Ask a group of beef producers about controlled grazing and the responses will likely revolve around a variety of systems and management approaches - deferred grazing, management intensive grazing, high intensity-low frequency grazing, rotational grazing, seasonal grazing, twice-over rotational grazing, short duration grazing and more.
Don't get caught up in the definitions, advises Derek Bailey, rangeland researcher at the Northern Ag Research Center near Havre, MT. "There are a multitude of grazing systems that fall into the general category," he says. "The basic idea is to restrict the time and intensity of where livestock graze."
However they choose to define it, a growing number of beef producers around the country are latching onto some form of controlled grazing. They're using it as a means of improving rangeland and pasture resources, increasing stocking rates and boosting the overall bottom line for their farming and ranching operations.
Purebred Angus producer Lawrason Sayre decided to give intensive rotational grazing a try on his 320-acre Waffle Hill Farm near Churchville, MD, after a trip to New Zealand in 1986. At the time, he was running 80 cows on 100 acres of permanent pasture and row cropping the remaining acreage.
"They (the New Zealanders) made a believer out of me," says Sayre. "It's amazing what you can do with grass if you manage it."
By 1990, Sayre had converted all his cropland to improved pasture and hayfields. The forage base includes a mix of alfalfa, red clover and orchardgrass or Kentucky 31 fescue.
"As the corn crop came off, we'd no-till small grains, usually barley, into the stubble," he explains. "Then, we'd come in with the grass seed. By the following fall, they'd be grazing on it."
The grazing cycle at Waffle Hill typically begins in mid-April following a two-month AI breeding season. For grazing, the Sayres (Lawrason, wife Jane and son Ned) split the 140-cow herd into three groups - cows with bull calves at their side, cows with heifer calves and bred heifers.
Early in the season, each group of animals, usually 45-50 head, is moved to a new temporary pasture once every two to three days. Fencing for the pastures, usually two or three acres in size, consists of tread-in posts and a single strand of polywire.
"There's a fair amount of labor involved," says Sayre. "You're always putting up fence, taking it down and moving cattle. But once they get used to it, the cattle are right there ready to follow you when it comes time to move."
As grass growth slows through the season, Sayre either extends the rotation for several days or makes pastures larger. "It's a very flexible system," he notes. "That's the great thing about it. You manage according to the conditions you're dealing with."
For fall and early winter grazing, Sayre relies on stockpiled fescue pastures. He starts taking cattle off the fescue in August. They stay off until the first hard frost.
"Fescue is a great feed, if grazed when it's short," Sayre says. "A lot of people worry about toxicity. We try to keep some red clover in our fescue areas (via overseeding once every three years) to alleviate the problem."
The payoffs of this kind of grazing system are varied. "We've reduced the costs of inputs," Sayre says. "We have less investment in machinery and we don't have the cost of putting a crop in the ground every year. Also, we've been able to reduce soil erosion to the point where it's virtually nil on the hilly ground we have here."
The income benefit comes in the form of improved stocking rates. "We can carry a cow/calf unit on an acre and a quarter," Sayre says. "That's grazing and winter feed (hay taken off the pasture early in the growing season). The best thing about it is that when it comes to harvesting the feed, we feel like the cattle are working for us now."
Size Doesn't Matter Don't get the idea that controlled grazing schemes make sense only for smaller operations working with improved pastures. Kim Davis Barmann of the sprawling CS Cattle Company (nearly 200,000 acres) in Cimarron, NM, started taking a closer look at time-controlled grazing after returning home from college in the early 1980s.
"One of our neighbors had been doing this for three or four years," says Barmann. "And, she always seemed to have more grass than anybody else. We talked to her about what she was doing and it made sense."
The clincher came when Barmann and her brother Bruce Davis attended one of Allan Savory's Holistic Resource Management (HRM) seminars in 1984. "It's more than just grazing," Barmann says of HRM. "It's also about setting goals and budgeting, communicating among family members, managing and evaluating."
Eventually, Barmann's parents Les and Linda Davis also became advocates, as did four other siblings and their families involved in this family operation.
"With all six children coming back to the ranch, we knew the old way of managing wouldn't support us," explains Barmann. "We realized that we had to change with the times."
Over the next 13 years, the Davis clan worked steadily at shaping the grazing system. Early on, they focused on fencing and water development. Pasture numbers over the entire ranch grew from under 40 to more than 80. Typical pasture size is 1,200-1,500 acres.
"In this kind of system, you're continuously evaluating and re-evaluating," explains Barmann. "You're always trying to spot the weak link. Maybe its grass or water. Or, it might be labor or cattle numbers.
"For example, when we first started, we would cut new pastures and see almost immediate improvement. In the last four or five years, though, it seems like we've reached a plateau. So we're starting to take a closer look at herd effect to see if we can make some improvements in that way."
The CS grazing cycle starts in the fall with an evaluation of grass supplies. In early October, managers step out several squares in each pasture and calculate how much land each animal will need for a day's grazing through the dormant season.
Over the winter, the goal is to graze each pasture several times and come up with a rating for the following growing season. "It's kind of a crude way of doing things," says Barmann. "But it will get you close."
Barmann says the most obvious benefit of the system is the variety of grasses now found on the ranch.
"Before, a lot of our pastures in the flats had nothing but blue gamagrass or a few other warm-season grasses in them," she says. "Now we're finding five or six different cool-season grasses have come back."
That's led to a longer season for grazing. "We used to look at a growing season running from May to the end of August when the warm-season grasses started turning brown," Barmann says. "Now we've extended that a month and a half on either side."
Under continuous grazing, the CS supported 1,500-2,000 cows. Now, the ranch carries 1,800 mother cows plus 1,200 yearlings. And Barmann quickly points out that those numbers are skewed a bit by dry weather conditions over the past several growing seasons.
"Basically, we've doubled our stocking rates," she says.
Husker Changeover Similar considerations led Imperial, NE, rancher Jeff Pribbeno to rethink his approach to grazing in the mid-1980s. "We realized that we needed to look at some new ways of doing business or we weren't going to be in business," says Pribbeno.
High input costs, particularly feed costs, were the major concern for the cattle producing enterprise at his family-run operation - Wine Glass Inc.
"We were under-utilizing our range resource," Pribbeno says. "Our stocking rate was too low and our grazing cost per head was too high."
To address the problem, Pribbeno mapped out a long-term strategy with intensive rotational grazing as the focal point.
"We did some rotational grazing prior to 1988," he says. "But we were working with two to four pastures on the ranch. We've built a lot of fence since then."
Today, the grazing system is built around three grazing cells - one for a cow/calf herd, one for yearlings and one for a custom grazing operation. Each grazing cell consists of 20 paddocks, with each paddock ranging from 200 to 300 acres in size. These paddocks are divided by permanent, three-wire electric fence. Water for each paddock is provided via an underground pipeline system.
The grazing season begins in earnest on May 1 when cool-season grasses - primarily needleandthread and western wheatgrass - start coming on.
"The cattle actually start coming off stalks around April 1 before we have much grass," explains Pribbeno. "We stage them into grazing cells to buy a little time until the grass really comes on."
During the first go-around, cattle remain in each paddock for just one or two days. With the start of the second rotation, typically mid-June, cattle are moved every three to four days. That continues through September.
"We call it a twice-over rotational grazing system," explains Pribbeno. "But, actually a few of the paddocks will end up being grazed three times during the growing period.
"That's the thing about this kind of system. You can't just put it on a map at the start of the year and then do it according to the master plan. You constantly have to adjust according to how the grass looks. That's determined by how much rain and sunshine you get."
Net result of the new management strategy: Pribbeno got the increased stocking rates on which he set his sights a decade ago. Today, the ranch can carry 1,000 cows, 2,500 yearling steers and 1,000 heifers. "That's almost double what we could carry before on the same land resource," he notes.
At the same time, Wine Glass Inc. pared down costs substantially. "By making use of corn stalks, we can manage grazing year around," says Pribbeno.
Pushing back the calving season from March/April to May/June has played a major role.
"We try to time our breeding and calving cycle to coincide with when and where the best quality grass is growing," Pribbeno says. "The cow is on a high nutritional plane during calving and after calving. Instead of providing that artificially like we used to do, we now let Mother Nature do it for us."
Successfully implementing a controlled grazing program requires heaps of forward planning, decision making and problem solving on the part of the producer. Then again, it's not exactly rocket science either.
Jim Gerrish, grazing specialist at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center near Linneus, MO, offers these tips on getting a controlled grazing system up and running:
* Set goals. Controlled grazing won't necessarily be a good fit for every beef operation. Before investing money and time, develop a list of specific goals.
"There's no point in making a change in your management system unless you have some idea of what you want to accomplish," says Gerrish. He advises making the goals as specific as possible at the outset.
"Maybe you want to increase net return per cow by $50 a year or extend your grazing season 60 days," he explains. "Or maybe you want to maintain or improve ground cover for a covey of quail. The more specifically you define the goal, the more aggressively you'll pursue that goal."
* Inventory resources. Determining the potential production (carrying) capacity of the land is key. But you also need to assess the health of existing pastures, the condition and location of existing fencing and working facilities and the seasonal availability and distribution of water.
"Sometimes people have very good grass but they can't make use of it (within a controlled system) because there isn't any water close by," explains Gerrish. On the human resources side of the equation, you'll need to evaluate whether you have the capital, labor and/or management to make necessary changes when implementing a new grazing system.
* Keep things simple. An easy way to begin controlled grazing is to subdivide existing pastures with one or two fences (or to simply close gates between pa stures). Managing these simple divisions provides a chance to try out a more controlled system and offers the opportunity to begin learning this type of grazing management at a basic level. As you start to get a feel for what's happening on the land and with the cattle herd, you can fine-tune the system.
"A lot of farmers tell me they figure it takes somewhere around three to five years to grow into a management intensive grazing program," says Gerrish. "On my own farm, I started experimenting with controlled grazing 16 years ago and I'm still adding fences and water."
* Pick the right kickoff. "In our part of the country (Midwest) late fall or early winter is the best time of year to launch a controlled grazing program. "You can work with stockpiled grasses and dry cows," explains Gerrish. "Number one, that helps reduce winter feed costs. Number two, if you're working with dormant grasses and non-producing animals, any mistakes you make aren't going to hurt you very much."
"Spring is the worst time of year to get started," says Gerrish. "The grass is growing fast and the cow is at the height of her nutritional needs. People tend to get frustrated and give up."
* Go for a walk. Informal and formal networks of producers involved in controlled grazing are springing up all over the country. Many of these groups schedule pasture walks at individual farms.
"Going on some of these walks in your own area is a great way to broaden your knowledge base," says Gerrish. "Every farm or ranch is different so you get to see a wide variety of practices, equipment and management styles.
"People hosting these walks are usually more than willing to tell you about things that have and haven't worked for them. So it's a chance to learn from other people's mistakes," Gerrish says.
Looking for additional help on setting up a controlled grazing program? You're in luck.
* There is on-site technical expertise and cost share information (many states still have programs in place for fence and water development) from local Extension or Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices. They can also put you in contact with producers conducting pasture walks or others sponsoring workshops.
* For information somewhat broader in scope, contact the Appropriate Technology Transfer For Rural Areas (ATTRA), P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville, AR 72702. This non-profit, federally-funded agency publishes a variety of materials related to controlled grazing. Specific titles of interest include "Rotational Grazing," "Sustainable Pasture Management" and "Meeting Nutritional Requirements of Ruminants on Pasture." Phone ATTRA at 800/346-9140.
* Internet users can check out the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center's home page at www.aes.missouri.edu/fsrc.
* If you fancy discussion groups, check out the Graze-L discussion list. To get information on linking up, drop an e-mail message to majordomo@ taranaki.ac.nz. Type "Subscribe Graze-L" in the e-mail message window.