How to Manage Pastures Using Rotational or Management Intensive Grazing

Six Parts:Choosing the Managed Intensive Grazing ApproachPlanning the Pastures and Moving AreasPlanning the Watering LocationsStocking the PasturesGrazing and RotatingKeeping the Pastures Healthy

Managed Intensive Grazing (MIG) is known by several names, including Intensive Cell grazing, Rotational Grazing, Mob Grazing, and High-Density Grazing. It is a grazing practice that is quickly gaining popularity in the grass-fed, naturally-raised livestock sector of raising livestock, primarily with cattle, but also with sheep, goats, chickens, and even horses. Utilizing such a grazing practice for your pastures involves a lot of planning and management on your part. It's not as easy as simply planting temporary electric fence posts and stringing up wires, then letting your animals out to graze. You will need to analyze your soil, grass, and animals in order to be successful in maintaining such a grazing practice and using it to improve the land. In order to do that, read the steps that follow to help manage your pastures using MIG.

Part 1
Choosing the Managed Intensive Grazing Approach

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    Decide what type of managed intensive-grazing you are going to do. If this is the first time you are attempting MIG (probably why you are reading this article), you have several types of MIG grazing to choose from:
    • High-density low-frequency grazing: This is also referred to as "mob-grazing" where a large herd of animals is set to graze a paddock, removing around 60 to 70% forage mass then moved on to the next paddock. The return rate for this type of grazing is low, where livestock will often only be allowed to return to it at a maximum of only two or three times a year or per grazing season, one to two being most common.
    • Low-density high-frequency grazing where a large group of animals are only allowed to have one bite per plant and nothing more. The come-back rate is much higher, where the herd is allowed to come back to the paddocks almost every one to two months per year or grazing season.
    • Intensive cell grazing or rotational cell grazing where the paddocks within a pasture are permanent and livestock movement is allocated by forage yield (amount of dry matter forage per unit land area at a point in time) present per cell which determines how many days or hours a herd of livestock spends in that cell.
    • Strip grazing, where a strip of land is sectioned off by temporary electric fencing and how large the strip that is allocated to your herd of livestock depends on how long you want them to graze for. In other words, the size of the cells you are grazing your animals in are always subject to change throughout the grazing season.

Part 2
Planning the Pastures and Moving Areas

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    Plan your pastures, paddocks, or cells and lanes and direction of movement on paper. Plan to keep your rotations from one pasture to another as smooth as possible without having your livestock going back to the previous paddocks or cells that were grazed less than 30 to 35 days ago.
    • You may have to consider creating new pastures by dividing up a current large one into smaller blocks. It is not uncommon for a quarter section (a 160-acre piece of land) to have over ten pastures and many more paddocks to rotate your livestock in, for example.
    • There is also the option of taking out existing internal fence-lines and building new, different ones if the current pasturing systems do not work or do not operate as smoothly as you would like them to. This is especially true if you are having trouble preventing livestock from going back to the pasture that they had previously grazed and getting them focused on grazing the one they were just moved onto. Issues that cause this could be due to lack of planning out proper fence-lines or improper positioning of water and/or mineral sources.
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    Consider the usefulness or otherwise of lanes. Though lanes are highly useful in moving livestock from one paddock to another and as a route to permanent water sources, they are often seen as a negative source of impact as well. This is because they see a lot of traffic and are areas that may easily get overgrazed or the vegetation gets decimated to the point where the lanes become dust/mud bowls from excessive hoof traffic. That said, despite the negative views, lanes can be a necessary evil, especially if the "sacrifice" area you keep your animals or for any other reason is at a corner of your plot of land and not in the middle.
    • Make sure your direction of movement is so that you are not going to be going back to one area that has previously been grazed. You may also wish to have a pasture or two to be fallowed or rested for an entire year while other pastures get used.

Part 3
Planning the Watering Locations

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    Plan what kind of watering locations and types of sources you wish to use. There are many more methods of watering rotationally-grazed livestock than you can shake a stick at, from building a turkey-nest watering source, to automatic waterers with a well sunk in nearby.
    • How to get water from a dugout to a water trough (this is much more highly recommended than having livestock like cattle drink from the dugout itself, which equals water pollution and thusly unhealthy animals) ranges from gravity-fed systems, solar-powered pumps to the "unsustainable" gas-powered water pumps. Whatever route you choose to go depends on the terrain you are grazing your animals in and what works best for you.
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    Locate watering locations so that the animals are not going to make it into a high-traffic area, or create more negative impact to your land than you intend. As such, it is best to possibly make plans for more than one watering source. This way, when you are moving from one grazing location to another, particularly when the grazing locations are from one pasture to another (not from paddock to paddock within a pasture), you can switch the locations that the animals will go to water to give one location a rest over the other.
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    Determine whether the water source will be permanent or temporary. The types of watering facilities you can use depend on whether you want them as a permanent source or not, pumped from a dugout, or piped underground to an automatic waterer. More on this will be covered in the steps below.

Part 4
Stocking the Pastures

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    Calculate the number of livestock you will need to make this operation successful. Do not use the calculations for measuring the stocking rates for your pastures because you will end up with less animals than what can be used for intensive grazing purposes. Instead, utilize the stocking density calculation, which is based on the number of animals in a defined unit of area during a defined period of time. For this calculation, you may need to know the forage mass (in lb/acre or kg/hectare) of your pastures.
    • The number of livestock to graze depends on their average size. It will take less animals to graze one unit area of land if they're big (i.e., over 1500 lbs), than if they were smaller (such as around 600 lbs as weaned calves or large sheep).
    • Estimate that, in excellent grazing conditions with plenty of forage matter, you may be able to stock possibly a fraction more than one animal unit (1 x 1000 lb cow with or without a calf) per acre. Some people can get away with stocking with at least 2 AU/acre in a managed intensive grazing scenario per day.
    • Do not estimate your numbers. You must do the math yourself to know how much your pastures can hold without undergrazing or overgrazing plant life.
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    Do calculations on stocking density on a regular basis throughout the grazing season to keep within optimum conditions. Setting and relying on just one number throughout the grazing season can get you into a lot of trouble. Grazing conditions and forage mass change throughout the season, so you must manage your livestock accordingly.

Part 5
Grazing and Rotating

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    Get everything set up and start grazing. This means getting your fences set up, livestock purchased, and the time of year right to start doing some MIG. When you decide to grazing (particularly in the spring) is a choice you must make between maintaining enough growing plant material in the pasture to promote rapid regrowth from healthy plants and keeping forage growth from out-pacing your livestock. Depending on the species of grasses you are grazing, begin grazing according to the optimum plant heights for those grasses in your pastures.
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    Rotate the animals on a regular basis. Most livestock species like routines, so if you are going to be changing paddocks on a regular basis, try to stick to a particular time to change them, if it's possible, especially if you are wanting to stick with moving them once every 24 hours.
    • You do have the option to rotate animals much sooner, as in once every two to four hours each time. The choice to exercise this option depends on paddock size, the size of the herd and growing conditions. However, this probably is not a viable option if you have an off-farm job where you cannot be around all day to change paddocks every few hours.
    • You also have the option to set your animals to graze a paddock for several days at a time, depending on the time you have or cannot have to change pastures.
      • Note that the size of paddocks needs to be much greater if you're grazing the same number of animals every few days compared to every few hours.
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    Allocate significant rest/recovery periods. At least 30 days must be allocated for all pastures and paddocks that have been grazed. This allows grass time to recover and come back, ready for the next grazing session. More time of rest is needed when pastures are experiencing slower growth than during times of the year when growth is very fast.

Part 6
Keeping the Pastures Healthy

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    Test your soil regularly. Annual soil tests will indicate what fertilizer must be spread on the land and what mineral supplements need to be provided to your animals on a regular basis. It will also show you if you are making any progress on improving the land or if some part of your grazing plan needs to be adjusted.
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    Keep an eye on the grass. Quite often grazers choose to rotate their livestock based on the quality and quantity of the grass. There should be a lot of of litter left when the switch is made. Don't switch when there's almost nothing left, as that can be termed "overgrazing." There should be at least four inches/10 centimeter (3.9 in) of forage left when it's time to switch paddocks for high-density-low-frequency grazing management. For low-density-high-frequency grazing, there should be a lot more than four inches/10 centimeter (3.9 in) left; there should be enough litter left that it looks like the animals took only one bite of matter then moved on.
    • Graze and move livestock quickly during the growing periods, slow when growth is slow. This is because grass has a very fast recovery period during growth times. In order to utilize the quick recovery period, livestock must be moved between grazing areas more frequently.
    • This will also prevent "pugging" of the soil during wet periods, which is when animals' hooves will not stay on top of the soil. During wet periods, livestock, especially large animals like cattle and horses, need to be either rotated very quickly or placed in a sacrifice area and fed hay until conditions improve for regular grazing to commence.
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    Consider mowing or haying some pastures. You may want to consider the option of mowing or using some pastures for hay production if your animals cannot keep on top of the rapid growth of grasses or if you don't have enough animals to keep ahead of spring growth forage quality. Though haying may compromise the nutrient or organic matter value of the pasture (since you are removing plants from the field to store for feed for your animals), it is a viable option to utilize should you come across periods where you may have to remove cattle from pasture during times of extreme wet or drought, or have times during the winter when grazing is not feasible.
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    Take advantage of various systems to rid of fecal content on pasture. This is especially an issue with cattle and horses. Various options include and are not limited to: dung beetles, harrowing, or rotationally grazing chickens after cattle have grazed a pasture so they can scratch through the dung piles and spread them around naturally. Note the advantages and disadvantages of each depending on your resources, location, and how beneficial they can be for your farm.
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    Check and repair fences regularly. Like with any pasture system, it is your responsibility to make sure that all wires, posts, and such are in good repair. If not, they need to be fixed as soon as possible.
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    Repeat all or most of the above next year. New grazing plans, possibly new paddock arrangements can be done over winter, and all the testing, managing, and watching will be done next grazing season. It is a good time to take what experiences you've gained, the mistakes you've made, and the lessons learned, and make use of them for the next year and the year after that. You may also want to research some other options available for your MIG system, such as different mixed grazing options, grazing in forested areas, or winter grazing practices such as stockpile grazing, and thinking about utilizing them for subsequent years.


  • Use your grass and your animals as indicators when it's time to switch pastures. Time is a useful tool, but only so useful. Your animals are the best gauge to go by to determine if it's time to switch now or not. If your animals are up at the fence and making noise at you (mooing, bleating, whinnying, etc) that means they're hungry and it's time to switch. If they're not paying much attention to you, then it's not time to switch yet.
  • Not all areas in the world are ideal for rotational grazing. For instance, most of Northern California doesn't receive enough rainfall for managed intensive grazing to be useful in comparison to that of North Carolina.
  • Soil testing is a must-have to test the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus , calcium, and organic matter in your soil. Know what levels of nutrients are considered optimal for your area, and use that soil test to decide whether fertilizing and/or supplementation is necessary for your animals.
  • Your animals should always have access to a mineral tub or block; best is a trace-mineral one or a mineral feeder with loose mineral in it. The biggest concerns arise when they may need to be supplemented with protein or a phosphorus-to-calcium ratio type of supplement. Get into the habit of moving the mineral block at the same time you move the cattle, or have a suitable plan in place for allowing access to it regularly.
  • Each livestock species grazes differently. For instance, horses and sheep tend to graze closer to the ground than cattle do, and will go back to their favorite spots more often.
  • Know the grasses that grow in your pastures. This way you can better manage when it's optimal to begin grazing and end grazing.
  • Livestock unfamiliar to rotational grazing will need to be first trained to the hot-wire and become familiar with you; they can't be ones to run away as soon as you get within sight, smell or hearing range of them. This is a concern for horses and cattle. Cattle which display this type of behavior should not be used in such grazing systems; only calm, docile cattle are best for these systems. Same thing goes with horses, sheep, and goats.


  • Never use just any cattle for these systems. Calm, docile cattle are best because they are easy to handle and are less likely to injure themselves or you when being moved to fresh grazing grounds.
  • Hot-wire fences are just that: hot! Be careful when moving or repairing such fences; they can give a sharp zap if you are not careful.

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