The rate of erosion from North American rangeland is twice the rate of soil replacement. Carrying capacity of rangeland is decreasing, and weed problems are increasing.
We treat these symptoms with herbicides, seeding "improved" forage species, fertilizers and other quick fixes. Our dependence on these remedies is growing and will continue to grow until we look past the symptoms and address the underlying causes. After all, weeds don't make the range unhealthy; they appear because the range is already unhealthy.
We don't need expensive technology, equipment or chemicals to improve range health. We can improve our rangeland through better grazing management.
Many ranchers use various forms of rotational grazing believing they are increasing productivity and improving the land. But, most rotations won't result in dramatic range improvement. In fact, my research shows fewer than one in 10 ranchers use grazing practices that significantly improve the land.
The Practice Of Cell Grazing Cell grazing is a management method that can improve the health of the land. Applied properly, it can help minimize overhead costs, improve gross margin (by minimizing feed costs and maintaining high levels of animal performance) and maximize turnover.
A recent survey showed that ranchers using cell grazing tend to spend less money, carry less debt, make more profit and have healthier rangeland. They are also more satisfied personally than ranchers relying on conventional management techniques, including rotational grazing.
Cell grazing consists of the application of five management principles.
1. Adjust recovery periods as pasture growth rates change.
We used to think having too many animals in a pasture caused overgrazing. We'd try to stop the overgrazing by reducing animal numbers (government agencies still do). We've confused overgrazing with overstocking.
Overgrazing is not related to animal numbers. It's strictly a function of time: the length of time animals are allowed to graze a pasture (the graze period), and the length of time the pasture is allowed to recover after grazing (the recovery period).
Overgrazing can happen in two ways:
- The recovery period may be too short.
- The graze period may be too long.
Too long a rest period can be a problem, too, especially with warm-season grasses. If recovery periods in these environments are too long, plants become rank, unpalatable and lose nutritive value.
Since growth rates change throughout the year, the length of time it takes pastures to recover also changes. During periods of slow growth, rest periods should be relatively long. When plants are growing rapidly, rest periods should be relatively short.
2. Use short graze periods consistent with the required recovery period.
Animals are selective grazers. They eat the best plants and plant parts first. They also foul the paddock with dung and urine and trample forage. The longer they stay in a paddock, the poorer the quality of forage.
When quality goes down, so does intake. When intake goes down, so does performance. Short graze periods increase the quality and quantity of forage grazed and improve animal performance.
The trick is getting graze periods short while maintaining adequate rests. Eight to 10 paddocks can stop the overgrazing, but it isn't enough to get the graze periods short enough for top animal performance. At least 16 paddocks are usually needed to keep performance high.
3. Fluctuate the stocking rate to match changes in carrying capacity.
The carrying capacity is the quantity of feed available for grazing (the energy supply). The stocking rate is a measure of the energy demand of our animals. Matching the stocking rate to the carrying capacity is simply matching the energy demands of grazing animals to the energy supply in the forage. Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to match the two because the energy supply on our rangeland and the energy demand of our animals change.
The energy supply changes both annually and seasonally. We can change energy demand from year to year by increasing or decreasing animal numbers. For example, in a drought year when we have less feed, we will probably carry fewer animals.
We can cope with season-to-season changes in energy supply by creating and managing an "energy bank." We can bank energy three ways:
- Putting up and feeding hay,
- Rationing a feed bank of forage in the pasture, and
- Storing energy in fat on our animals.
During periods when feed is short, animals can mobilize fat to meet some of their energy needs. They lose condition and weight as they burn the fat bank. Provided they have the time and forage to gain back the condition they lost before critical periods, this can be a more profitable alternative than putting up and feeding hay.
4. Use the largest herd possible.
Using large herds offers several benefits. Most importantly, it increases the potential for "herd effect."
Animal hooves can be destructive. Anyone who has seen a cattle trail knows that. But, they also can be a positive force to rejuvenate deteriorated rangeland and jump-start succession. We create herd effect by concentrating animals for short periods of time and creating excited behavior.
5. Use the highest stock density possible.
Stock density is the number of animals in an area at a particular moment. High stock density increases the uniformity of grazing. Stock densities of 100-200 animals/acre in well-managed irrigated pastures are not uncommon. On rangeland it is usually impractical to get stock density anywhere near that high, but the higher the better.
These five principles are powerful tools for managing the energy flow and the water and mineral cycles. The way in which we apply them varies from ranch to ranch, but in just about any grass farming business, they provide the means to shift away from expensive technological quick fixes and toward a more sustainable business that's ranching for profit.