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Leader Follower Grazing System

A multi-species, leader follower grazing system has recently been implemented here at the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI). Multi-species grazing has been shown to improve pasture quality, control weed growth, and enhance pasture utilization (getting the most out of every blade of grass). All of these are achieved while increasing the carrying capacity, enabling more animals to thrive off the same plot of land, continuing the cycle of land restoration. This style has been added into the already productive rotational grazing system currently thriving at PRI. The rotational method was originally employed to prevent a common problem for most farmers known as overgrazing while maintaining the property. The overgrazing of animals is one of the biggest challenges we face in animal agriculture.

Overgrazing can be caused by the overstocking of animals, too many, or under-stocking, too few. Overstocking usually extracts too much from the land and prevents proper regeneration of pasture before the feeding animals return. Under-stocking works differently, and takes a longer period of time generally. The process is pretty simple, the grazing animal eats its favorite food for as long as it can. If too few animals are on a paddock, only the favorite food will be consumed until ultimately it is reduced to a insignificant portion of the pasture. As nature does, this favorite is replaced by a less appealing plant based on selection pressure from the cows, sheep, goats, whatever your animal may be. Eventually the plants not eaten by the grazing animal will be the only ones left. The pasture diversity and health have now been significantly reduced without ever being consumed at an extravagant rate. A very easy way to avoid the understocked problem is to finish mow an area whenever the grazing period has ended. Overgrazing can and will ultimately lead to desertification as the end result of continual land degradation. This all too common problem can be avoided simply by the proper management of animal systems.


The term Multi-species is self explanatory, but a leader follower system usually means that the leader species has a higher nutrient requirement than the follower. Therefore, to effectively implement this system, the nutritional requirements of the animals involved must be evaluated. Then a plan starting from the species with the highest nutrient demands down to the species with the lowest can be successionally put in place to capture the most energy from your pastures while getting it to the appropriate animal. The highest quality pasture is the tip of each blade of grass. According to the “first bite” theory, cows will naturally select the best available pasture as their primary food source within a paddock and then move on to the secondary only when necessary. To figure out how long a pasture can sustain your herd, multiply the average weight by the total number and “Daily utilization rate”. A 3-4% daily utilization rate is commonly calculated from agriculture studies and is based on a 2.5 % forage intake, and a 0.5% trampling loss. The range comes from whether of not specific studies included a 1% buffer. (Blanchet et al., 2003). Your pasture should roughly support one hundred pounds per inch per acre. This allows for easy approximations followed by keen observations.

Pastures that support multiple species and are properly rotated will yield higher total animal mass per consumed pasture than unrestricted grazing. Single species will not be as “productive” in weight gain, but in total, your animal population will prosper. Rotational multi-species grazing has many positive aspects. “Dairy cows in early lactation, produced the same amount of milk as cows that remained indoors until, with a lower fat content (38.6 versus 41.6 g kg-1) and higher protein content (33.6 versus 30.7 g kg-1). The improvement is attributed to a higher total dry matter intake, energy and protein intake provided by excellent grass utilization conditions,” (Kennedy et al. 2005).


Other beneficial effects of a multi-species, leader follower grazing systems make it more and more appealing. An underrated aspect of animal welfare is their natural behavior. Other than normal needs like food and water: appropriate rest, movement, and social behavior are aspects included within this rotational method that help create the happiest and healthiest cows possible. “Grazing reduces the risk of mastitis because the infection pressure of bacteria within the immediate environment is lower due to unrestricted space. On balance, grazing generally has a positive influence on udder health. Grazing also benefits the claw health of dairy cows. Infectious diseases like foot rot and the disease of Mortellaro are more common in the cowshed, because the infection pressure is higher. The relatively hard floor in conventional cubicles can result in wounds and pressure sores on knee and heel joints,” (Van den Pol-van Dasselaar A., 2008). The Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) in the United Kingdom, found Mastitis is most often transmitted by contact with the milking machine, and through contaminated hands or other materials, in housing, bedding and other equipment. Mastitis treatment and control is one of the largest costs to the dairy industry in the UK, and is also a significant factor in dairy cow welfare. By reducing the exposure frequency of your cows to confined spaces, naturally healthy cows are easier to achieve and maintain.


Different species may require different parasite control, fencing, mineral supplements, and management practices. On our farm, the dairy cows can be held in their paddock cells with a single or double lined electric fence attached to our main lane way. Cows are the leader in our system and spend one week in a cell eating the best forage they can find. To prevent overgrazing problems caused by under-stocking, we then cut our pasture down. This is also a major benefit to our biosphere. Perennial grasses are the best way to sequester carbon on dry land. After the grass is cut, the growth recovery period will capture more carbon from the atmosphere while using the nitrogen supplied by the cows. The dairy cows are moved on to their next pasture to continue their leisurely life. While eating to their hearts content, the cows are fertilizing our pastures and setting the table for our chickens.


As you may have previously read in other articles, we employ chicken tractors routinely on this farm. The mobility aspect enables us to utilize chickens for all sorts of wonderful tasks. After the grass has been mowed, a 200 meter electric fence is put up around the cell the cattle have just vacated. This allows sixty-five chickens to eat insects, seeds, and residuals left behind by the cows. Their scratching and clawing at the soil mixes and spreads the manure left by the cows in a more even distribution across the fenced area. Again, the ultimate goal is to achieved, these chickens are living as wildly as possible. They engage in all their natural social behaviors, get the same movement and rest periods that nature would allow without the predatory dangers. Water access must be supplied to both the cows and chickens, but daily maintenance is significantly reduced when allowing a natural lifestyle. Here at PRI, we do provide the chickens with sulphur, shell grit, and some high quality grain feed to ensure healthy and happy chickens.


Our system is very basic, but with only two species involved we are getting exceptional results. Our pastures are recovering faster and with a healthier composition of plant species. The process will continue, with more animals involved in a system, mimicry of our natural world can be imitated at a higher and higher level. Our multi-species, leader follower grazing system is still in its infancy, but already yielding positive results for the animals involved, us as consumers, and the environment.




Maritime Pasture Manual

Blanchet, K., H. Moechnig, and J. DeJong-Hughes. (2003) Grazing Systems Planning Guide. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Kennedy E., O’Donovan M., Murphy J.P., Delaby L. and O’Mara F.P. (2005) Effects of grass pasture and concentrate-based feeding systems for spring-calving dairy cows in early spring on performance during lactation. Grass and Forage Science , 60, 310-318.

Mayne C.S., Newberry R.D. and Woodcock S.C.F. (1988) The effect of a flexible grazing management strategy and leader/follower grazing on the milk production of grazing dairy cows and on sward characteristics. Grass and Forage Science , 43, 137-150.

Smits M.C.J, Frankena K., Metz J.H.M. and Noordhuizen J.P.T.M. (1992) Prevalence of digital disorders in zero-grazing dairy cows. Livestock Production Science , 32, 231-244.

Somers J.G.C.J., Schouten W.G.P., Frankena K., Noordhuizen-Stassen E.N. and Metz J.H.M. (2005) Development of claw traits and claw lesions in dairy cows kept on different floor systems. Journal of Dairy Science , 88, 110-120.

Van den Pol-van Dasselaar A., Vellinga T.V., Johansen A. and Kennedy E. (2008) To graze or not to graze, that’s the question. Grassland Sci. Eur. 13: 706-716


  1. One whole week? I thought after 3 days cows would start grazing the sprouts from what they grazed the first day, weakening it.

    1. The time in the pasture is a function of the speed of growth, and it has to be flexible and in accordance with the rain. You could use shorter periods simple by making smaller paddocks, and the impact would be much greater and faster the recovery

      1. I think it’s a great philosophy. Having worked as a dairy farmer for several years in NZ, I would suggest this.
        Try to minimise, or be more strategic with your mowing. The cows are going to be milked everyday, give them a fresh pasture everyday and adjust the size so that the cows eat enough that you do not need to mow. It’s better to remove the cows from already grazed pasture, but if that is not possible because of water it is still possible to leave the cows in the same paddock for six days and adjust the fence so they get fresh grass every day.
        When you have a paddock where the grass has grown too long, and become rank or stalky, skip that paddock and mow it for hay. Keep the cows eating fresh grass, that is not too long, an easy way to tell is by counting the leaves, ideally the grass will have 2.5 – 3 leaves. Any longer and the bottom leaves die and become unpalatable to the cows, any shorter and the grass has not grown enough to replenish its reserves.
        Getting the size of each daily area right, can be tricky and takes experience, however if the cows are leaving to much grass, adjust the next area smaller then you think, and allow the cows to back graze both areas. Monitor the cows, to make sure you are not underfeeding them. It’s a balancing act that takes time and experience to perfect. Being able to accurately estimate how much the cows require, given the length of grass is an excellent skill to learn.
        With this method you limit the costs involved with mowing, and when you do actually it is for making hay.

  2. Just wondering if it is possible to leave the cows grazing for a little longer, to the point where it is unnecessary to mow, or is there a fine line with causing overgrazing?

  3. En el manejo silvopastoril que tenemos en el Rancho Piloto El Eslabón en el municipio de Tantoyuca, Veracruz, México, el hato de vacas (21) lidera. Con una permanencia de una día por cuadro (400 M2) son suficiente para consumir todos los nutrientes necesarios de 9 variedades de pastos, hierbas y hojas de árboles. 20 días después pasan un lote de borregos para aprovechar rebrotes y hojas de plantas, arbustos y árboles que no aprovechó el hato de ganado. Los resultados obtenidos nos animan a continuar nuestro manejo silvopastoril en el trópico. No obstante tenemos que resolver problemas de protección a los borregos. Saludos

    Web Team Translate Via google :

    In the silvopastoral management we have in the Rancho Pilot The Link in the municipality of Tantoyuca , Veracruz, Mexico , the herd of cows (21 ) leads . with a day stay in a box (400 M2 ) are enough to consume all the nutrients of 9 varieties of grasses, herbs and leaves. 20 days after spending a lot of sheep to get sprouts and leaves of plants , shrubs and trees that took the cattle herd . The results encourage us to continue our silvopastoral management in the tropics . However we have to solve problems to protect the sheep . regards

  4. Very good. What do you think about integrating goats between cows and chickens in a system like this, and perhaps rotating the cows every 2-3 days?

    1. That’s perfectly allright, the reason they use chickens AFTER the cows, and specially if you wait 3 days (Salatins model) is that the chicken “sanitize” all the paddock and eat the grubs from the pies, spreads everything too.

  5. Nuestra experiencia nos dice que entre menos tiempo nuestro hato de vacas o nuestro rebaño de ovejas consuma permanezca en el cuadro consumiendo forraje, es mejor. Incluso así lo considera el concepto holístico, por ello lo reducido del cuadro donde trabajamos. En estos días se tiene que abrir dos cuadros al día porque el consumo de las vacas se ha incrementado al encontrarse gestantes.

    Hasta ahora, el paso de bovinos primero y ovinos después, nos ha dado excelentes resultados, porque la mayoría de forraje verde que consumen las vacas no es el que consumen los borregos y viceversa, el tipo de forraje que consumen los borregos no es el que consumen las vacas. Mas adelante, varios días después del paso de las vacas y los borregos queremos introducir gallinas ponedoras al rancho. Vamos parte por parte.

    Web Translate via Google :-
    Our experience tells us that the less time our herd of cows or consume our flock of sheep remains in table eating forage , the better . Even so it considers the holistic concept , so I reduced the frame where we work. These days you have to open two boxes a day because consumption of cows has increased to be pregnant .

    So far, the first step of cattle and sheep then gave us excellent results , because most of forage consumed by cows is not consumed by sheep and vice versa , the type of feed consumed by sheep is not the one cows consume . Later , several days after the passage of the cows and sheep laying hens we want to introduce the ranch. Let piece by piece.

  6. It looks like you’re taking the plant growth all the way to the ground. Doesn’t this cause the pasture to respond slower to regrowth? Great article!

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