July was going to be my last article on grazing for awhile, but I received many emails with questions that I decided to devote another article to the questions in two main categories:
- Can you implement planned, time-controlled grazing without fencing?
- How do you plan and stay on plan during a drought?
Those with questions about avoiding fencing mostly asked if herding or controlling water location might work. I’ve heard of a few people who have a reputation for placing cattle in various places on a rangeland, leaving them, and the cattle will stay in the same vicinity until the herder returns to move them to fresh feed. I also know a number of people who have tried this with less than good results. However, I don’t doubt that it can be done if your handling skills are proficient.
One of the main reasons given for wanting to herd was to save fencing cost and to be more wildlife-friendly. The cost of fence, however, needs to be balanced against the cost of learning how to herd well enough to be effective. Generally, I believe it’s more secure and less expensive to fence; it just might not be as much fun.
The cost of good electric fencing is very reasonable for most situations. Once installed, it requires very little maintenance, but there is a tendency to overbuild. I’ve seen hundreds of miles of fence built with a single high-tensile wire hung on fiber glass or plastic posts.
The one situation in which I would consider herding is in the mountainous West where the terrain itself can “almost” act as a fence, and there is water in most every canyon, draw or small basin. Salt, mineral and other supplements can be located to help with the herding. In some of these cases, fencing can be quite costly; plus, it can also be damaged by elk and sometimes bear.
In desert and semi-desert ranges of the West, I’ve seen stock water used as a method to control grazing time and location of cattle. When more than 60 acres are required to support a cow-calf pair for a year, even low-cost fencing can get quite expensive on a per-cow basis.
Water location is important
Well-located water is needed to achieve good range utilization and to facilitate any measure of time-controlled grazing. With adequate stock watering sites in place, a few ranchers I know are rotating the water availability from place to place rather than having it available at all stock water sites continually. They turn off a tank and turn on another to fit the needs of the grazing plan, and do enough herding to ensure that the cattle find the next site.
Of course, there will be some overlap area between tanks that will be exposed to grazing for a little longer than the areas right near the tanks. However, with a good grazing plan, this should not be a significant effect. Remember, we seek to optimize rather than maximize.
In these large low-rainfall area pastures, it isn’t cost effective to completely eliminate overgrazing. However, it can be significantly reduced in the grazing period, which can be followed by lengthy recovery so that nearly every plant can recover fully before the next grazing.
I’ve always disliked hauling stock water, but I have worked with a desert rancher in Arizona who hauls water to preselected locations in a pasture to control placement of the cattle. He’s done this rather than further divide his pastures with fence, or build pipelines that tend to plug with minerals carried in the water. Because the haul distance is relatively short, the cost of hauling water is reasonable.
The resulting pasture utilization and time-control are very good. Cattle condition has improved greatly, which has most likely been the result of much less walking from water to feed.
In subsequent grazings, the water can be placed at different locations than previously if range utilization could be improved or animal impact could do some good in another location. Each situation has its own set of costs and benefits. Therefore, each rancher needs to do his own arithmetic.
I don’t have a good rule of thumb, but it seems to me that when rainfall exceeds about 16-17 in./year, and/or 20 acres or less will support a cow for a year, you won’t have good animal location control without fencing.
Let’s assume that you have a herd of 200 cows that will have calves at side for 6-8 months of the year. If your country requires 15 acres/cow-calf pair, you will need 3,000 acres for your herd. If you have 30 paddocks, the average size will be 100 acres for 200 cows and sometimes their calves. Without further subdivision of the 30 paddocks, you will need to stay in each paddock 3-15 days depending on plan objectives and time of year. I don’t think many of us can herd that well; and, if we could, would it be cost effective?
Working the plan during drought
In drought, I plan grazing using the same principles as in times of normal moisture. If you have a good time-controlled grazing plan, and you have to make a pasture move well ahead of schedule, followed by another, you’re getting a good signal that you aren’t producing as much feed as normal.
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Your drought plan should also include a destocking plan with critical dates and which cattle you plan to sell first. For example, if it hasn’t rained at least 2 in. by May 15, we’ll sell half the yearling steers. Keep moving dates forward 10 or 15 days along with critical rainfall amounts and what you would sell at each date if the specified rainfall amounts haven’t happened.
If you keep your destocking plan aligned with your grazing plan, you’ll be able to quickly adjust for the mistakes that you will make, and your stocking rate will be in balance with the available forage. In addition to the production and land-health benefits, one of the real benefits of doing and following a good grazing plan is the early warning it gives when inadequate rainfall isn’t producing the usual amount of feed.
Sometimes in continuously grazed pastures, it takes much longer to recognize that we are in trouble. Remember, the earlier you begin to destock, the less you will have to. Trying to feed cows on pastures where there has been little to no recovery is a recipe for very slow post-drought recovery. It’s just better to take our lumps up front. It will result in less destocking and cost less in the long run.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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