Nine out of 10 cattle businesses I work with could improve their bottom line by better managing their range land resources. The number one way is to adopt some type of grazing system.

Hear the phrase "grazing system" and most people picture an elaborate wagon wheel grazing cell with miles of high tensile fence, dozens of gates, mile after mile of water line and a pickup load of float valves. In fact, I have yet to implement a grazing system where that is the case, at least initially. More often, a system can be designed to fit the current pastures.

Types Of Grazing Systems * Continuous grazing. Here, a certain number of cattle are placed in each pasture for the duration of the grazing season. No matter the number you place in the pasture, this "system" leads to overgrazing because the cattle will continuously graze a preferred spot, never allowing the plants to recover.

* Rotational grazing. This system involves two or more pastures that are each only grazed once during the growing season. The order in which the pastures are grazed should vary each year so that each pasture is grazed at a different point in the growing season.

This system provides a 20% increase in cattle numbers over continuous grazing. More of the available forage can be utilized due to the time allowed for the plants to recover without grazing stress during much of the growing season. Thus, if our ranch ran 100 cows with continuous grazing, it would run120 cows with rotational grazing.

* Intensive grazing. This system involves numerous pastures that are grazed several times each season and may allow a 30-50% increase in stocking rates over continuous grazing. If we can run 120 cows on our ranch with rotational grazing, we can raise that number to 140 cow-calf units.

This is really an intensive "management" system because high stocking rates require higher levels of management skill, frequent cattle moves and monitoring grass to maintain pasture condition.

The critical factor is the rest period for grass recovery. In bunch grasses, a minimum of 30 days' rest is required during the rapid growth stage and 60 days during slow growth. Generally, a minimum of 8-10 pastures or paddocks are required to implement this type of system. However, these don't all have to be the same size or have the same forage quality or quantity. The system is adjusted to account for these variables.

What's The First Step? The key to planning a grazing system is information. First, take an inventory of your ranch and determine the exact size of each pasture, water locations and their capacity. Then, the carrying capacity or production level of each pasture must be calculated.

In determining carrying capacity and production levels, you can contact a local grazing specialist or hire a consultant. The consultant I work with is Kathy Miles-Burnham, a professional range management specialist. She can be reached at 888/296-3619.

Miles-Burnham has combined her expertise in range science with cutting edge technology available for precision farming. The result is a system for precision range management.

The precision comes from the accurate maps developed using GPS (global positioning systems) and aerial or satellite imagery. Once a base map is created, then data gathered from topography, soils maps and range surveys by the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and on-site range sampling can be layered in a database or GIS (geographical information system).

This is used to produce a range inventory or carrying capacity for the ranch. From this, she can economically design a grazing system that optimizes forage utilization with little, if any, capital outlay.

Miles-Burnham is also working to develop a method for measuring carrying capacity by analyzing infrared imagery to determine the pounds per acre of forage production. Thus, scientifically determining your range inventory and removing the guesswork of the old eyeball technique.

* One ranch I work with had a continuous grazing program with two pastures and 200 cows in each. They did this because it had been done that way for 50 years, and the pastures were about the same size.

A map created using satellite imagery and GPS, however, showed us that one pasture was actually 400 acres larger. Meanwhile, a range survey indicated the smaller pasture actually had greater carrying capacity. The two pastures were included in a grazing system without any modification or cost, and we added another 140 cows.

* Another client ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills was able to bring 300 cows home from previously leased property ($120/cow-calf unit) and sell 1,202 tons of prairie hay at $45/ton - all because of better resource utilization. The one-time cost of system design and fence and water modifications was $7,513, while the annual return was $90,090.

Adding More Cows * Another ranch was able to take in 15% more outside cows (570 cow-calf pairs) at $145/pair for the five-month grazing season for an additional $82,650 in gross revenues. Better range management and the implementation of a rotational grazing system made this possible. This one-time cost of system design and fence and water modifications was $29,500; annual return was $84,650.

Besides producing more revenue, custom grazing of outside cow-calf pairs created an "off-season" cash flow that helped decrease money borrowed on the operating note. That reduced interest expense by over $2,000.

* On a ranch in Florida where we employ this practice, a herd of 250-275 cow-calf pairs grazes 17, 24-acre paddocks for no more than two days at a time. With intensive grazing and winter annuals we are able to support one cow-calf unit per 31/44 acre year-round, without substitution or supplementation. This helped decrease production costs to $273/exposed female (EF), or $.055/lb. of beef weaned.

The Benefits The economic benefits of improving your utilization of range resources are apparent. If our example 100-head ranch above took in cows on a per head per season basis, such as is done in the Nebraska Sandhills, for $145/cow-calf unit, the calculation is easy. Implementation of rotational grazing will garner an extra $2,900 over continuous; intensive grazing will be $2,900 over rotational and $5,800 over continuous.

The short-term economic benefit of a grazing system is the least important advantage. What's truly magic is the improvement you will see in the cattle, the way they handle, their performance and, most importantly, the change in the range.

You'll see greater plant diversification, which serves to lengthen the grazing season and provide for a healthier grazing environment. There will be less wind and water erosion, and a better capture and utilization of precipitation. You will also see a dramatic improvement in wildlife, the topic of next month's article.