Grazing Management: Back to Basics

CANADA - Numerous definitions for grazing management exist but, basically, it is the manipulation of grazing animals to accomplish specific goals in relation to the plants, animals and economics involved in an operation.
calendar icon 8 March 2011
clock icon 3 minute read

The basic principles of grazing management are used to help design a grazing system that will control the timing, intensity and frequency of defoliation of the forage plants in pastures.

“Learning about the principles and science of grazing management and making a few small changes can quickly show producers how a little planning goes a long way in improving their bottom line,” says Stephanie Kosinski, forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.”

There are numerous benefits to grazing. Ruminants, such as cattle, sheep and goats, are designed to efficiently convert forage (the part of the vegetation available and acceptable for animal consumption) into a marketable product (meat).

“Grazing allows you to utilize an inexpensive feed source for a good part of the year to supply your herd/flock with the needed nutrients for growth and development,” says Ms Kosinski. “Grazing can create or maintain the biologic diversity of a pasture, increase carrying capacity and forage production, efficiently recycle nutrients (manure is deposited right where it is needed), and help maintain soil health. Perhaps the most important benefit of grazing is that it is relatively low cost, helping to improve the economic viability of your operation.”

There can be some disadvantages to grazing, but most can be effectively managed with good information and experience. There are fencing and water system costs when first setting up. Forage production on pastures will not be uniform from year to year, or even during the same year, and producers will have to learn how to manage this variability. Livestock are often selective when grazing. If not properly controlled, they will unevenly utilize the plants in your pastures, leading to a reduction in desirable species and an increase in weeds.

Not all grazing systems are created equal. That is why learning about grazing management is important. When it comes down to it, a successful grazing system should:

  • balance livestock numbers with forage supply;
  • uniformly distribute livestock over a pasture;
  • follow grazing periods with rest (to allow the plants to recover);
  • maintain a healthy plant community;
  • maintain healthy riparian areas and soils;
  • meet the needs of the animals;
  • maximise animal gain per acre;
  • be practical and reasonably simple to operate;
  • be flexible.

“To have a successful grazing management program you will need to take time to sit down and think about the best way to design your grazing system,” adds Ms Kosinski.

Steps to help with this process include:

  • set goals
  • inventory your forage resources
  • inventory your livestock resources
  • balance forage resources with your herd/flock’s nutritional needs for the grazing season
  • plan and be ready

“There are many different types of grazing systems that you can adopt,” says Ms Kosinski. “Do a little research on Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development’s website ( in order to find out more about these systems and see which makes the most sense for your operation.

“Remember, you want to graze at the right time (correct stage of plant growth), vary the grazing interval based on seasonal forage production, graze as evenly as possible, leave enough leaf material behind for regrowth, and allow the pastures to rest in between grazing periods.”

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