighbor, and a different scale of ability to transition to a rotational grazing system.
I would like to believe in rotational grazing. I would like to believe that cattle grazing on the land can be a mutually beneficial relationship. At this time, however, it seems that rotational grazing, with its many benefits, is not the perfect or sole solution. Though I love carbon sequestration as much, if not more, than anyone else, and perennial grass production is indeed a passion, from what I can see, rotational grazing has some serious hurdles to jump before it can be widely adopted by most cattle operations that don’t also rely on other sources of income. Indeed, those who use rotational grazing are few in their craft, and their colleagues don’t seem ready to jump on the bandwagon. However, though rotational grazing seems fantastic on paper, in reality, it requires more resources than the average rancher is able to provide to see a successful and prosperous operation of a rotational grazing system. In the end, I am no economist and I am no rancher, and all I have are questions. However, I for one, hope to have those questions answered and for these structures that inhibit wide-spread adaptation of more holistic land management strategies, such as rotational grazing, to be deconstructed as easily as I have now learned to deconstruct an electric fence.
Undersander, Dan, et al. “Pastures for Profit: A Guide to Rotational Grazing.” Cooperative Extension Publishing, University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2002