Strategic Planning For The Ranch

The Ranch Profitability Secret More Powerful Than Genetics

Well-managed grazing is actually a much more powerful tool for ranch profitability than cattle genetics.

It seems many ranchers are more interested in their cattle than their land. I love animal breeding and can understand how many of us get caught up in trying to make our livestock better.

It’s very easy to fall into the “more” trap – more growth, more milk, more marbling, more muscle, etc. – with little regard for the unintended consequences and the costs. As a young manager, I, too, was caught in this trap. Luckily, however, a couple of mentors, and exposure to a few different ideas in my managerial youth, taught me that bigger and more is not always better. In addition, I learned that, believe it or not, well-managed grazing is a much more powerful tool for ranch profitability than cattle genetics.                                                

In my May issue column, I discussed the importance of time and timing in the planning of grazing. Without understanding the effects of time and timing on the physiology of the plant, it’s difficult – perhaps even impossible – to plan well. After all, we use time and timing to prevent, or at least reduce or minimize, overgrazing.

What is overgrazing? First, it is not being overstocked, although being overstocked can contribute to overgrazing. It’s possible, and I think probable, except in severe drought, that many ranches are “understocked and overgrazed.” In fact, in many pastures, it’s common to see both overgrazing and “over resting” side by side in the same pasture. If both can be stopped, stocking rate can increase.

So, again, what is overgrazing? It’s the repeated defoliation of the plant without allowing that plant adequate time to recover from the effects of the previous grazing. There are two ways to overgraze:

• The first is to retain cattle so long in a pasture that plants grazed in the first few days acquire sufficient regrowth to be grazed again. If livestock are left for long periods in the same area, this can happen repeatedly to the same plants. This weakens the plant and reduces its ability to recover, especially in times of stress such as drought.

If allowed, animals tend to return first to their favorite plants for regrazing, even while many plants in the pasture may not have been grazed at all. To prevent such overgrazing, cattle must be removed from the pasture before the plant has regrown sufficiently for a second defoliation.

• The second instance of overgrazing occurs when cattle are returned to a pasture before it’s sufficiently recovered from the previous grazing. This situation can allow for a significant number of plants to be overgrazed.

If I’m in the early stages of developing my fencing and water, I may not be able to avoid both of the above-mentioned ways to overgraze. But, if forced to, I would prefer avoiding the second scenario, and have some overgrazing occur as a result of staying too long in a pasture rather than coming back too soon.

To reduce or stop overgrazing and over resting, the number of paddocks or pastures is important. A sufficient number of paddocks are needed so that cattle don’t remain in any so long that overgrazing occurs. Each paddock must be allowed an adequate chance to fully recover before being grazed again.

Ranches vary in climate, elevation, rainfall, temperature, etc., but I’ve never felt able to graze very well without at least 8-12 paddocks/herd. In fact, most of us who have practiced planned, time-controlled grazing progress fairly quickly to 20 or more paddocks/herd after we see what can happen.

Here’s why. As you increase the number of paddocks for each herd, the paddocks become smaller, while the herd size stays the same. Thus, stock density increases. As stock density increases, grazing becomes more uniform and over resting diminishes. It’s thus easier to get some trampling of ungrazed plants into the soil, which enhances the water and mineral cycles. You begin to see less space between plants, as well as a greater variety of plants, more plant vigor, and more litter on the soil surface. This is accompanied by less runoff and, you have to assume, less evaporation.

 

Enjoy what you are reading? Read more from Burke Teichert on pasture management.

 

Remember, we’re using our livestock, their grazing and various forms of animal impact to improve water and mineral cycles. This allows more vigorous plants that capture more sunlight for more total plant growth. If we can retain just a bit more of the rainfall that comes rather than have it evaporate, run off or percolate rapidly through a poor soil with low organic matter, a little more grass can start to grow and a whole set of interconnected activities of plants, soil, animals and microorganisms begins to move forward.

I cannot, in a few short articles, begin to tell you all you need to know to effectively plan your grazing, as well as the water and fence development needed to make it work efficiently. That’s why I suggest that, to really learn how to graze, find someone who already knows how to do it, has good results, and will help you. Better yet, there are several very good short course-type schools that are well taught. Find and attend one.

I first attended a school or two, and then found others who were already using what I had learned at the schools. Combining the two provided both the know-how and the planning tools, plus the confidence, to move forward. You can, too.

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at burketei@comcast.net.

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Gene Schriefer (not verified)
on May 31, 2013

After a quarter century working with managed grazing too many producers graze by the calendar, leave livestock in a paddock for a fixed amount of time regardless of the season or forage conditions. Grazing paddocks in a set pattern is also an issue I frequently see. Some of the best forage investments I've made were feeding hay when paddocks had not recovered yet and waiting, especially during droughty conditions. With even a small amount of moisture, paddocks recovered quickly and we are back in the grazing business. Overgraze before the paddock is ready and you might be done for the season.

Good stuff Burke!

on Jun 1, 2013

Actually you do not need break up pasture into smaller one to follow a grazing plan. Rather than adding more infrastructure (which needs more time and money to build and maintain) cattle can be rotated within a pasture using low stress methods. The 32,000 acre ranch I have been herding for this winter claims they achieved 80% of their grazing goals for 20% of the effort. This project entailed herding the cattle three days a week.
http://cowherdmanagement.blogspot.com/2012/10/herding-bovine-potpourri.html

Burke (not verified)
on Jun 10, 2013

True, but most of us are not that good at placing animals and getting them to stay where we place them--I wish I were. However, the fencing infrastructure does not have to be very costly; and, once in place, it replaces quit a bit of cowboy time for many years.

W.E. (not verified)
on Jul 6, 2013

Since 1989, I have been managing the pastures and moving the cattle on a mixed farming operation in the upper south/lower midwest. Gradually over the years, by perseverance, I have gotten a little say over land use, but not much. The outfit I work for still bales a lot of hay in round bales, and grows row crops. Don't know how to get the boss to see the logic of having more of his land in grass (which, with proper grazing, becomes its own input) and less in corn and soybeans which cost an incredible amount of money per acre just to get planted and harvested each year. Part of the problem is that much of the land is rented, and all rented land around here grows row crops. When fall crop harvest time rolls around plenty of crop residue land will be available to let the cattle spread out, but droughts are the norm around here from July to September, or sometimes up until November. Access to water is often a problem during hot weather. Triple digit heat was the norm this time last year. We didn't feed any hay until August 2012, and too many of the pastures got damage from overgrazing during the heat and drought. In spring 2013, the farms had a lot of excess undergrazed fescue and orchardgrass that became hay. Now as we go into the dry season, we are going to run short on grass. We didn't get enough warm season grasses seeded after the disastrous drought of 2012 to carry so many cattle through this summer. I'll have a hard time convincing the boss to spend that hay during the summer. I've been trying to tell him this stuff for decades, but he needs to be shown rather than told. He seems to think I'm some kind of miracle worker. Burke, would you care to visit here and have a talk with the boss?

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What's Strategic Planning For The Ranch?

Burke Teichert provides readers with his practical take on efficient and cost-effective livestock production and ranch management.

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Burke Teichert

Burke Teichert was born and raised on a family ranch in western Wyoming and earned a B.S. in ag business from Brigham Young University and M.S. in ag economics from University of Wyoming. His work...

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