When it comes to designing Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) systems, every farm or ranch is different. Every producer has a different set of goals, challenges and resources to consider. There are two basic approaches to subdividing pastures for MiG fixed or flexible designs.
A fixed-cell system uses permanent fence and watering points to create the paddocks. When it comes to MiG systems, electric fences are the norm. Some large rangeland cells are still built using barbed wire, but most subdivision is done with electrified, hi-tensile fence.
For our purposes here, a permanent fence on moist ground is a single strand of 12½-ga., hi-tensile wire attached to solid-end assemblies and on lineposts wildlife can't knock the wire off of. On dry ground, we add a ground wire to make a two-wire fence. Properly built with the right materials, a one- or two-wire, hi-tensile electric fence will outlast five-strand barbwire.
Stock-water systems in fixed systems typically use buried pipelines and permanent stock tanks. Steel, concrete, fiberglass or tires may all be used as tanks in fixed systems. Basically, once the water is installed, it will always be at that location.
Once a fixed system is built, the number, size and shape of paddocks doesn't change. Fixed systems work particularly well on large operations where larger tanks may be needed to accommodate large numbers of animals. Moving cattle from one pasture to another may consist of nothing more than opening and closing an electrified single-wire gate.
If the facilities are built with high-quality materials, the maintenance and labor requirements for paddock shifts are minimal. Because the expensive aspects of electric fencing are the energizer, corners and gates, larger operations have more acres to spread these costs over. To illustrate that principle, consider this: Dividing 1,000 acres into 10, 100-acre paddocks take the same number of gates and corners as dividing 100 acres into 10, 10-acre paddocks.
Flexible systems use portable fence, and sometimes portable water facilities, to create multiple paddocks within a framework of permanent fence. Movable fences typically consist of polywire or polytape on easily rolled up reels and step-in posts. The poly-fences are used to create whatever size or shape paddock is needed at that particular time, while the permanent fences create one or more side of the paddock.
Stock-water sources may either be permanently installed or movable tanks. Permanent installations are more likely to be used in areas with moderate to severe winters, while movable water systems work much better in the South.
Flexible systems require more daily labor and maintenance but allow finer-tuned grazing management. Smaller operations can really keep their capital costs down using a flexible approach and minimizing heavy infrastructure investments.
The key to making flexible systems work well is the layout of permanent components. We try to design systems where portable-fence lengths are less than 600-ft. An experienced hand should be able to take down and put up a 600-ft. run of fence in less than 20 minutes.
Where we live, we manage flexible grazing cells on two center pivots, with one having 800-ft. runs, and the other 1,000-ft. runs. When we move cattle, it frequently takes longer to get to the pastures than actually make the moves.
The smaller pivot usually takes about 20 minutes, the larger pivot 30 minutes. That's running herds of 280 to more than 500 cow-calf pairs through 12 to 26 paddocks.
In well-designed MiG, cattle move effortlessly from one paddock to another. We have a few balks when the range cows first come into the system but they typically learn the ropes within 10-14 days.
Deciding what sort of system works best for you starts with your resources and operation goals. If you run a large operation strung out over several properties with limited labor, a fixed system may be your best choice.
If all your stock is close to home and you have labor available, consider the fine-tuning that can be accomplished with a flexible system. Well-designed flexible systems don't require much labor, but someone must move the fences and adjust water in a timely manner.
In either case, a poorly run grazing system is worse for the cattle and the land than just turning them out and doing nothing. There's a reason we call it “management-intensive” grazing.
Jim Gerrish is a grazing management consultant based in May, ID, and former lead pasture researcher at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus. Reach him at 208/876-4067, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.