by Troy Bishopp
Have sticker shock at the pumps or from an invoice that’s 50% more than usual? Is there a way livestock managers can help themselves during this onslaught of rising prices? Moving portable fences might be a way to reduce costs and add value to your land and animal performance. Savings may be just a reel and a pasture walk away.
Generally, grazing management and making a living off pastures means moving fences daily, every third day, weekly or even monthly (although not recommended). Back in the 1990s, many grazing systems had paddocks specifically designed and sized for the milking herd with hard fences and one gate, usually opening into a laneway of some sort. Looking back now, I see opportunities for improvement.
Most grazing help we received from agency professionals was predicated on square paddocks with simple rotations which played to the fact that we farmers liked to just open one gate or move one poly-wire and run to the next job. Everything was a nice, neat package with utopian recovery periods and happy swards, cows and people.
This simplistic system seemed fine until I met Henry Swayze of Gallagher Power Fence in Vermont who advocated daily folding-flag fence placement and sold aluminum, electrified tumble-wheels to move cows in any configuration you wanted. I was also “corrupted” (a term used to go against the status quo of grazing management) by the techno-grazing/spider fencing New Zealander Harry Weir, who advocated for long rectangles and subdividing more, with multiple herds next to each other.
Strip grazing with multiple moves per day also came to my knowledge from the likes of Grazing Consultant Jim Gerrish and holistic practitioner Ian-Mitchell Innes, which yields high animal performance, maximizes grazing efficiency and excites the microbes with the treading in of plant residues. Nowadays, regenerative, adaptive grazing management is taking center stage to help fight climate change. So what do all these recipes, squares, rectangles, flags, strips and circles have to do with managing your pastures? They improve fertility transfer.
In my way of thinking, grazing management planning and execution is a fertility program that walks on four legs. In my self-deprecating past, I noticed moss growth (an unhealthy situation) under most of my fences because I had no animal impact or manure hitting underneath from being too rigid and too routine in moving fences.
Today, it’s rare for me to move fences the same in any of my 20 paddocks in any rotation. I’ve heard from top graziers that if you can get a cow pie every three feet, the grass, fertility and biology will explode. I have positively witnessed this firsthand. It takes some effort to think about doing moves differently each time and what goals you’re trying to achieve but it’s worth the work in these trying times of cost explosions.
Square paddock shifts distribute manure evenly but don’t reach the corners. Rectangles focus manure more in the ends and contribute to more trampling effects. Folding flags concentrate nutrients on the fat end. Strip grazing and multiple daily moves really concentrate the manure but can also be adjusted by a back fence. Water and mineral placement will also enhance (or detract from) areas if you manage them to your fertility goals. Ancillary benefits like clipping, trampling forage, dung beetles, microbes, plant species, residual heights and recovery periods all have an effect on your natural fertility program. Even a few bales of hay spread out in places will have impact.
I will concede portable fence moving can get a bit boring without some level of change. The game for me is how well I can make the cows work on my fertility goals using simple tools and my big brain. (In my demented noggin, even though it would be an animal welfare issue, I would design a poop cow collar where she would drop a fertility tablet in the pasture at the push of a button.)
This fence moving strategy can also enhance plant diversity because each grazing shape, time on the paddock, grazing heights and manure placement will favor a cornucopia of species. And who can forget the hoof impact on soil? The late Terry Gompert once told me he would purposely excite his cows into the joy of kicking up their heels to stimulate the soil health. Can you picture yourself in front of your neighbors running your cows?
My message on moving portable fences is to be diverse in using this fertility tool and monitor and track the changes in your swards. Try some different season-long strategies on one paddock and do your own research. This experience could be helpful to others if you have favorable results. A $40 manure spreading reel is cheaper than one with beaters and wheels. Save money – get moving.