Credit: The following method was developed from an interview with Jim Stone. Jim has spent 35 years as a journeyman mechanic and welder, but he’s always been a cattleman at heart. He studied agriculture at Olds College, honed his welding and heavy duty mechanic trades at SAIT, and even returned to Olds as a trades instructor, but always wanted to run cattle and eventually purchased a quarter section to pursue his dream.
After attending a Rotational Pasture Management School, Jim started practicing sustainable grazing management in order to get the most production he could from a small land base, while still sustaining the land and other resources.
After spending three years hauling fence post, untangling wire and running a maze of hoses from our barns to the field without a proper grazing system in place, there comes a time when moving cows under the moonlight isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. But our biggest challenge was knowing where and how to start. The good news is we talked with some of the mavericks of grazing systems, and now have a bulletproof method anyone can follow, to quickly get a solid plan in place.
This project will help you create a plan for a simple grazing system with a permanent, single strand electric perimeter fence, permanent single strand cross fencing, and a single strand alley system.
Materials and Tools
- 8 1/2”x11” Overhead Projector Sheets
- Permanent Marker (two colors)
- Red, Green, Blue and Black Dry Erase Markers
- Aerial Photo Expanded to 6-8 inches squared for quarter of land.
(You can find these at Fertilizer Dealers, Department of Ag or Google Earth)
- Graph paper
- Access to a Photocopier
Step 1 – Print or Photocopy an Aerial Photo of your land
If you already have an aerial photo of your land, try to enlarge it on a photocopier to fill as much of the page as possible. If you don’t have an aerial or satellite photo, you can usually find one at your local Fertilizer Dealer, Department of Ag or using Google Earth.Click here for a tutorial on how to print a satellite photo from Google Earth.
Step 2 – Draw perimeter fence onto a sheet of transparency film
Place a sheet of 8.5 x 11 transparency film over your aerial photo. Using a permanent marker, draw in the perimeter fence line. (Note: Your perimeter fence will always be energized, making it super easy to energize your cross fencing.)
Next, take a different colour of permanent marker to draw in all the objects that will not change, such as sloughs, creeks, dugouts, trees or special areas. These areas may still be grazed but require special management(Click here for further information on this topic from Cows and Fish). For instance, a wet area may need to wait until later in the fall to be grazed.
Step 3 – Set up a grid to measure areas of land
Place your transparency sheet with the perimeter fence marked on it, on top of a sheet of graph paper. (Click here to download free graph paper). Count how many squares of the graph paper are within your property line of your quarter section. In this case, the quarter section is 22 squares by 22 squares. Once you’ve counted up the squares inside the quarter section, simply divide the number of acres of land on the map by the number of squares you counted. So in this case, 160 acres divided by 484 squares = 0.33 acres per square.
22 x 22 = 484 squares
Total Area = 160 acres
One Square = 160 acres divided by 484 squares
One Square = 0.33 acres
Now you know how much land is in each square on the graph paper, and you can use that number to figure out the size of each paddock you draw on the map. All you do is count how many squares are in a paddock, and multiply that by the number you calculated (eg. 0.33 ) to see how many acres are in the paddock.
Step 4 – Plan your paddock sizes
Calculate how much area you will need in each paddock, given the number of cattle you want to graze and how often you want to move your cattle. Remember that as your grass improves, you can continue to add more animals per paddock to maintain the same number of days before you rotate. If you are new to the area you can always ask your neighbours about stocking density, or click here to learn more about calculating AUMs.
If you don’t understand AUMs or don’t have a baseline for how many cattle your land can hold, we strongly recommend using portable cross fencing for at least the first year, (using the 3 wire rotation method).
Step 5 – Draw in the paddocks and alleys
Using dry erase markers, start to draw in paddocks. Look for areas of equal productivity. For instance the face of the hills may need more acres of land to hold the cattle on for the same amount of time as the flat land. Paddock sizes do not have to all be square, random shapes will need to be used in case of wetlands, along creeks and for other unusual land shapes. Mark all cross fences and single wired fences in the same color.
Alleys help you connect all paddocks and should provide access back to a homestead or location where you can treat a sick animal. For a typical quarter section, it works well to have one straight alley down the middle of the quarter, with paddocks on both sides of the alley.
Tip: Choose a dry area, keep the alleys on high ground.
By building your gates the same width as your alleys, you can limit cattle access to only parts of the alley where they need to travel, resulting in very little damage from animal traffic.
Tip: A good rule of thumb is that for 50 cows, the average alley should be 10 meters wide. For every additional 50 cows, three meters in width should be added. Also consider the size of machinery you will want to be taking in.
Step 6 – Mark watering sites and/or water lines
Mark your water lines or sources in blue. When locating a watering site, the ground must be solid. It costs too much to make a muddy hole stable.
If good water sources and pressure system is available, a pipeline is probably best for suplying a water trough. To check out other water systems click here.
Step 7 – Mark the location of gates
Choose locations for your gates. Gates should be on all four corners of where the paddocks meet. Gate size should be equal to alley width which will allow you to close off the alley when necessary.
Gate location has a lot to do with cow’s sense. For instance, which way cows will want to go to water. If you have a square paddock adjoining an alley, you will need a gate in both corners of the paddock to allow cows to get in and out in both directions. Cows will stand in a corner for days rather than go around and come back up an alley to get water or go to the next paddock.
More gates is more convenient than fewer when moving cattle.
Plans are a work in progress. You can change and adapt them easily as you need to. Once you have your plans remember to check out our fencing and water DIY workshops to see how to most effectively and cheaply install your new system.