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Grazing systems in grassland management

Grazing systems used by farmers vary widely in the degree of control which they afford the farmer in the management of his grassland, but all are designed to help match the nutritional demands of the livestock with the supply of forage. We can broadly define three main types of grazing system although in practice there are many variations around each. These grazing systems which are known as "set stocking", "paddock grazing" and "strip grazing".

set stocking in an upland environmentSet stocking, or continuous stocking is the simplest form of grazing management. It occurs when a group of stock have access to just one area of grassland for the whole season and in a pure sense is only found in extensive grazing systems, such as are found in the uplands. Under set stocking conditions some grass growth in the spring will become mature and be wasted, however the less intense pressure from livestock reduces poaching damage over the area as a whole.

beef cattle set stockingSet stocking has a number of particular advantages. Fencing and water troughs can be kept to a minimum and the continuous general nature of the grazing encourages a close dense sward that is usually rich in clover. Set stocking is often practices in a modified way with beef, dairy and sheep systems utilising a few large blocks of pasture on a farm.

paddock grazingPaddock grazing is a system of grazing management where livestock are grazed on a rotational basis within a large number of paddocks. Typically a paddock may be utilised for just a single day before the stock are moved on. Paddock grazing systems are sometime called rotational grazing systems.

water suppliesPaddock grazing is a more intensive management systems and requires higher capital costs in fencing, water supply infrastructure and access routes. Paddock grazing is often carried out on a 20-30 day cycle and allows the farmer to more accurately match the nutritional demands of the livestock with the availability of forage. Paddock grazing also ensures that stock do not regraze the same area of land on a day by day basis and this can help reduce the parasitic worm burden that livestock can suffer from. Paddock grazing offers an additional advantage in the management of the grassland on a farm in that it is possible for the farmer to allocate relatively small areas of grass for conservation (ie silage of hay) where grass growth has exceeded livestock requirements.

electric fence to control strip grazingStrip grazing is a grazing management system that involves giving the livestock a fresh allocation of pasture each day. It is usually organised within a paddock grazing system and the animals are controlled by the use of an electric fence.

dairy cows grazingStrip grazing systems are often employed where there is a significant excess of forage early in the season and where providing the livestock with access to a larger area would result in waste - for example through trampling or spoiling by dung. Strip grazing systems are widely used in the dairy sector and for beef and sheep where these animals are being provided with root crops as their primary forage.

beef cattleIn practice grazing management systems tend to be dependant upon the overall intensity of the livestock system itself. An intensive dairy unit may operate with a mix of paddock and strip grazing whilst an upland sheep flock may have access to a few paddocks but largely graze on a set stocking basis. However, if all other things are equal the difference in output of grass amongst differing grazing systems will relatively small - nature is curiously balanced!.

Statistics for Grassland in the UK

Grassland in the UK
Grass <5 years
(000 hectares)
1 226 1 205 1 243 1 200 1 246 1 193 1 137 1 176 1 141 1 241 1 232
Grass >5 years
(000 hectares)
5 363 5 584 5 519 5 683 5 620 5 711 5 967 5 965 6 036 5 865 5 925