A real-ranch experiment in Texas is showing higher profit potential from better grazing management and reduced wintering costs, even with 40% fewer cows.
On a ranch belonging to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service near Riesel, Texas, a tiny town just southeast of Waco, scientists and range management specialists in late 2011 began a 10-year study of conventional, set-stock grazing management vs. controlled, planned grazing together with multi-species cover cropping.
Working with existing managers, they split the ranch in half, and on the north 280 acres began changing management and measuring the outcomes of soil health, forage production, cattle production and profitability. They kept management the same as it had been for many years on the south 280 acres and measured the same things.
Jeff Goodwin, a former Natural Resources Conservation Service Texas state rangeland management specialist who now is a pasture and rangelands consultant with the Nobel Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., says the research team’s plan is to decrease inputs at the same time it improves grazing distribution, grazing efficiency, forage and soil health, soil water-holding capacity, forage production, and ultimately, stocking rate and ranch profits.
In the three-and-one-half years so far, the average return for the north unit, where managed grazing was being practiced, was $1,170 per year. On the south unit, with all the gates open and traditional hay feeding throughout the winter, the operation lost $80 per year. This despite the fact the north unit team cut the number of cows from 50 to 30 so it could immediately eliminate nearly all supplemental hay (Figure 1).
The marginally higher profit on the northern managed-grazing unit was achieved despite a three-year amortization of $10,000 in water and electric fencing improvements which helped divide that property into 14 paddocks. With that out of the budget now, Goodwin says he’s already projected a $140-per-cow profit for 2016 (Figure 2).
In addition, Goodwin explains profits will improve as the north unit soil improves, and as that allows them to increase stocking rates.
“We should really begin to see some improvements in carrying capacity this year, since it takes about three years for cover-cropping and grazing management to really start making a noticeable difference in soil health,” Goodwin says.
Why cover crops?
The north and south units both have a small amount of cropland, along with the majority pasture. For many years, the cropland was used for experiments on poultry litter and watershed nutrient movement. That work continues on separate acreage, and the north unit couldn’t get rid of the crop ground. Goodwin says they would plant it to grass if that were an option, but since it is not, they have chosen to work with the cropland on both units.
Goodwin explains that in cropland or pasture, the diversity provided by multi-species cover crops builds soil life and therefore total plant production and water-holding capacity of the soil.
An example: On 5 north-unit acres of degraded bermudagrass pasture, the team planted a cool-season, multispecies cover crop that yielded 25 days of grazing with no fertilizer. That saved hay feeding and built the soil so that the bermudagrass stand rose about 50% the next summer.
The former oat fields on the north property are now in a two-season cover-crop rotation. The data shows this is building the soil, but also providing more total grazing days and more recovery time for the perennial-grass paddocks.
Goodwin adds that the team used temporary electric fencing to further subdivide the 14 main paddocks at times, and will continue to shrink those down to get higher stock densities. This will results in better animal impact and distribution of urine and dung, helping jump-start soil biology faster.
Along the same lines, Goodwin adds, one of the management plans is to keep increasing stock density on the kleingrass paddocks via temporary fencing. In the past three years, the managers have subdivided the land it into 10-acre paddocks, and then last year, into 3-acre paddocks. That boosted stock density to 13,080 pounds total cattle weight per acre. This year the team plans to go to one-half-acre paddocks and about 80,000 pounds per acre.
To figure stock density, add up your total herd weight and divide it by the number of acres.
The research team’s records show it producing and leaving behind more total forage on the north than on the continuously grazed pastures on the south side. This is important for soil building.
Through the first three-plus years of the trial, cows in the north unit, the one with controlled grazing, registered more consistent near infrared technology (NIR)-ranked fecal quality, showing a more consistent diet throughout the year. Cows in the south unit showed big boosts in body condition and diet quality when grazing oats in the early winter and the spring. There were not large differences in body condition between north and south.
The soils in the north side’s perennial pastures showed small increases in water-extractable organic carbon vs. those on the south side, meaning they are tending toward increased organic matter and soil life. The north side soils in the crop ground, however, made large increases in water-extractable organic carbon vs. soils on the south side crop ground. This foretells increases in soil organic matter, forage production, water infiltration and water-holding capacity.
Alan Newport is director of content for BEEF Vet and Beef Producer.