Cortland SWCD

Office Hours:
M-F 8:00 am - 4:30 pm

100 Grange Place
Cortland, NY 13045
Fax: 607-756-0029



Established on May 1, 1946 to promote the conservation and wise use of our county's natural resources


What is Prescribed Grazing?

Prescribed Grazing Management (PGM) is defined by Darrell Emmick, NRCS NYS Grazing Land Management Specialist, as "the controlled harvest of vegetation with grazing or browsing animals managed with the intent to achieve a specified objective". Rotational grazing is a type of prescribed grazing.

What is Rotational Grazing?

Rotational grazing is a common type of Prescribed Grazing Management (PGM). Rotational grazing provides economic, environmental and social benefits for the farmer and the community. In rotational grazing, the pasture is sub-divided into multiple smaller paddocks and the animals graze the paddocks on a rotating basis. This allows the grass to recover and re-grow while the paddock is being rested and encourages the animals to uniformly graze the paddock they are currently in. 

Rotational grazing lowers feed, fuel, equipment and veterinary costs for the farmer. Rotated pastures protect soil from erosion and increase soil health. Pollutants from manure and chemicals are filtered from precipitation runoff and kept from entering streams and water bodies. The idyllic scenes of grazing animals increase appreciation of agriculture by the non-farming community.

In rotational grazing, the objective is to provide ample forage in the most nutritious vegetative state for the number and type of animals while safeguarding the pasture from overgrazing. Overgrazing can indicate that the pasture is too small or too large for the number of animals. While it is apparent that a pasture that is too small might become overgrazed, why would a large pasture become overgrazed? It is because the animals cannot graze the entire pasture evenly and some areas become over-grown and unpalatable, this then concentrates the grazing to areas previously grazed which can become overgrazed. The important components of a successful grazing system that both prevents overgrazing and provides the animals with ample nutritious forage are: proper paddock sizing, correct residency period, pasture height management and infrastructure such as a water system, fencing and stream crossings.

Rotational Grazing for Dairy Herds

Rotational grazing works well with dairy herds of all sizes. 

It lowers feed costs and improves animal health and improves farm income. Lactating cows are receive the greatest nutritional benefits when they are moved to a new paddock after each milking. Fresh clean grass encourages greater forage consumption and therefore greater milk production. Dairy herds usually require 31 paddocks that are sized to provide one days worth of forage for the herd. Water systems that provide each paddock with fresh clean water are important for dairy systems. Laneways are also important for dairy systems so that cattle can be moved efficiently from pasture to barn for milking. Click here for details.

Rotational Grazing for Beef Herds

Beef herds benefit from rotational grazing by being able to graze the available forage more evenly and with less wastage. Rotation and grazing evenly encourages forage re-growth and inhibits weed growth. Beef herds can remain in the same paddock for 3 to 7 days, therefore individual paddock size is larger, while fewer paddocks are needed. Click here for a sample beef system layout.

Rotational Grazing for Horses

Horses can be hard on pasture plants. Rotational grazing is a good way of trying to reduce the damage done to pasture plants by allowing a rest and re-growth period when they are not subjected to the battering of horses teeth and hooves. A healthy horse pasture can provide the horse with ample nutrition along with fresh air, exercise, stress reduction and less MUD! Horse systems usually have one or more sacrifice paddocks in which the horses are turned out when conditions are unfavorable in the grazing paddocks.

Rotational Grazing for Sheep

Rotational grazing is very popular for sheep farms. The layouts and paddock residency times are similar to beef, or for milking sheep, the layouts and residency are similar to dairy cows. 

SWCD Technical Assistance

SWCD provides free technical assistance to any county resident interested in do rotational grazing. We develop a customized Grazing Plan for your farm. In the plan we determine the proper paddock size and system layout based on the number and type of livestock, soils and pasture plants. We include information on managing the grazing system, types of fencing, laneways and water systems.

Financial Assistance

Various funding sources can be accessed by qualifying landowners through the SWCD and USDA agencies for implementing grazing systems. Cost share assistance for implementing PGM plans may be available for qualifying farms and is typically 50% or 75% of the cost for fencing, water systems, laneways and stream crossings.

New Grant: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grants for Grazing Systems Managed for Grassland Bird Habitat

A new National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant has been announced for rotational prescribed grazing systems that promote grassland bird habitat. A few adaptations to a rotational grazing system can make it more compatible for grassland bird habitat. 

Grassland birds are a group of bird species that only nest on or near the ground in grassy fields. This group of bird species has suffered the great population declines over the past 40 years. Loss of habitat through urbanization, re-growth of forest and intensive agricultural practices are the major reasons for these losses. Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlark, Northern Harrier, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, Vesper Sparrow and Sedge Wren all belong to the grassland bird group.

In order to qualify for a grant, the design of the livestock grazing system must include an unmown area known as a refuge adjacent to the grazing paddocks that will allow the birds to forage throughout the season. In addition, the pasture grazing rotation and mowing schedule needs to be modified to allow much of the grass to be at a height useful to grassland birds.

Money from this grant can be used for fencing, water systems, stream crossings, and laneways. This is a great opportunity for landowners wishing to set up a grazing system to get cost-sharing assistance for their project. There are a few criteria that need to be met to be eligible for this grant, such as having a minimum of 25 animal units and having enough extra land to devote to the refuge area.

Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District can work with landowners to develop a prescribed grazing plan that will meet both their livestock and bird requirements. For more information on this program please contact Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, 607-756-5991

Pasture Management Tip

Grass Height

Animals are moved out of a paddock when the average grass height is down to 2.5 to 3 inches and they are moved in to a paddock when the grass height has reached 6 to 8 inches tall. Grass height is very important. Grass over 8 inches tall has lower nutritional value and can negatively impact livestock production. Grass grazed lower than 2.5 inches may be weakened and re-growth can suffer.

Benefits of Managing Grass Height for Dairy Cattle

Milk production and dairy income can be increased by making sure that cows are grazing grass at the optimal height. A seemly slight difference in grass height can mean a substantial difference in milk production.

Darrell Emmick, NRCS Grazing Specialist, made comparisons between grasses at the 6" stage and the 10" stage at a recent Cortland County Pasture Walk. Prior to the walk, grass samples from 2 different heights, 6 inches and 10 inches, were analyzed. 

The results showed that grass at the 6 inch height had lower Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) than the 10 inch grass. This means that a cow can eat more of the lower height grass because it contains less bulky matter. The increased quantity that can be consumed means that a 1400 lb. dairy cow can eat 2.7% of their body weight. When the pasture consists of taller grasses, the cows eat only 2.3% of their body weight. The increased consumption of the 6 inch grass means greater milk production. On average, there is an increase of 12 lbs. of milk per day from just a 4 inch difference in grass height.

More milk and more farm income can be achieved by simply getting the cows on pasture when the grass is 6 inches high. This can be achieved by managing paddock sizes so that only enough grass is available for 12 hours of grazing, moving the cows to a fresh paddock after every milking and mowing paddocks that have grown too tall. Mowing is an important management tool in maintaining lower NDF levels. It resets the growth stage of the grass back to an early vegetative state so as it grows back it will again have a lower NDF level.




Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District
100 Grange Place
Cortland, NY 13045
Phone: 607-756-5991
Fax: 607-756-0029

Amanda Barber, District Manager