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Farm and Forest Rotational Grazing

Best Management Practices Series

Pied Piper Shepherds Her Cows Into Green Pastures

Like a pied piper, every so often Becky Day leads her cows from one pasture to another. “Come on girls,” she calls. They follow along like puppies.  “I just talk to them and they go where I want,” she explains.

Becky has about 100 mother cows, mostly Black Angus. Add in their babies and the bulls, and the total number of cattle sometimes adds up to nearly 200 on her farm, which is a 525 acre spread near Brandsville, Missouri, in the Spring River Watershed [map]. But she does almost all the farm work herself, with some help from her teenage son Andy and an occasional hired worker.

In years past, Becky was the helper and her dad was the farmer. But Becky’s dad passed the farm on to her when he died in 1998. “I started helping Dad in 1990, when the farm became too much for him to handle alone,” Becky recalls. “It has been in our family since 1935. I was honored when Dad decided to give it to me. He told me he did it because he knew I would take care of the land,” she said.

One fall morning, Becky called 70 cows and calves into a small corral and closed the gate. The vet came and gave them their shots and worm medicine, then Becky  separated off 21 calves and loaded them into a trailer to go to market. There was no wild panic or running around. “People are amazed that my cattle listen to me, trust me, and do what they do for me,” she said.

Part of Becky’s secret in her smooth handling of such a big herd is that she’s learned to think like the cows. She knows they love hay and grain, so she puts these treats in places she wants them to go. She can read their body language, to know if they’re feeling mad, or friendly, or hungry. She moves among the herd, scratching their itchy spots, even on Earl, the 1600 pound bull (see Earl in the photo above). “He’s like a big baby,” she said. “But an animal that big has to learn to respect you.” She teaches her cattle that they won’t be allowed to get pushy or aggressive around her.

Many Small Pastures: From 13 Fields to 27

Becky plays the pied piper, leading the cows from one field to another, because she uses a rotational grazing system. Rotational grazing is a Best Management Practice that helps to control sedimentation (silt) and erosion. With this system, she has many small pastures, and groups of cattle are regularly moved from an eaten-down pasture to a fresh one, where the grass has grown high.

Before Becky put in this grazing system, she had a problem. Her farm had several big fields, but they didn’t produce enough grass for the cattle to eat year-round. The cows would eat all the grass down very short. Then the grass had a hard time growing back up, because there was always a cow there to eat it short again.

This situation is called overgrazing, and it will eventually kill the grass completely. Then weeds that cattle don't like can take over. In some places where the grass is killed, the soil gets exposed, and rain will carry it away as silt. This can be a big problem, because not only do the fields need the soil to grow the grass, but also the silt washes into the creeks and causes pollution.

Becky knew she had to build fences to divide up her fields. That way, the cattle could be moved away from a heavily grazed area so the grass could have time to grow back. But the challenge was to figure out how to split the land up so that each field also had everything that cattle need to be healthy and safe. “Cows don’t ask for much, but they must have grass, water, some shade in the summer, and some protection in the winter, such as trees for a windbreak,” she said.

“In my mind and drawing on paper I built hundreds of fences,” Becky said. “I stood around in the fields picturing how to put in water lines, waterers, electric fences, and gates,” she said. She spent a lot of time thinking about how she could provide what the cows need to be happy. “Would there be enough shade? Will the gate be in the right spot so they will easily move from field to field?”

When the new rotational grazing system was all finished, Becky had 27 fields. She’d had 13 before. Every pasture has shade and water. Now, Becky leaves the herd in one pasture until the grass there is clipped short, and then she moves them to a pasture that has been left alone long enough for the grass to get high. The photo above right shows a field that had been eaten short and withered by drought only three weeks earlier. With rain and no grazing it recovered very quickly.

“I'm a grass farmer, not a cattle farmer”

Four of the new fields have been planted in warm-season Caucasian grass, which grows best in the hottest part of the summer. That way, the cows can eat in those fields when the other grasses are wilting from heat. Other times, she puts the cattle on her fields planted in cool-season grasses, such as fescue, orchard grass, and lespedeza, which all thrive in the fall and spring.

In the photo below, the electric fence can be seen in the foreground. It is only one strand of strong wire held up by a line of metal T-posts. The cattle have learned that this wire bites them hard if they touch it, so this one wire is enough to keep them on the right side of the fence.

Creating smaller pastures has made a huge difference, Becky says. Back when she started helping her dad, 36 mother cows were all that the farm would support. Each year they had to feed hay to the cows starting in November, because by then the grass was all gone. Now the same land is feeding 100 mother cows, but Becky doesn’t have to feed hay until the first of February, unless there is snow on the ground. 

“I'm a grass farmer, not a cattle farmer. I produce the grass that feeds the cattle that I sell," Becky says.  "Without grass, you can’t be in the cattle business. There's a lot that goes into taking care of the soil, so that you get a grass crop instead of a weed crop, and so you don't allow erosion."

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Click to read A Cattle Whisperer's Secrets, which explains some of the technical tricks Becky used to put in her electric fences, waterers, and gates.

Photos and text by Denise Henderson Vaughn.

The development of content for the Best Management Practices Series is funded through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region VII, through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, has provided partial funding for this project under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act.