We all know the key to any successful business is good management. Ranching should not be any different. How are we expected to succeed if most ranches aren’t treated as a serious business? Maybe we get carried away by our scenic daily views and working in the great outdoors. Perhaps we are afraid to think outside the box because of paradigms and the old ways of thinking. Or we are distracted by our unusual work schedule with a never-ending “to-do” list. Many key areas to maximize operations are missed. We need to put things into perspective and focus on the whole to find a balance all while dealing with chaos. Such things include finances, operating costs, income, human resources, pasture health, grass growth, animal performance and cattle health. There are other things out of our control that must also be considered: unpredictable weather patterns, fluctuating market prices, animal diseases and behavior. Therefore, the key is to become proficient at managing chaos and to maximize efficiencies in every aspect.
I want to focus on how to manage our pastures and cattle to have the most favorable outcome as a business. Our secret, which is quite simple, is flexibility. The two most important areas are grass production and animal performance. The goal in evaluating these two areas is to increase carrying capacity, eliminate the need for supplementation, and increase pregnancy rates (adapted animal genetics). If this can be accomplished, combined with proper business and financial management, your operation will be running most cost-effectively.
It is paramount we find a balance in three key areas:
1. Grazing: animal impact is our primary tool to regenerate pastures
2. Animal performance: a healthy animal is more resilient to disease and more profitable
3. Forage production and soil health
If we focus only on grass regeneration, then animal performance and pregnancy (weight gains) are likely to decline unless we supplement. If we only focus on animal performance, then pasture health is more susceptible to decline. Both scenarios hurt us financially in the long run. If we can find the perfect balance, our land will continue to improve, and animal performance will be maintained in balance with nature. We realize many people do not believe such things can be accomplished. While every environment is unique, it is possible regardless of your geographic location and weather patterns. It is however, a never-ending challenge and does not come easy with some failures along the way. But those failures are learning lessons. As proof that it is possible we can find many examples in nature. Deer, elk, and other wildlife are capable of surviving without human intervention. Yes, they are wild, and cattle have been domesticated but they ought to be able to survive on their own. (This point will be addressed in animal selection and genetics.)
Let’s consider the grass growing aspect of this complicated puzzle. We are looking to grow the most grass we can per unit of land in the least amount of time. This also includes years of drought and decreased moisture. We are not necessarily looking for the greatest forage production, but rather the highest available NUTRITION for our cows. This is a very important concept to understand. Quality versus quantity is the name of the game. Overgrazed land affects overall quantity, and overresting might increase quantity but comes at a high cost because the nutritional value declines. Overresting after several years eventually leads to pasture deterioration as well. Therefore, at some point we need to graze our pastures but the timing in relation to the stage of grass growth has a significant impact on animal health and performance.
Thus, animal impact is our primary tool to improve pasture quality. We find the concept of animal impact is often misunderstood. Usually it comes in the form of fencing, herding, or incentive feeding to increase animal density to create the most “animal impact” to redistribute organic matter (manure), grass seeds, aerate the soil, improve water infiltration and trampling old vegetation back into the soil. Hence, not necessarily eating it. Often people wonder, what is the optimal trampling to grazing ratio? This question is one that can lead to endless discussion but from our experience, it varies on many factors: Soil type, time of year, type of grass, climate, overall goals, etc. The more important question is, what are you trying to achieve? Don’t get carried away by these details. It’s almost impossible to measure and to comprehend nature to that exact degree. What is more important and what the focus should be is how to archive this animal impact without sacrificing ANIMAL PERFORMANCE!
Now let’s move theory aside and pose the real question, how do we apply the animal impact tool in the real world with all the uncertainties of the weather? This is where ranch management becomes an art and not a science. When implementing these ideas most scientists fail to create replicable data, and producers switching into rotational grazing, holistic management, MOB grazing, ultra high density are most likely to make very costly mistakes. There is no system or guide that will have the right answer. Here the stubborn old man might have a point where observation, knowledge, and experience work best. My best advise and the key to success is to remain flexible and to stay within the theoretical balance previously discussed.
Another key aspect of our management is to focus on the most productive areas. This is where majority of forage production will come from, usually being at the bottom of valleys where excess moisture and nutrients from run off collect and where conditions are most favorable for grass growth especially during dry years. Therefore, give preference in grazing to avoid grass from becoming too mature and decline in nutrition value. Also, give preference in resting when needed. After a couple of years of proper management you will soon realize that the main challenge will come in preventing excess grass growth from loosing its quality. This is why the previous grazing systems I mentioned above, claim a stocking rate increase or else risk reverting back. It truly is a challenge to keep excess growth from becoming stale. By focusing your management in these areas and giving preferential grazing, it gives the ridges and other areas of your property, usually the most degraded, sufficient recovery time for new perennial grass species to establish or annuals to provide sufficient ground cover for succession to take place.
This leads to the second most important problem, how to graze overrested areas without supplementation to avoid animal performance loss. The key lies in finding the right balance between animal density, period of stay and timing of the year we graze each pasture. There is a direct effect on animal behavior when grazing densities are above a certain level. Also, the grazing pattern of cattle changes from being selective to non-selective. This is important in order to establish optimum grazing efficiency and to prevent certain plants from becoming stale or ignored. We want our pastures to be grazed evenly through the year to promote plant health and biodiversity in our pastures. Cattle performance is directly related to optimal nutrition. Optimal nutrition is related to biodiversity and an increase in plant species in our pastures. Density alone is not the solution. Don’t get carried away trying to graze everything to the same height. Our animals always know what is best for them. We, the humans, are more likely to make mistakes the moment we try to systemize things.
Depending on the time of year, certain plants, i.e seasonal forbs, are more palatable than others and are of better quality. On occasion, this does not necessarily mean grass. There are other sources of food out there. To get the best nutrition available grazing selectively might not be such a bad thing especially so we can eliminate the need for supplementation.
Often I ask ranches if it’s possible to have non-selective grazing while grazing selectively and most answer “No”, and seem confused. But in reality we observe the correct answer is “Yes.” It requires observation and a certain degree of skill. If we were to take notes on each individual species of plants and when they are most favorable (nutritionally speaking) and integrate this information to our planned rotation while playing with different densities, periods of stay, and timing of the year, not only would you maximize forage production but nutrition as well.
When dealing with natural systems and unpredictable weather patterns our best solution is to become flexible and be open-minded. The real problem is our resilience to accept new ideas because that’s not how “We usually do things around here!!” Don’t be afraid to change, especially if things haven’t worked out in the past, what do you have to lose? The only thing you can’t afford to do is the same mistakes twice, to supplement and continue to have low pregnancy rates or to degrade our precious rangelands. We need to go back to our business model of keeping costs down and increased profits. This includes not necessarily weaning big heavy calves, but rather having the highest production at a minimum cost. If this can be achieved, that’s when our business will be the most profitable. From our personal experience of trail and error and countless hours of observation, it’s all in the nutrition and quality of our pastures. It is biodiversity, and soil health, which in the long run will increase our carrying capacity and lead to optimal performance in cattle. Therefore, as successful regenerative ranchers we are proud to say our most valuable management tool is actually our cattle!