Grazing, Recovery and Litter

Grass.  How much should the cows eat?  How much should they leave behind?  When can they go back?  And how does litter fit into the equation? They were last grazing this grass 51 days ago.  Look at all the seed heads.


I let them graze what they wanted and push the rest into litter moving quickly across the landscape.  Today they have returned.  My grazing strategy is largely the same.  The exception is I want a higher utilization of grass to stretch my grazing time longer than 51 days.  We have slowed down.


You hear grass gurus say, “Let the cows eat the top 1/3rd of the plant then move on.”  What does that mean?  Top 1/3rd?  The grass was about knee-high.  The cows ate some places down to the ground and didn’t touch other places.  They tromped huge amounts of grass into the soil and the ground by the water trough.  How do you measure the top third and convince the cows to graze more evenly?  “Excuse me, ladies.  If I could have everyone’s attention.  Please line up side by side with your heads down and walk slowly through the pasture eating just a portion of the grass in front of you, never returning for a second bite.  Then the grass in front is un-trampled and clean.  You will just have to eat whatever is there.  Please don’t be picky.  Thank you.”

Other gurus proclaim the virtues of leaving litter on the ground to feed the soil.  How much litter?  How much trampling?  How much manure?  Then they tell you not to graze again until the grass has recovered.  OK.  That’s not so bad.  But what does “recovery” look like?  A seed head?  I don’t get many seed heads in December but some of the forage still grows.  What then?  Today I listened to Episode 53 of the Agricultural Insights podcast.  This podcast featured discussion on the 1/3rd grazing, litter and grass recovery questions.  Turns out, I’m not alone in not understanding how to convince a cow to only eat so much plant.  Graeme Hand offered advice (and advises listeners not to take any advice!) on grazing against the top 1/3rd rule.  In short, grass wants to be grazed as that gives it a competitive advantage against weeds and brush and helps it to tiller out into the landscape.  By managing recovery and litter we are progressing more toward perennial grasses and low-risk profitability.  Basically there are a couple of things he wants you to look at but first a summary:

“There has to be a reason to put them in a paddock and there must be a reason to take them out. The reason to put them in is you’re going to make this pastoral grassland healthier by actually coming in there…it’s got good litter, all the plants are recovered… it’s got ground covers, understory, midstory and canopy so that it’s actually got structure, it’s actually got function and then there’s a really good reason to graze it because you’ll actually make it better.  Then you stay there until the animals are starting to say to you, ‘…where our rumens are at the moment and this feed you’ve given us, it’s time for us to move.”(@31:50)

Let’s break it down a little bit.

Has the grass recovered?  Does it look like it has been grazed previously with jagged edges at the top of the blades? (@27:30)  If so, recovery is incomplete.  Incomplete recovery will allow annual weeds to establish and limit the litter available to feed the soil.  This is incomplete (it was grazed at the end of June)


But this grass, last grazed on May 20 (51 days ago), is completely recovered.


Between the green growing grass and the brown litter you should see a layer of yellow grass that is being pushed down by the growing mass above.  We’re looking for fresh litter since the previous graze (@23:30).  That’s a sign of recovery.  Looking into this stand of grass…well, this laying down of grass…


We can find some fresh yellow.  We can also see that, though we have plenty of leaves, my plant density is poor.  I need more plants per square inch.  And more clover.  Well, maybe next year.


Earlier in the podcast Hand said, “If the land has got thistles and forbs and weeds it’s pretty clear that your recovery is too short.” (@15:40)

How do you know what the recovery period is on your land?

He suggests you set up trial areas.  You pack the cows in a test area at proper density and move them off when they are down to the litter.  Then allow that area to recover twice as long as your current rotation.  Maybe do this in a corner of a paddock.  If the rested ground looks better than your other pasture, you should be making adjustments.  Hand feels that the difference will be obvious.  The rested ground may be hard for him to look at because it has gone bad.

“A pasture is ready to be grazed when there is the right mix of feed and litter” (@18:20).  Litter is key. “If you want the land to be not eroding, if you want the land to be infiltrating water, if you want the land to be cyling nutrients…you need very large perennial grasses with decomposing litter between those perennial grasses….if you’re not creating that…then you’re actually not doing what we need to do to get that stable, low-cost, low-risk production.”(@21:25)


In the picture above, I have more grass here than I have ever seen before.  When we first moved here it was thorny, pioneer trees, thistle and ragweed.  There is still ragweed out there (along with Queen Anne’s Lace) but a variety of grass is coming on thick.  We are moving toward better water infiltration and nutrient cycling.  And check the sunflowers in the background!  They will be eaten or trampled this week.  Oh well.

How much should the cows eat?

Are the cows pushing litter into the ground?  When they are finished you should have a layer of litter covering the soil but the green should be gone.  Remember, we’re increasing stocking density (different than stocking rate) to achieve grass recovery, soil health and to propel desirable grass species forward.  The goal is to provide everything our cows need from a nutritional perspective by providing everything the grass needs from a nutritional and health perspective.  Doing this right puts dollars in our pockets and builds soil health over time.


More specifically, when is it time to move the cows?

Are the cows eating litter?  “You don’t want the animals eating the soil food.” (@18:30) Is their manure getting runny?  Are their rumens less than full?  Hand says, “We shift them …[when] about 10% of the cows are starting to show slightly hollow on that left hand side, on that gut fill.” (@31:00)


As long as they’ve got good gut fill, good dung scores and they’re not eating the litter he leaves them there.


The best thing he said (and this is a paraphrase of multiple quotes) was that incomplete recovery may push the cows to perform better but will, ultimately, bankrupt the operation by impoverishing the soil.  Second to that was his advice to test your own results, not listen to gurus.

BTW, I highly recommend the Agricultural Insights podcast.  Chris Stelzer is really putting together some good shows.  Unfortunately, my carpool doesn’t always want to hear about feeding grass to cows…or milk to dirt…or…

7 thoughts on “Grazing, Recovery and Litter

  1. Holy mackerel…this was an awesome post. Thank you for the pictures to go with all the info. I started listening to that podcast, got interrupted and never got back to it – in part because it’s so info dense and I have a hard time picturing what he’s talking about (not just him – any of the graziers), that it’s just depressing. My favourite bit of this post is the explanation of recovery – a question I’ve had for ages, and not had an answer for – till now.

    • Thanks. Keep in mind though that what I see in the Midwest is very different than you’ll see in the PNW and that is different than the brittle environments of the Southwest. But, where I am, this is what recovery looks like.

  2. Hey, Great looking site, thanks for recommending my podcast. You did a fantastic job in that blog post. The design of your site is also very nice, I’m jealous! Thanks for listening, I hope you like it.

    • Chris, your podcast has been a real blessing to us. You have no idea. There are several episodes that feature topics that are applicable far beyond livestock and Julie and I spend a lot of time discussing them. Keep it up.

      • That is very good to hear. I work hard to bring you all these podcasts, I’m glad you enjoy them and get use out of them! Thank you very much for listening. I also appreciate you helping spread the word about my podcast.

  3. It’s all about spreading the word. I really appreciate your transparency as you document your grazier experiences. It helps to see how another grass farmer is tackling the basic questions of how much should they eat, how much should they leave, when to move them, etc. Thank you. I am learning on the fly with my team and my grazing areas, and it is challenging to say the least. Remember the photo of me facing my mob on my header – your pep talk mentioned here was what I was giving them… ”Excuse me, ladies. If I could have everyone’s attention. Please line up side by side with your heads down and walk slowly through the pasture eating just a portion of the grass in front of you, never returning for a second bite. Then the grass in front is un-trampled and clean. You will just have to eat whatever is there. Please don’t be picky. Thank you.” My cows and I are learning, and hopefully improving our larder as we rotate through. Always good to hear what you are doing and learning as well.

    • I thought you were preaching a sermon. Or threatening them. Or both. You sure had their attention.

      The blog began as a way to communicate with customers and has evolved into part confession of my own ignorance and part giving back to a community of farmers who have taught me much. Still have a long way to go.

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