I had the privilege in April of visiting John Cross at his ranch west of Nanton, Alberta, Canada. His ranch is at the foot of the Canadian Rockies and a little more than 100 miles north of the Canada-U.S. border. Seeing what Cross has done with good grazing management has made me very glad that I have used a few articles to encourage readers to improve their grazing management.
Cross calves in June, weans in February, and goes into winter with no hay on the ranch except for a few bales for horses. He has some higher country that can get deeper snow and is more difficult to get to with supplement; he uses that for summer and fall grazing. The lower portion of the ranch may be grazed lightly in the spring, with the main intent being to create and stockpile winter grazing.
He’s put in quite a bit of water line, much of which is 3-in. pipe. It allows him to water a lot of cows in one place, and he’s continuing to add more.
During my visit, I saw his cowherd and calves weaned earlier that month, and they looked fantastic. The obvious question is how he dares to go into a Canadian winter with no hay on hand. His response is that he’s managed his grazing to provide winter grazing.
If the feed is snowed over to the point that cattle find it difficult to graze, he uses a dozer on a four-wheel drive tractor to move the snow off the grass. He attaches a 2-in., solid rod to the blade to keep it from cutting the stockpiled grass. Cross says that he usually doesn’t spend more than six hours in a day uncovering feed for an average of 30 days in a winter. It’s been a lot less expensive than buying and feeding hay, he adds.
50% increase in carrying capacity
Cross says he’s increased carrying capacity by about 50% over time, and his pastures look wonderful. There is residual standing feed, but much of the residual is litter on the soil surface. This litter will cause more snowmelt and rainfall to go into the ground. Over the years, the continual decomposition of litter will increases the size of the soil “sponge” that will hold more water longer.
Litter will also moderate soil temperatures – not so hot, nor so cold. There will be less evaporation. This process increases the percent of total rainfall that can actually be used for plant growth. By laying litter on the soil surface, the decay process is advanced thus enhancing the mineral cycle and the process of returning nutrients to the soil to be available for future plant growth.
Cross recommends that beginners plan their water first, and it’s better to have too much than too little. Following that, plan permanent fence. His grazing is advanced enough that he would replace some permanent fence with temporary fence for more flexibility in paddock size and location. Almost all his internal fence – both permanent and temporary – is electric.
There are several important things to consider and remember:
• Time and timing are used mainly to reduce or eliminate overgrazing. This will enhance plant vigor and recruitment of new plants, which leads to other improvements in ecosystem processes.
• Animal impact is used to return standing litter to the soil surface and to awaken “dead” soils. Stock density can help with this, but the main contributor is the herd effect that happens when animals move as a herd away from predators, stock dogs and herders, or toward an attractant such as a feed supplement.
I’ve often said that we are “nutritionists” when we are loading the correct amount of supplement; but we should become “range managers” as soon as we get to the pasture. The placement of supplement and the hurried movement of animals to, and at, that location can do the soil a lot of good.
• The basic ecosystem processes are: water cycle, mineral cycle, sunlight energy flow, and biological succession. If you make improvement in any of these, you begin a chain of events that involves all of the processes. Making just a little more water available for plant growth can initiate a host of events that involves plants, animals, air, water, birds, worms, soil microbes, etc.
Good grazing is a catalyst for efficiency
These interactions are complex, but can work for our well-being if we have some understanding of the basic principles, and use practices that move the ecosystem processes toward our goals. Our management or climate changes can have a good or bad effect on the processes in relationship to our goals. We need to make sure that our effect is positive.
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Good grazing is the catalyst for reducing fed feed and increasing grazed feed. It can significantly reduce labor and equipment costs, and make labor more effective. It can also increase land productivity, enabling you to run more cows without adding land. You can add carrying capacity with less cost by using fence and water than by buying more land.
Good grazing is one of the most satisfying and economically rewarding things you can do as a rancher. It’s a wonderful mix of art and science. Ecology, soil science and plant physiology are the science. The art is your ability to see what is happening to plants, soil and livestock and make timely and appropriate adjustments as circumstances change.
You can’t live long enough to get it perfect, so there is always a challenge. You can see the positive results of any good changes that you make; so, while not perfect, you still get a nice reward.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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