Rotational Grazing Cattle on Small Acreage

Rotational grazing is a common tool used to effectively manage livestock forage. It is highly recommended for both new entrants as well as established commercial farmers because it allows for greater stoking density thereby achieving high production rate on small acreage. Rotational grazing cattle on small acreage calls for the usage of one portion of pasture, commonly referred to as paddocks while the remainder of the land is allowed time to rest. The result is a better managed pasture with improved quality and greater grass yields. Note that for rotational grazing cattle on small acreage to be a success, the timing of rotations must be adjusted to the growth stage of the forage. Since most farmers are faced with a challenge of providing adequate pasture to animals, rotational grazing proves to be a much needed solution. This grazing method requires skilful decisions and close monitoring of its consequences.

Table of Contents

Layout and Design of the Grazing Area

Rotational grazing on small acreage should be properly managed as to ensure adequate resting periods as well as sufficient feed for animals. Developing areas for rotational grazing on small acreage involves subdividing the entire pasture land into smaller pastures or paddocks that allow control over the grazing process. Note that every farm is unique therefore there is no blueprint provided for the design and layout of the grazing area. However, the size of the land should always meet the nutritional needs of the cattle. Layout and design of the grazing land will in turn determine the entire grazing process hence the need to do it right. According to research, laying out or designing a pasture system involves many decisions including the number of paddocks the area can allow, their size, location of water sources, lane placement as well as livestock flow around working facilities.

A good rotational grazing system begins with a forage system that allows the maximum number of grazing days per year with forages that are suited to the land, livestock the farmer’s abilities as well as objectives. Forage can be divided into two categories: cool-season and warm-season species, which differ in their seasonal ability to produce good quality yield. In order to come up with a feasible layout and design of the grazing system, an aerial photo of the land should be availed. The property line, buildings, roads, livestock-working areas, milk parlours, other permanent facilities, and existing water and shade are marked. The farm must then be divided along existing water sources. The completed map should:

  • be a basic grazing system with water in each field
  • be divided based on productivity
  • have enough fields to begin rotational grazing

Shape of the Paddock

The shape of the paddock is usually an overlooked aspect; it is however important as it determines the usage of the forage. According to research studies on rotational grazing cattle on small acreage, square paddocks are the most efficient compared to other shapes such as rectangle, triangle and pie. Square paddocks are said to allow animals to obtain their daily ration of forages with minimum grazing time, effort and trampling damage. In addition, square paddocks are easier and more economical to construct thus save farmers a significant amount of money. Also, water should be availed to animals at all times. It must ideally be situated so that cows are no more than 800 feet away at any time. With careful planning, water sources can supply water to multiple paddocks at the same time


Fences are an essential part of rotational grazing systems. They are used to divide land in order to create paddocks. Fencing also helps to keep animals grazing within a specific paddock at specific times of the year. Fences can be permanent, temporary or a mix of the two.  Experts state that permanent page-wire, barb-wire, or high-tensile electric fences can be used around the exterior of the property and temporary poly-wire fences can be used to subdivide fields into smaller paddocks. It is advisable for beginners to make use of temporary fencing because it allows paddock size modification as farmers learn the exact sizes and layouts that work best for their farms. Permanent fencing should only be used after being certain on the layout as well as the design of the rotational grazing area. It is also advisable to fence across the slope rather than up and down the slope.

Number of Paddocks

The common challenge experienced by farmers in establishing rotational grazing systems, particularly on small acreage is the size and number of paddocks. It is important to note that this generally depends on the size of the acreage. Various agricultural research studies indicate that it is safe to start with 5 to 10 paddocks which allow a paddock to be grazed for 7 days and rested for 25 to 30 days. For much smaller acreage, 4 paddocks should be considered a minimum. Some farmers have as many as 30 to 60 paddocks though this is often the case in larger areas of land. Keep in mind that the added benefit of paddocks that are over 8 to 12 may not be worth the additional cost of fencing, water, labour and management. It is therefore recommended to keep the number of paddocks at average to minimum.

Stocking Density

Stocking density is basically the number on livestock per acre on a grazing area. It is formally used to describe the number of livestock per unit area in a high-density grazing situation. Farmers should be aware that stoking density in rotational grazing is dependent on the objective of the procedure as well as the available resources. Variables such as season of application, management issue being addressed, long-term objective, type of soils and forages, terrain, herd size and weight also impact the number of cattle per unit area. Research points out that rotational grazing cattle on small acreage does not provide animals with much unit space in comparison to grazing on a large acreage. 50 acre pastures can be divided into 10 acre paddocks to allow stocking density of 5 cows per acre. To arrive at this decision, the number of cows is divided by paddock acreage. As the paddock size becomes smaller, grazing periods are shortened. Cows have to be rotated more often depending on the availability of fresh forage.

Rotating Livestock

Movement of livestock is a critical factor when practising rotational grazing cattle on small acreage. As implied earlier on, it is of the essence in efficient pasture and animal management, particularly when maximising pasture utilisation and livestock performance. There are a number of considerations made in order to determine periods of moving cows from one paddock to the next. An important point to note is that more paddocks mean limited grazing time hence pasture is allowed time to flourish for the next grazing period. Keep in mind that too many paddocks are not advisable as they offer little benefits. According to research on the subject matter, cows on rotational grazing are moved either on the basis of:

  • time – for instance, the four paddock system is often characterised by two weeks grazing followed by six weeks rest
  • variable recovery time – that is plants are given sufficient time to recover, the length of which varies depending on their growth rate
  • feed on offer – an example could be deferring grazing until feed on offer reaches 1400kg dry matter per hectare to allow plants an opportunity to grow sufficient leaf to drive plant growth before grazing
  • animal intake – one goal could be to maintain maximum intake, hence live weight gain by moving livestock once the feed on offer falls below 2000 to 2500kg dry matter per hectare to a paddock with greater feed on offer


Forage provides a significant part of cattle dietary plans. As such, shortage is supplemented by purchased hay and grass that can sometimes be expensive, especially during dry periods. Rotational grazing cattle on small acreage is therefore of the essence as it allows farmers to properly manage grazing areas thereby cutting costs spent on supplementary forage. It eliminates continuous grazing that negatively impacts on forage quality which directly translates to animal health, productivity and profitability. Rotational grazing can be practised in a variety of intensities. Systems can range from 2 to 30 or more paddocks depending on the available grazing area as well as animal maturity. Lactating and adult cattle require more fed in comparison to growing cows. If carried out appropriately, high quality forages can be availed even during dry periods.