Beef calves gained an extra half-pound a day when given first chance to graze the next forage paddock, says Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.

In three years of tests, calves that were turned into the next ungrazed paddock ahead of their mother cows gained 1.5 lbs/head/day. Weaned calves that grazed without their mothers helping clean up the paddocks gained only 1 lb/day.

“Leader-follower grazing allows animals with the highest nutrient demand to have the best-quality forage,” says Kallenbach. “The system may sound complicated, but it is easy.”

In rotational grazing systems, animals are always ready to move to the next paddock as they learn that better-quality feed awaits them. In the leader-follower plan, calves, getting first pick, will select the best-quality forage in the paddock. Whether it’s the top of a grass blade or the tip of a clover plant, calves learn quality quickly. When they’re moved to the next paddock, their mothers are turned into the paddock they left.

“The cows clean up the leftovers,” he says. “Most cows can get by on lower-quality forage and not lose weight. Calves on the high-quality forage just keep growing.”

For the system to work, calves must be weaned for a couple of weeks so they’re ready to graze and not trying to go back with their mothers.

“The plan is based on the first-bite theory we teach at grazing school,” says Kallenbach. “Livestock learn to take the first bite from the top of a plant then move to the next plant for the next first bite off the top. When all first bites are gone, they go back over the paddock, taking the second bites on each plant.

“With the leader-follower system, the calves get all of the first bites, the most nutritious feed. Then the cows are turned in for the second and third bites. The system balances out, as the smaller animals have lower intake needs. The larger cows need more dry matter intake.”

The move to the next paddocks is not based on what the calves have eaten but on what the cows have eaten. When the cows have grazed the paddock down to a residue of 2.5”, the calves are moved forward, then the cows follow.

The system works well with fall-born calves that were not weaned in April but kept to graze the spring grass flush. The extra grazing adds value to the calves that can be kept on the farm and marketed later in the season. In spring-calving herds, calves can be kept for an extra 45-day period after weaning in fall. They can graze quality stockpiled pastures.

Both systems add calf gains on the farm before sale time. “This fits in our program to convince feedlot owners that what happens on the farm before going to the feedlot makes a difference,” says Kallenbach.

He’ll discuss leader-follower grazing during an Aug. 3 field day at the university’s Forage Systems Research Center near Linneus.