Ask Bob Dixon of Black Rock, AR, whether all rotational grazing is the same and he'll quickly tell you it's not. He uses his ranching history as an example.

Dixon says he's rotated cattle since he began ranching in the 1970s. Yet, it wasn't until recently that he really understood the principles.

“I didn't know what I was doing,” he says. “I didn't handle the grasses right. I was letting my forages get too mature.”

Nowadays, he uses different methods and gets better results. That means better cattle performance, better forage and lower costs.

Dixon says he finally got it right in the mid 1990s, after attending two consecutive years of an Arkansas Extension seminar on intensive grazing management. Among the lessons he learned was the very basic, but often misunderstood, concept of grass growth and grazing behavior. The concept is that grass has three basic growth stages and only one is ideal for grazing.

The big lesson

After grass is grazed, it begins to regrow using carbohydrate reserves stored in its crown — the plant portion right at and above the soil surface. The forage produced at this stage is very succulent and high in total digestible nutrients (TDN) and crude fiber, but low in quantity.

Grazing at this time weakens the plant as its stored carbohydrates have yet to be replenished. This is Phase I growth.

Once the plant has grown adequate leaf area to begin photosynthesis, it's also produced a grazeable mass of good protein and energy, with the amount of lignin (indigestible matter) still fairly limited. This is Phase II and is the ideal combination of quality and quantity for grazing.

Phase III growth is reproduction. Nutritional quality drops significantly in this phase, though total plant volume continues to increase. This is the phase in which Dixon says he used to spend too much time grazing his cattle.

The next step

Once he grasped the concept of better forage control and timing, Dixon began using smaller pastures (paddocks) and higher stock densities. Density is the number of animals or pounds of animals/acre on a given pasture during a grazing period.

Dixon has set up all three of his ranch properties with 12.5-acre paddocks, which give him stock densities of 20,000 lbs. animals/acre. The high density forces cattle to graze the forage more evenly, while eating or trampling many weed and brush species. Dixon's cattle are usually in a paddock three days or less.

Dixon says the 20,000-lb. goal is for his average herd size in the winter, when he grazes stockpiled forage. He stockpiles both his primary forage species — bermudagrass and fescue; the bermudagrass is grazed first.

“Winter grazing is the time of scarcest resources, and when the highest stocking density — and strip grazing — really pay the most dividends,” he says.

Relatively high stock densities also create shorter grazing periods and longer rest periods for forage. That helps promote the clover-grass mixtures and fescue-bermuda-clover mixtures because animals can't concentrate on a single forage.

These circumstances also allow Dixon to use Red River crabgrass and grazing corn in his summer mixtures. Both forages improve cattle performance over bermudagrass pastures, providing 2 lbs. average daily gain (ADG), he says.

Adding clovers to his pastures cut Dixon's nitrogen fertilizer bill 70%. That's primarily in his fescue-clover mix paddocks. He expects to cut it further as he adds Yucchi arrowleaf and Durana clovers into his bermudagrass pastures.

The healthier forage this type of grazing promotes also has allowed him to maintain several paddocks of endophyte-free fescue. Some have thrived more than 10 years due to rotation grazing and a lack of haying.

Higher stock densities also allow Dixon to take off one forage species to make room and allow sunlight to foster another. This is particularly important in paddocks with both warm- and cool-season forages, such as bermudagrass and clover, or fescue-clover and bermudagrass.

Dixon also overseeds ryegrass in his bermudagrass pastures. His high stock densities allow him to graze off the forage before overseeding rather than mow or burn it with Paraquat/Gramoxone herbicide.

An added advantage to multi-species pastures is a higher level of nutrition and a more varied nutrient intake, Dixon says.

Nearly all his internal fences are single-wire electric.

“Each year, we subdivide large pastures with one-wire electric fence into smaller, more manageable pastures. The new Natural Resource Conservation Service programs are really helping us,” he says.

Flexibility in management

But Dixon's system isn't as cut and dried as it may sound. Like most graziers, Dixon manages more than one class of cattle, and he has to manage his forage to keep it in that vegetative, Phase II growth stage.

Grazing cows, grower calves and replacement heifers entails some juggling. So, Dixon juggles animal numbers between locations and herds to achieve a balance. He'll also buy and sell, cull and wean according to forage availability.

His stocking levels of the various classes can vary greatly. At times, he has more cows; other times more stockers, etc. In general, he runs a leader-follower system in which cattle with the highest nutritional requirements enter a paddock first to take the “cream” of the forage; after them, follow those with lower requirements. It demands more management skill but it's proven to be an efficient way of providing adequate nutrition to differing types of livestock.

Performance still matters

Despite his success with forages, Dixon's found some animals need supplementation at certain times to achieve their gain goals. He normally supplements heifers with by-product-based feed rations to get them to their target breeding weight. He also winter-feeds stocker cattle to boost their normal 1-lb. ADG on fescue up to 1½-2 lbs./day.

He says research shows calves gaining at 1 lb. ADG won't catch up to those gaining 1½-2 lbs., physically or economically. Nor does the 2-lb. ADG hurt feedlot performance — an important factor since he often retains ownership.

To make those supplement decisions, Dixon uses extensive research and Internet-based decision-making. Two of his favorites are www.beefstockerusa.org and www.beefcowcalf.com. He also likes a feedstuff least-cost analysis program from the University of Arkansas and keeps tuned to new university research.

A computerized scale under his handling chute helps monitor weight gain and feeding program success. It also helps alert him to animals with sub-clinical illness. Because of his daily contact with animals, cattle move so often that a trip through the chute doesn't bother them.

“I can move cattle from one side of the ranch to the other in 30 minutes,” he says.

Another advantage is that operating more than 1,000 acres of pasture requires only himself and a part-time worker. That's partly due to almost having eliminated hay from his operation. Last winter, Dixon fed cows hay for only 23 days, and fed none to his -grower cattle.

Many people who operate intensively managed grazing operations say they produce significantly more pounds of beef/acre. That's one way to increase economic return on fixed-cost assets.

“I can't say I produce more pounds of beef per acre,” Dixon says, “But I produce at least the same amount of beef per acre as continuous grazing — with a lower cost per acre, fewer inputs and less risk. It's not about maximum yield, but maximum economic yield at a reasonable risk level.”

Alan Newport is a freelance agricultural writer from Carnegie, OK.

Cows and divorce

Last October, Bob Dixon sold his 350 cows during the peak of the cattle market at an average of $1,300/animal. This is the third time he's liquidated and started over.

“I used to be married to my cows,” he says. “Now I'm married to profit.”

Dixon says this will be the last time he sells out, however.

In the past he was producing pounds of beef, but the industry is moving toward particular animal types and alliances, he says. The checkoff program has helped greatly to move the industry in that direction — toward serving the consumer.

That tells him he needs cattle with above-average quality, he says. So selling out just on pounds probably won't make sense.

“I expect more steady market prices with more even yearly profit margins once we get past the effects of BSE and 9/11,” Dixon says. “What the market is asking from us is a safe piece of beef with consistency in taste, tenderness, convenience and quality.”

Seven payoffs to good grazing

  • Less labor
  • Less fertilizer costs
  • Less supplemental feeding
  • Ease of handling
  • Diverse forage species provide better nutrition
  • Higher quality forage and better animal performance
  • More beef per acre