Grassroots of Grazing: Flexible grazing cells work almost anywhere

by Jim Gerrish

We use two basic grazing cell designs in our grazing management efforts all around the globe. The fixed design is the one most people are familiar with. This is where individual paddocks are created with permanent fences and water troughs or drinkers are installed in permanent locations. The paddock size is ‘fixed’ as are the fence and water locations. The alternative approach is the ‘flexible’ design which uses movable fences and water tanks within a framework of permanent fences. We are increasingly using flexible designs in much larger applications and on much more diverse landscapes.

Cattle graze behind a 4-strand electric fence.

When I use the term ‘permanent fence’, I am still referring to electrified hi-tensile fencing. With all classes of cattle, either a single wire or two-wire permanent fence is all we typically use. With sheep or goats, the fence may be three or more wires. Rarely do we ever use a barb-wire fence in any application. Perimeter fences for sheep and goats may still be woven-wire to keep those wily rascals on the property.

Flexible grazing cells generally consist of a series of long narrow pastures that we describe as ‘grazing corridors’. The grazing corridors are further subdivided using movable electric fences. The fences can be placed anywhere within the corridor to create paddocks of varying sizes. We are using ‘flexible’ fences to create ‘flexible’ sized paddocks so that we have ‘flexible’ management.

We like to place the permanent corridor fences as near to parallel as possible to make distance of portable fences used fairly similar and keep those distances to comfortable working lengths. A common example would be a quarter-section of land which is a square 160 acres divided into four 40-acre strips. Each strip is 660 ft wide and a half-mile long. In this case the corridors are obviously rectangular. Another example is a standard quarter-section center pivot set up with a near-circular fence located half way between the pivot center and the outer reach of the sprinklers. In this case we have two corridors, also 660 ft wide. They just happen to be round rather than rectangular.

For corridors less than 66o ft wide, we can either use full-size geared reels or the so-called ‘mini- reels’ that comfortably hold up to 660-ft of polywire. For corridors in the 660 to 1320 ft width, we generally use a standard geared reel holding up to 1320 ft of good quality braided polywire. These are the type of flexible grazing cells we have worked with for many years.

As the interest in high stock density grazing on rangeland has increased, so has the use of flexible grazing cells on much larger scale landscapes. In some parts of the US and Canada, ranchers speak of how many sections or how many quarters they are grazing. It wasn’t very many years ago that the idea of using polywire to manage a 10-section ranch (6400 acres) was almost unthinkable.

Thanks to grazier innovation and expanding opportunities with mechanized retrieval and dispersal systems, we see larger and larger landscapes being managed with movable polywire fencing. I recently saw an ATV-towable cart for dispensing and retrieving polywire fencing on a large ranch in Alberta. This unit allows a rancher to put up one mile of portable fence in as little as an hour. The

fence can be reeled up and posts retrieved in an hour also. Suddenly the idea of going out and splitting a one-section pasture into four paddocks for more effective grazing is no longer a daunting task. Ten sections can easily become 40 or more paddocks.

For sheep and goats, many graziers still prefer using electric netting rather than multi-strand polywire or tape fences. To accommodate flexible use of netting in flexible grazing cells, we generally use three-strand fences for the corridor boundaries and place them a distances that are incremental to the netting rolls. For example, if you were using the 164 ft (50 meters) rolls, we would set our corridor fences at 160, 320, or 480 ft. Generally we limit a corridor to no more than three rolls wide. If corridors need to be any wider than that, maybe you should reconsider using multi-reels of polywire.

I might also report I am meeting more and more graziers who are using just a single strand of polywire to control sheep or goats. Train the critters well in a corral, keep the power level high, and don’t let them get hungry. Those are the keys to successfully working small ruminants with just one wire.

The grazing cell also needs to accommodate portable stock water as well as portable fence. Our most common stock water strategy is placing a pipeline along every other fence line to allow access from the corridor on either side of the fence. We try, as much as possible, to design systems with pairs of corridors rather than having an odd number. Odd number of corridors leads to a higher investment cost per acre served.

Pipelines may be installed either above or below ground depending on climate, season of use, and water source. In the North pipelines are buried to prevent freezing while in the South they may be buried to keep water cooler. We install various types of quick-attach water access vales all along the pipelines to accommodate movable water troughs. Usually we also put in a few strategically located year-around drinking points.

In a strictly seasonal grazing operation, burying lines isn’t really necessary even in extremely cold climates. Using burst-resistant HDPE (high-density polyethylene) pipe instead of PVC almost eliminates the threat of broken pipelines, other than at weak fittings. Draining the pipe at the end of the grazing season protects fittings as well. Many outfits in the North use this policy to avoid the costly burial of pipelines to 6-8 ft necessary to get it below the frost line.

If abundant spring or lake water is available, running a continuous flow of water through the pipeline will prevent freezing even at very cold winter temperatures. You just need to make sure the system doesn’t get plugged up.

If you have wondered how large of a property you can manage with a flexible grazing cell, the answer is probably much larger than you ever thought. Proper layout of the permanent fence and stock water infrastructure and using the right portable tools allows more effective management of ranches measured in tens of thousands of acres.

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.