Rotational grazing simply means that rather than fencing in several acres for the goats and letting them spend the whole grazing season on that space, you subdivide the pasture into smaller paddocks. The goats stay on one section of pasture for a number of days before being moved to clean pasture with fresh grass, leaving behind their poop, which contains parasite eggs that will hatch and die without a host.
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Benefits of Rotational Grazing
When I was new to homesteading, I thought you just put up fences, stuck your animal in the pasture and left them there all year. However, there are a lot of reasons you should not do that. Rotational grazing or subdividing larger pastures into smaller paddocks and moving the livestock from one to another every week or two has lots of benefits.
- It’s healthier for the pasture. If you leave animals on a piece of land for too long, they’ll eat down some of the grass to the dirt while other areas will be ignored, and the grass will grow too tall to be palatable. Grass that’s eaten down to the dirt will take weeks to recover.
- It saves money for the farmer or homesteader. If you are better managing the pasture, you will ultimately be able to let the animals harvest their own dinner for a longer period of time. We usually don’t need to start feeding hay until around the first of November because we keep moving our goats and sheep to new areas.
- It’s healthier for the animals because they are leaving their poop behind them in the old pastures. This reduces parasite loads because by the time the worm eggs in the poop hatch and mature into infective larvae, the livestock have moved on, so they are not around to ingest new larvae on the pasture. Over the course of a few weeks, the larvae dry up and die without a host.
- It’s healthier for people who are eating the meat and drinking the milk. Grassfed meat and milk have higher levels of healthy omega-3 and lower levels of not-so-healthy omega-6. It also has 3-5 times more conjugated linoleic acid, which is another healthy fat.
How often do you move livestock to fresh pasture?
There are a couple of ways you can utilize rotational grazing, and the method you use will depend on the number of goats you have. If you only have 3-4 Nigerian dwarf goats, four livestock panels can be used to create a 16-foot by 16-foot pen that can be moved every day or two, depending upon how fast the goats eat the grass. This works well for goat keepers who have an acre or two.
For those with a larger herd and at least five acres, the grazing area is enclosed with a permanent perimeter fence, and temporary electric fencing is used to subdivide the large fenced pasture into smaller paddocks, through which the herd is rotated.
When do you move goats to fresh pasture?
Opinions vary widely on how often the goats need to be rotated to clean pasture, but it ultimately depends on the weather. Some say that for best parasite control, animals should graze an area only once per year. However, that’s not practical for many people, and it’s really not necessary. Larvae die by dehydration, so the less rain you have, the sooner the larvae die. If it rains daily, larvae can live for months. However, that also means the grass is growing really fast, so it should not be a challenge to keep goats on grass that’s a foot tall, which is way beyond where you find larvae.
The height of the grass plays a role in deciding when to rotate. Someone once said that goats should never eat below their knees. Technically, they are browsers, not grazers, and they prefer to eat shrubs and young trees rather than grass.
Because goats have gone through history not eating off the ground, their parasite resistance is not usually as strong as that of cows and sheep, who do eat off the ground. Goats really should not be eating grass down to the dirt.
A commonly encountered recommendation is to move goats to new pasture when the grass is about 6 inches tall. Larvae do not have legs, but they can float up on a blade of grass when it is wet. However, without a true means of movement, parasites don’t move very far up on the grass, which is why parasite problems are generally low when goats are consuming grass that is taller. It is a balancing act, though, because when grass gets too tall, it is not as tasty.
Rotational grazing allows you to graze other livestock on a piece of land. Because cows and horses prefer grass, and goats prefer bushes and small trees, and each species has different parasites, cows or horses can graze the paddock just vacated by the goats. When cows and horses consume goat worm larvae, their body digests them. This means you will be able to graze more animals on a piece of land than if you only had one species.
How do you move animals to new pastures?
You can’t create a door from your barn directly into each pasture, so how do you get your goats (or sheep) to the area where you want them to graze? We rotate our does all over our property, and sometimes that means walking down our driveway to the area that we have fenced in with ElectroNet across the yard from the barn.
If you only have a few goats, you could simply put a lead rope on them and walk them to their new area a few times. However, we have had as many as 22 adults and 60 kids to move, and it would take a long time to move them individually. So, what do we do?
- We start by putting a pan of alfalfa pellets and grain in the area where we want them to go.
- Then we put alfalfa pellets and grain into a feed pan or bucket, open the door to their stall, and hold the pan in front of them so a couple of them can get a bite or two.
- You walk slowly holding the pan of feed where they can see it, sometimes letting them take another bite or two, if you need to do that to keep them following you. If one is falling behind, you may have to leave it behind for now. If you try too hard to keep them all together, you risk having the ones in front eat everything in the pan before you get to your destination. Go ahead and take the ones who are following you and get them into the area where you have the pan of grain and alfalfa pellets waiting.
- Show them the pan(s) of feed sitting in the pasture, and they’ll start eating it while you go back with your pan of grain to get the other goat(s) that fell behind.
The young kids are the hardest. If we didn’t have so many, we’d just pick them up and carry them! But even the littlest kids get it figured out in 2 to 3 days, especially if they’re dam-raised because they learn to stick to their mom. Getting them back into the barn at night is much easier because they want to go into the barn at sundown. This is especially true if you have does in the group who’ve been living in the barn for a couple of years. They know where home is! If you try to do it much earlier than sundown, they won’t be as eager.
After doing this for 3 or 4 days, you won’t need to use the pan of feed to get them to follow you. They’ll know that there is a pan of feed waiting for them in the grazing/browsing area in the morning and in the barn at night. Don’t be tempted to stop leaving the feed in the pasture for them.
For the number of Nigerian dwarf goats we have, we put out three pans. If you have five or less goats, you can probably put out one pan of feed. The more goats you have, and the larger they are, the more pans of feed you need to have in the new area so that they will stay busy eating it until you get everyone in there.
What’s in the pans?
In each pan of grain, I put 5-6 cups of alfalfa pellets and 1 cup of goat feed, so the actual amount of grain that each goat is getting is almost nothing — 2-3 tablespoons. If your goats are not milking, you can use grass hay pellets, such as orchard grass or timothy pellets. They are made by the same company that makes the alfalfa pellets in our area.
If you don’t have a lot of goats or a long distance to go, or if you can run as fast as your goats, once they get the drill, you may not need to use much for hay pellets. I just use that much because I’m really slow, so that’s how much I need to have in the pan for them to still have their noses stuck in it by the time I get there to close the door of the barn stall or close the gap in the ElectroNet.
Also, be sure that they’ve had hay pellets before you try this. They will only follow you if they really want the food you have. That’s why I have to sprinkle some goat grain on top. Most goats are not immediately big fans of hay pellets. It takes time for them to start liking them, and some never seem to become fans. However, when there is competition for food, they are always more interested in it. So, they are more likely to want it if there are other goats around than if you simply offered it to them in a pan when they are alone.
Deborah Niemann is the author of Raising Goats Naturally: A Complete Guide to Milk, Meat, and More.
This article was originally published on October 2, 2013.
If your farm plans are bigger than your budget and you’re not even sure where to start, tune in to this enlightening podcast episode featuring Joshua Hammond, a public affairs specialist with the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), as he discusses some of the projects the government agency can help you with, including rotational grazing, fencing, and irrigation.
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