They say rotational grazing has benefits. But does it?

Tong Wang is an extension advanced production specialist with South Dakota State University and recently reported on a survey that was aimed to document whether rotational grazing had indeed provided benefits. The survey was returned by 315 South Dakota ranchers.

Wang admits that most ranchers still employ a continuous grazing system, allowing cattle to graze large areas without any chance for grass recovery. In this system, preferred areas are often under heavy grazing pressure while other areas are lightly used.

“Under rotational grazing, due to the high stocking density on the paddock being grazed, selective grazing behavior is reduced and livestock will graze a higher proportion of the less preferred patches after they rapidly deplete the preferred grasses,” Wang notes.

The survey asked producers about their average grazing and hay-feeding days in a typical year. Ranches were divided into three system groups: continuous grazing, simple rotational, and intensive rotational. Simple rotational grazing involves less frequent animal moves and larger paddocks than intensive rotational grazing.

The ratio of grazing days to hay-feeding days was highest for intensive rotational, followed by simple rotational, and lowest for continuous grazing systems (see Figure 1).

“Compared to 182 grazing days under continuous grazing, simple rotational increased grazing days to 197 days, while users of intensive rotational grazing reported an average grazing season of 235 days, which is significantly longer than grazing days reported by producers under the other two practices,” Wang says. “Shorter hay feeding days by rotational grazing users compared to their continuous grazing counterparts indicates that cost savings from reduced hay purchases (or production) is very common among rotational grazing users in South Dakota,” she adds.

Figure 1. Reported average grazing and hay-feeding days for different systems

The survey also measured the ranchers’ perceptions of benefits derived from using rotational grazing. These benefits included: 1. A higher percentage of desirable grass, 2. Less runoff and erosion, 3. Enhanced drought resilience or faster drought recovery, and 4. Higher stocking rate capacity.

“Among the four benefits listed, faster drought recovery was most highly rated by users, in that nearly 50 percent of the users perceived significant benefit of rotational grazing when it comes to the increased resilience of grassland to drought,” Wang says.

The next most highly rated advantage to rotational grazing was having more desirable grass. About 45 percent of the rotational grazing users reported that the practice is highly beneficial for controlling weeds.

Of the four benefits listed, a much higher proportion of rotational grazing users perceived significant benefits for the practice when compared with nonusers.

When considering the survey takeaways, Wang believes that there are still wide perception differences of rotational grazing between users and nonusers. More research and education are still needed to help further the understanding of rotation grazing’s benefits to both farm profitability and the environment.