How to build a perfect paddock for grazing

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A paddock is a pasture used for grazing. How do you build a perfect paddock? Find out in this excerpt from The Independent Farmstead: Growing Soil, Biodiversity, and Nutrient-Dense Food with Grassfed Animals and Intensive Pasture Management by Shawn and Beth Dougherty. 


Elements of a Good Paddock

How to build a perfect paddock for grazing

A good paddock has five basic elements: grass, water, shelter (shade), minerals, and a charged fence. The first of these, grass, is the constant study of the grazier: it includes the species, consistency, and condition of the forage; its state of maturity; and the duration of the grazing period for a given paddock. Learning to judge these well is an ongoing education, but even in the early stages of acquirement, management-intensive grazing is a practice that can only improve your land. Which is to say: There is no such thing as bad rotational grazing; only good and better. It helps if we can keep this principle firmly in mind, especially in the beginning, when we don’t really know what we are doing.

The goal of the intensive grazier is to imitate the effect of large herds of feral herbivores on permanent grasslands. These animals migrated across rich and abundant savannah or prairie, grazing, trampling, and defecating, leaving behind them a heavy layer of litter and manure. Hence, the forage in a paddock to be grazed needs, first of all, to have good growth on it. You don’t want to begin your rotational grazing on a freshly cut lawn or field; it is necessary that the forage have sufficient height, such that, when the animal or animals in the paddock have full bellies, there is still plenty of plant material on the ground. This serves to protect the soil from erosion by wind or rain; to shade the ground to prevent moisture loss through evaporation—with subsequent overheating of the soil, killing soil microbes and sending plants into dormancy; and to provide organic matter for building topsoil.

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Remember, also, that leaves are your solar collectors, the dynamos that power the farm; the grazier wants to leave plenty of solar collectors for prompt and efficient regrowth.

Keep It Simple

This is one reason we try to build paddocks that are fairly consistent. This doesn’t mean that we don’t mix types of forage—native pastures are polycultures, after all—but we don’t include such widely varying topography in a single paddock that the area will be grazed inconsistently. An extreme example from our own farm would be a paddock including a weedy patch thick with blackberry canes (which we may be trying to suppress) with an area of rich clover; the grazing pattern you would expect to see in this case, of course, would be untouched canes and overgrazed legumes (if your animal is a cow), or browsed canes and untouched legumes (if you are grazing goats). The same advice holds true in the case of extremes of terrain: if we were to build a paddock in which were included an area of our deep grass bottomland with a section of the steep shoulder of the south hill, the animals could be expected to graze, lounge, and defecate in the level area that is easiest to access, while the hillside, in greater need of the remedial effects of grazing than the bottomland, would go untouched. The exception—there are always exceptions—is when we are grazing mixed species; in this case, we may include briars for the goats, browse for the sheep, grass for the cows. Our goal is to achieve consistent impact; keeping this in mind helps give direction to our forage decisions.

Take It or Leave It

How much to take and how much to leave is a matter as much of art as of science, a question answered differently by different graziers, and even by the same grazier at different times and places. Species of animals to be grazed; duration of grazing period; pasture composition; season; weather conditions past, present, and future—all of these go into the decision-making process when animals are grazed holistically. Nevertheless, improving land and building resilience through rotational grazing is possible even for graziers with no previous experience, even on a very small scale. Some basic rules of thumb are handed around the rotational grazing world:

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Take half, leave half. This should be self-explanatory; nevertheless, it takes some experience and attentiveness for the infant grazier to get a sense of what “half ” of an area of forage looks like. “Half ” is half by volume or mass, not half by height; keep in mind that pasture plants are denser closer to the ground. Also, ruminants are not lawn mowers; unless a paddock is so small the animals scalp it, preferred forages will always be grazed more closely than less favored species. Remember the goals: well-nourished animals leaving plenty of litter (and manure). Rough, trampled areas with manure piles every few feet is about right.

Sixty/thirty/ten. Percent, that is: 60 percent of the forage eaten, 30 percent trampled, 10 percent still standing. It takes a while to get where you can estimate the percent eaten—after all, that part is in the animals’ stomachs—but you get the hang of it. We use this one a lot.

Graze only the tops. This means more rotations during the growing season, less impact per rotation; or, in other words, bigger paddocks, shorter rests. The idea is to postpone the stage where grasses form seed heads and stop growing, keeping forage in a vegetative state for a longer graz- ing season.

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Duration of rest. This rule helps the grazier determine paddock size according to the period of time he intends to let pass before grazing this paddock again. The desired period for rest and regrowth varies for different times of the year and under different conditions. There are no really hard-and-fast rules, but some generalization is possible. In our area most graziers agree, for instance, that in the early spring animals should move rapidly over the pasture, leaving no hard grazing lines and hitting the whole area lightly over a period of two to three weeks. In early summer the rate of movement slows, and grazed paddocks are built smaller, increasing the time it takes to get around the farm to thirty, sixty, or even ninety or more days. In arid regions, a paddock may be grazed as seldom as twice in a year; sometimes not even so much.

Plant mass. Your local soil and water conserva- tion o ce may have available tools for helping the beginner to judge the mass—literally the weight and volume—of the forage available in a pasture. The grazing stick is marked on one side with a grid on which there are small dots in various numbers and arrangements. The tool is slipped into plant growth at ground level, and the grazier, standing upright, counts the number of dots visible through the foliage. With this number, and information printed on the remaining three sides of the forage stick relative to different types and seasons of pasture composition, it is possible to estimate the amount of forage standing. Further calculations relative to the number, ages, size, species, sex, and state of gestation or lactation of the animals to be grazed can give the grazier a ball-park idea of how to determine his paddock sizes and durations. This method has the advantage of lots of objective calculation, which may give the infant grazier confidence in his decisionmaking process. It is also (comparatively) lengthy, complicated, and (for people without essential math genius) fraught with possibilities for error. We own a grazing stick; we have never used it. If you don’t just love math, you can leave this tool alone.

Number of tillers and growth points. For the science lover. Your soil and water office will probably have literature available describing “optimum” grazing impact for various forage species in your area, or you can nd this information online.

Every plant eaten, stepped on, manured, or urinated on. Self-explanatory.

It will be seen from the above list (just a selection from almost unlimited possible systems) that while the goals remain the same—that is, increased solar energy capture, deepening topsoil, greater fertility, more and better food from the land—the means adopted can vary considerably. The multiplicity of approach might be intimidating, if we thought that for successful grazing we needed to understand all the possible intensive grazing methods so that we could be sure to apply the best one to our own homesteads at any given moment. A better view is that, with so many approaches to one goal, it is easier for the amateur to succeed, and harder for our efforts to produce negative results.

Modern technological and educational systems condition us to look for “right” answers and to expect consistent practices to produce consistent results, but you can forget the idea that there are hard-and-fast rules for best grazing—or for practically any other aspect of farming, either. It has been important in our own grazing efforts to realize that nature is not static. In a thousand years graziers will still be discussing what constitutes “best”; goals differ, and success is de ned in large part by desired output. For the smallholder, whose intention is to increase the fertility of his land and to build security and resilience into his food production system, the desired outputs are food and fertility, not cash ow; by this estimation, if we and our animals are eating, we ’re still in the game.


This tutorial “Elements of a Good Paddock,” is excerpted from The Independent Farmstead: Growing Soil, Biodiversity, and Nutrient-Dense Food with Grassfed Animals and Intensive Pasture Management by Shawn and Beth Dougherty. Reprinted with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.

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