Burke Teichert: How to build better land and soil

Burke Teichert: How to build better land and soil

Two months ago,  while writing about “high management and low inputs,” I indicated that cattle have two important jobs—eat and convert grass, browse and forbs into wholesome beef and other products and improve the land and soil upon which they walk and live. Two “high management” concepts are critical to these jobs:

  • Developing better cattle that truly fit your environment including low-input management.
  • Understanding what constitutes better grazing and then figuring out how to make it work in your situation.

Since that article, as part of my ongoing life-long learning efforts, I have attended two short courses where these topics were addressed with special attention to grazing, farming and soil health. I also visited some farms and ranches where the grazing is very well managed.

At one of these visits, Gabe Brown, a very good grazier and farmer, asked, “Why do we talk about sustainable agriculture? Why would we want to sustain a degraded land and soil?” He said that we should be speaking about “regenerative agriculture” where we regenerate soils and improve our land.

I agree and, as a result, would like to encourage all of the conventional graziers reading this to begin to recognize the damage that continuous or season-long grazing with inadequate or no recovery time for many of the plants is doing to land health, productivity and biodiversity.

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Stocking rate is the most economically important profitability factor on ranches. It will overwhelm cattle genetics, marketing and any other production factor. However, you can’t have increased stocking rates without increased carrying capacity which is a result of increased land productivity. On my recent ranch visits, I saw ranches that are running at least double the stocking rate of others in the vicinity who follow conventional grazing methods. Think of that—divide every overhead cost by 2. 

And these ranches look fantastic. There is grass everywhere. You would wonder if they are not still understocked. Too many ranches are understocked and overgrazed. You might ask, “How can that be?”  In continuous or season-long grazing, many plants are left completely ungrazed (over-rested) while other plants are grazed and then grazed again (overgrazed) each time a little regrowth appears.

These same ranches also have cut overhead costs to the bone. So, in addition to cutting overhead cost per cow in half by doubling the stocking rate, they have less overhead cost to spread across the cows.

Good graziers have several things in common: 

  • They tend to congregate livestock in large groups. 
  • They make sure they can deliver adequate water all the time. They know where they want winter water (freeze protected) and where they only need to have summer water. 
  • With grazing experience, most have lengthened recovery times—the time that the pasture recovers from the last day of use until livestock enter the pasture again—to ensure full recovery of the plants. I have both seen and heard of graziers in lower rainfall areas providing recovery times of as long as 18 to 26 months. 
  • Where rainfall is quite dependable or irrigation is available, recovery times might be much less to keep plants in a rapidly growing, vegetative state.
  • The more advanced graziers are using more temporary or portable fencing to accommodate very short grazing periods and to fit the size of herd.

While most have much in common, there are still a lot of differences between graziers. In the lower rainfall areas of the Plains states and further west, many will start their time-controlled grazing with eight to 20 pastures, grazing each pasture once per year and allowing a year or more of rest between grazes.

“Time and timing” or “when and where” are very important questions when grazing with this few pastures. Some will divide pastures and put water in more places as they see the increase in carrying capacity pay for the infrastructure. Many graziers are finding that the reductions in overhead cost that good grazing can accommodate will go a long way toward paying for the costs of fencing and water development. 

We now hear a lot about mob grazing or high-density grazing where animals are placed in very small paddocks relative to the size of the herd or mob and allowed to graze a very short time—typically a day or less. Even in these cases, they do not return until full recovery of most of the plants. Among those doing mob grazing, I see differences. Some are grazing tall, grazing the top third to half of the plant, wanting to trample a fair amount of plant material to feed the soil and keep the ground covered and shaded. Others are doing non-selective grazing where the animals are held tightly enough to eat what’s in front of them or nearly every plant. 

The intent here is to give every plant an equal chance to regrow with the idea that variety will be encouraged and the larger-leafed, more highly productive plants will be favored. In actual practice, I see combinations of these two approaches to mob grazing being used, influenced by time of year, amount of rainfall and objectives for a given piece of land.

While there may be some differences of opinion between successful graziers, they agree on much. I am convinced that good grazing is a powerful economic tool that more ranchers need to be using. To be successful, there is much to learn about soil and grass physiology in addition to the practical mechanical steps of designing a farm or ranch plan to accommodate the grazing. Knowing how to maintain good levels of cow nutrition and how to reduce stress when cattle are congregated more closely is important.

There is now a large group of successful practitioners that can help you avoid a lot of mistakes. Don’t go it alone. Seek advice and help.

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