I have often advocated for low-input cattle production in this column. To avoid some argument over semantics, for this discussion let’s define inputs as anything tangible, including physical labor. Allow me to define management as brain work, such as planning, analysis, decision-making and the constructive things we do sitting behind our desks.
Our cattle have two important jobs: Eat and convert grass, browse and forbs into wholesome beef and other products used by humans; and improve the land and soil upon which they walk and live. Because man has domesticated them and manipulated their behaviors and genetics, management is required to help the animals do these two jobs as well as possible.
I am learning that to manage with low inputs requires a higher level of management. It doesn’t require much thought to let the inputs do your work for you. Mental effort is required to learn the lessons of nature and then manage livestock to do their two jobs effectively and profitably.
The right cattle with low inputs will always be more profitable. I like to minimize the inputs that go directly to cattle—just take the rough edges off the environment and climate. I much prefer to put inputs into infrastructure that will facilitate better grazing, thus helping the cattle do their second job better. To get this done, there are two “high management” areas to work in:
- 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.
There is a real paradox in cattle selection. Smaller cattle will almost always produce more pounds per acre. It is easier for smaller cattle to adequately feed themselves, thus they maintain better body condition and breed better. They wean a higher percentage of their body weight because giving the same milk as a bigger cow will typically produce nearly the same size calf as a bigger cow.
You can run more of the smaller cows because of their lower maintenance requirement. However, most of our cattle are going to a feedlot and a packing plant. They must have enough size to perform well there. However, don’t be led to more size or milk than will be highly efficient on your ranch. Many years of observation and comparison on many ranches in many locations has convinced me that too much size, too much milk and too little heterosis has lowered the conception rates on many ranches. Some have tried to compensate by adding fed feed and supplemental inputs.
What do I mean by low inputs directly to the cattle? I mean:
- Grazing all or most of the year with hay feeding only in times of deep snow or prolonged severe cold (hay feeding is too often nothing more than an expensive habit).
- Strategic supplementation of protein and minerals—only to correct nutritional deficiencies. This means that you pick the time and place to get cost-effective benefit from the use of the supplements.
- Almost no labor for individual animal attention. Animals should be genetically capable of maintaining good health and calving unassisted so that minimal labor is required.
Cattle can be bred to fit this kind of management in most locations, but it takes “high management.”
How do we keep a low-input approach while developing infrastructure for better grazing? I suggest using mostly electric fence for pasture divisions. It is much less expensive to build and requires significantly less maintenance if properly built.
You want a lot of paddocks and potential paddocks for good grazing. I have seen a lot of permanent 1 or 2 high-tensile wire electric fences that are simple, yet durable in construction. When terrain allows, most ranchers want these permanent paddocks to be long and somewhat narrow—not wider than ¼ mile. They can then use temporary electric fences to make as many small paddocks as necessary to fit the timing of grazing and size of the herd.
I haven’t explained even a small part of what one needs to understand about the principles of soil health, plant physiology, ranch layout, fence construction and water development to make good grazing possible, effective and simple. Simple is the operative word. If you do it right, once the fencing and water development are done, one person can take care of a large number of cattle. However, it requires “high management.”
On large, low-rainfall ranches, I have seen an extreme alternative to accomplish some of the grazing objectives. Where a pasture or an area in a pasture may only be used or grazed for a few days every year or even every two years, water is hauled because it is lower cost than the cost of fence and water lines when you are considering many miles of fence and water line in relationship to the number of cattle you can run. In large pastures, portable water troughs are moved every few days and the cattle tend to follow the water.
The alternatives always must be considered and analyzed, but it is more profitable and personally satisfying to become a high-management, low-input operator.
What is high management? It is becoming a lifelong learner, learning from good ranchers and other qualified people, seeking and evaluating low cost-low input alternatives, making well-thought-out and analyzed decisions, and then implementing those decisions with a minimal amount of purchased inputs.
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