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Ranchers Sing The Praises Of Mob Grazing of Cattle

Mob grazing, or short-duration, high-intensity grazing, improves pasture while increasing stocking rate, its practitioners say.Multiple daily moves, watching the degree of utilization and focusing on animal performance are the keys to a successful mob-grazing program.

Heather Smith Thomas

February 28, 2012

13 Min Read
Ranchers Sing The Praises Of Mob Grazing of Cattle

Gary Wofford, Kevin Fulton, Chad Peterson, Greg Judy and Mark Brownlee are “mob” men – mob grazing, that is. The term refers to short-duration, high-intensity grazing of many cattle on a small area of pasture, moved several times a day to new forage.

To understand mob grazing, imagine how millions of bison moved for centuries without fences.

“They grazed in huge herds, spending short periods in certain areas and moving on – after fouling the feed with manure/urine or chased by predators,” says Gary Wofford, who ranches in arid southeast Colorado. “They might not return for months or a year, allowing grass to utilize the fertilizer provided by their manure/urine, and to fully recover.”

Holistic management educator Ian Mitchell-Innes defines mob grazing as moving animals around a pasture at high density to emulate that predator-prey relationship in which animals graze in tight groups and keep moving to protect the herd.

“As a result, only the plant tops were eaten, but that’s where all the energy is. The rest of the plant was trodden onto the ground, where it served as litter, providing soil nutrients and protecting the soil from sun and erosion,” he explains. 

Kevin Fulton, who ranches in central Nebraska, rotationally grazed his cattle for 40 years before initiating intensive grazing nine years ago. He began by moving cattle daily, then multiple daily moves. He learned that when you rest pastures longer – dividing them into smaller paddocks and taking more time to get back to each small piece – forage production improves.


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“The more paddocks, the more significant the positive changes will be,” he says.

Chad Peterson, north central Nebraska, was an early adopter. Drought forced him to begin on a small, trial-and-error basis in 2001. “In my experimentation, I kept making paddocks smaller in order to extend recovery time for the plants. This produced fantastic results so I kept doing it.”

In 2002, he met grazing guru Allan Savory. After reading Savory’s how-to book, Peterson realized that what he’d been doing was called ultra-high stock density. In 2007, his ranch was part of a University of Nebraska grazing tour in which Savory was a presenter. During the tour, someone coined the term “mob grazing,” Peterson says, and the name stuck.

Stocking Density

Doug Peterson, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) state grassland conservationist in Missouri, says stocking density is determined by the animal pounds per acre. For instance, 100, 1,000-lb. cows would be 100,000 lbs. “So, on a half-acre, 100 cows would be 200,000 lbs., while 100 cows on 10 acres would be 10,000 lbs.,” he says.

Jim Gerrish, grazing consultant and owner of American Grazinglands Services in May, ID, says some proponents of mob grazing say stock density must be at least 100,000 lbs./acre.

“I’ve been doing that for years with once-daily moves, but I’m not mob grazing. Others say it must be at least 500,000 lbs./acre to accomplish your goal. It is multiple moves per day and the high-stock density that differentiate mob grazing from other management intensive grazing (MIG) forms,” he says.

“The higher the density, with shorter grazing periods, the more uniform the urine/manure distribution will be. You’re fertilizing the entire piece – dumping more nitrogen back on that pasture. For instance, 100,000 lbs. of animals typically leave 50-55 lbs. of readily available nitrogen on the ground as urine. The higher the stock density, the more uniformly nitrogen is distributed,” Gerrish says.

Animal performance

Mitchell-Innes is a stockman who learned these principles by trial and error in South Africa 14 years ago. He later became a holistic management educator and now preaches the principles worldwide.

He says people must monitor the cattle to know if they’re doing it correctly.  “Otherwise, you’ll go broke,” he says.

The NRCS’s Doug Peterson says large groups of cows confined in small areas become incredibly aggressive grazers.

“You must make sure they have enough forage and only eat the part of the plant that meets their nutritional needs. Dry cows can probably eat 60-70% of the plant, but perhaps only the top 30% of the plant meets the needs of lactating cows or young stockers,” he explains.

Multiple daily moves, watching the degree of utilization and focusing on animal performance are the keys.

 “Many people attempt to get a high degree of plant utilization (70-80%) in an hour or two. But if they’re not giving animals enough total feed during the day, individual performance goes down.”

Dry pregnant cows that are winter-grazing on low-quality stockpiled forage can eat 70-80% of forage and still have good animal performance – maintaining body condition while stretching feed over more days. This is different than mob grazing in summer with pairs or stockers where you need to optimize animal performance, however.

“Your focus should be on keeping daily intake high,” Gerrish explains. If you don’t move them soon enough, they eat a lot at first, then intake tapers off too much before the next move. Layout and design of paddocks and portable fence becomes important for saving time when moving often, he adds.

“If you bunch cattle tightly, don’t limit their plant selection,” says Doug Judy, a Missouri operator. “I’m taking the top third of the plant, then moving cows – regardless of what the pasture looks like. My interns are trained to look at the cattle, watching their left side as they come through the gate – to see whether they left them in the pasture too long. If you keep shortchanging them on gut fill, cows lose weight,” Judy says.

Increased Stocking Rate

As pastures become more productive, most ranchers increase stocking rate. Fulton says the size of the increase depends on the land and its condition. He’s increased his stocking rate another 80%, but others have gone as high as 400%, he says.

“Most folks who want to run 50% more cattle, might go out and rent 50% more land, but you be able to increase numbers that much just by changing management. And a stocking increase is mostly profit because there’s no increase in overhead,” Fulton says.

It just requires a little more labor. You can increase stocking rate during your grazing period, or use the additional forage to extend animal unit days. Some producers extend grazing by one to five months.

“We’ve gone to year-round grazing, which many people say you can’t do in central Nebraska,” Fulton says. “There are times that we feed a little hay, but we stockpile grass and graze through winter most years (see In Search Of 300 Day Grazing).”

Chad Peterson claims he has sufficient forage to outlast a yearlong drought. His ranch originally ran 300-400 cows, but he’s doubled that; plus, he brings in 700 stockers for six months. He grazes year-round but buys hay for blizzard emergencies.

Wofford bought his 10-section ranch in 2006. It had been grazed continuously, and the NRCS-recommended stocking rate was 125 pairs, he says.

“I kept 120-150 pairs until I got fencing and water sources partially developed for mob grazing in 2008. The past two years, I’ve been running a 500-pair equivalent, and the grass has improved phenomenally. NRCS is thrilled; I’m thrilled.”

He says he accomplished the increase and evolved to year-round grazing by putting a water source in each section and installing permanent electric fencing to divide it into smaller pastures.

“This allows flexibility to graze for grass health as well as animal performance. My neighbors’ grass is 2 in. tall. By allowing my grass to fully recover, I have native grasses more than 1 ft. tall. This alone creates more forage. Plus, my grass also has deeper root systems. In our current drought, I had green grass growing all summer,” Wofford says.

Species diversification

Mob grazing leads to plant diversity, beneficial for nutritional needs of cattle and health of the land.

“The more diverse the plants, the more resilient the pasture,” says Doug Peterson. “Cool and warm-season grasses and broadleaf plants in the mix help it withstand drought.” He says some mob graziers have counted up to 100 different species in their pastures.

Chad Peterson says he finds new plants every year. Getting away from the monocultures and tame pastures some stockmen once deemed satisfactory greatly multiplies productivity.

“Long rest periods are the key. I use a longer recovery period than some people – a year or more – and continue to get more plant species. My pastures also need longer rest because I’m in a more brittle environment with less rainfall,” he says.

“In many types of rotational systems, plants are always grazed in vegetative (growing) stage, never allowed to become mature. Those systems never have the diversity we’re seeing with mob grazing. With MIG systems, for instance, you’re trying to keep one plant (grass) at optimum vegetative stage,” he adds.

Certain plants are always grazed severely while others are hardly touched. “Even if you leave cows there only a short time, they eat their favorites. You must extend recovery period to accommodate those plants or they’ll die out.”

“With a long recovery period, there’s always something palatable and nutritious. In September, it’s sunflowers in our pastures. In this region, you see sunflowers along road ditches but never in pastures,” says Chad Peterson, because they never had a chance to mature.

“My meadows are full of sunflowers in the fall, and it’s the first thing cattle eat. Sunflowers are high in sugar then, because they’re a late-flowering forb. We have a lot of headed-out forage and people think I’ve wasted it,” he says. But there’s no such thing as waste in this system. Mature plants also provide a canopy for other plants to grow up into, protecting them from heat and drying out, he adds.

“If you don’t have enough diversity, and graze too often, you’re managing for cool-season grasses and it’s like a lawn. In spring, when it’s rapidly growing, you can keep mowing it. But by July-August, without water it stops growing and turns brown.

“Mob grazing’s big plus is plant diversity; different plants do well in different conditions – always providing something nutritious for cattle,” Chad Peterson says.

Soil Health

Doug Peterson was a soil scientist with NRCS and had several things happen in his own operation (400 cows) that led him to see what animal impact and trampling could do.

“This is a phenomenal tool to heal/build up worn-out soils. Here in northern Missouri, historically our soils were probably close to 8% organic matter. Now, cropland is about 1.5% and well-managed pastures 2.5 to 3.5%,” Doug says.

“In my training (agronomy and soil science), we were taught it takes hundreds of years to build/restore soil. But we started seeing interesting things with intensive grazing and trampling; adding carbon to the soil surface, feeding soil biology. We now know we can do it a lot quicker,” he explains.

“Some producers have restored soil organic matter to 6%, or even 8%, in a few years, with tremendous increase in productivity. Trampling is a way to feed the soil biology. We feed our cows but rarely think about soil needs. When we remove soil’s food source (with crops or haying), we take something away. Even if we feed hay back on the land, we can’t spread it as uniformly as grazing,” Doug explains. Leaving forage builds up organic matter cows can trample in the winter during the dormant season. 

“By keeping a taller canopy most of the year, we also keep soils cooler – creating a microclimate from the soil’s surface upward (not just down). Soil temperatures under tall grass are often 20° lower than in shorter pastures right across the fence.” Shaded ground is protected from heat/wind, and stays moist longer.

Reduce cow costs

Mark Brownlee, a mob-grazing disciple in Missouri, used to feed five big round bales/cow/winter. “Now I’m down to 1 bale/cow or less, saving $100/cow last year. This year, I’ll save more because hay prices are higher. I haven’t bought fertilizer since 2008,” he says.

“In fact, I’m running a few more cows even though this summer was the driest since 1980. I grazed all the way through it. Many cattlemen here fed hay this summer, but I have a built-in stockpile of feed,” Brownlee says. 

Tips On Mob Grazing: Start Small

Stockmen interested in mob grazing should find a mentor who’s already doing it. Mark Brownlee, a Missouri mob grazing follower, says the best way to navigate a minefield is to follow someone who has done it successfully.

“You’ll find plenty of people who failed. I want to follow the ones who blazed the trail and made it work,” he says.

Start small, particularly in arid environments where native pastures are fragile, then expand gradually. “Take 10% of your ranch – put a fence or water source on your most productive ground – and do it properly,” Chad Peterson, north central Nebraska, advises.

Many western ranches have irrigated meadows and native pastures – mountains or high desert. “Put cattle on some irrigated land and do a good job of intensive grazing, using other pastures as needed. You’ll see a big response from the small amount you did right. This gets you farther than doing a large amount halfway. The first couple years, I mob-grazed only 400 of 9,000 acres, then added 200 more. Those 600 acres changed my whole ranch. It took pressure off the rest, providing longer recovery. It all became healthier and produced better,” he explains.

Traditionally, irrigated acres are cut for hay, while hillsides and mountain pastures are grazed during growing season. Peterson started doing the opposite – mob grazing green meadows and using the hills for winter grazing when grasses on fragile soils are dormant. He divided the meadows into long strips, and further divided them with temporary electric fence into paddocks of less than an acre, moving cattle five or more times daily. He grazes each small piece once during the growing season and gives it a year to recover.

“Many ranchers move cows in large groups but not often enough. I’d rather see them push the envelope harder on a small piece. The 10% they set up and mob graze would pay back immediately. Then they could add another 10%,” he says.

Mob Effect On Health

Gary Wofford, a southeast Colorado rancher, credits healthier cattle to mob grazing. “Healthier plants have nearly eliminated my cattle’s consumption of minerals. The fly burden is almost gone. Horn flies breed in fresh cow manure, and hatch a new generation two weeks later. By then, my cattle are a mile away. Flies die without a cow to feed on.”

Mob grazing also reduces internal parasites, he says. The life cycle is broken by the long recovery period, because if cattle aren’t constantly eating where they defecate, they won’t pick up worms, he says. Worm larvae move onto nearby foliage but if plants aren’t eaten short, cattle won’t ingest worms.


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