All the principles of sustainable grazing management can be summarized in one rather strange statement: your cattle should appear not to have legs! Their short legs should be hidden in tall grass. Both animal genetics and pasture management contribute to this philosophy. In this article, I’ll start with cattle selection and care protocols. In Part 2, I will cover forage considerations.
Genetics: Breed for small, stocky cattle with short legs.
For optimum grass efficiency, you should be breeding for a small-framed animal. Your specific farm environment will naturally sort out your ideal mature animal weight. You will end up culling animals that are too big because they will be poor performers. Over time a dominant genetic type will emerge, bloodlines that your farm has selected specially for performance in your exact microclimate and under your management program. However, efficiency always increases as mature weight decreases. If a 1,000-pound cow and a 1,400-pound cow both eat “X” amount of grass in one day, the big cow will use a larger portion of that grass just to keep herself alive. The small cow will be able to fulfill her maintenance energy equirements with less of that grass, so she can put a larger amount of it into milk, body condition and gestation. Small cattle are capable of weaning a larger percentage of their body weight than large cows for this reason. Commodity cattle producers are often too preoccupied with calf weaning weight to focus on what percentage of cow weight their mama cows are weaning. Of course this is bound to happen in an industry where calves are sold by the pound. However, you can carry more cattle on the same amount of land if they are smaller. Would you rather have one six-weight calf to sell or two four-weights? The small cow strategy pays off! You’ll also appreciate it during calving season, because you’ll have far fewer incidences of dystocia when breeding to a small bull. This past summer, I bred my Red Angus herd to a frame-size-2 Belted Galloway bull weighing around 1,100 pounds.
The cattle you select for and breed must also be of correct conformation and type for grazing, in addition to being small. A slab-sided, late-maturing, tight-gutted, spindly-legged animal has no place in a grassfed operation. This genetic type has been developed for speedy grain-finishing in feedlots. Leave them there! Grain cattle often have pinched, restricted heart girth areas (right behind the front legs) and flat sides that hardly stick out at all. Choose females with huge round ribcages, which protrude significantly when you look at the animal from front or back. There needs to be room inside them for a lot of grass and a calf. You should look for stocky cattle with short legs and not overly thick bones. The show cattle industry has been selecting for big bones, which is totally counterintuitive for meat production. A large volume of bone decreases carcass dressing percentage. If it’s sold by live or hanging weight, the buyer gets stuck paying for a bunch of useless bone. Short legs and finer bones are indicators of grass efficiency, because there’s less body weight that will require extra precious grass just to stay alive. Breed the stilts out from under them. Aim for cattle that resemble tanker semi trucks: a huge volume of gut “tank” space to hold grass, short “wheels” to get around on, and a wide, stocky frame.
Management: Breed and manage for cattle you don’t have to see all the time.
Of course, you can’t see your animals’ legs if you don’t see your animals at all! Beef cattle are not like dairy cows, which require constant labor inputs. You shouldn’t have to be working with them more than once per day at most. In some situations, you can check your herd every few days, or even go months without seeing them (in the case of Western ranches). Choose the management protocols YOU want to implement on your farm, and breed for cattle that fit into them. If an animal makes you step outside your routine daily workload, cull it! For example, you can decide “I don’t want to check my calving females at night.” Then go to bed. In the morning, your herd should be happily grazing and new calves should be sucking. If anything has gone wrong, cull the animal in question. (Of course, provide prompt veterinary care to alleviate suffering and keep the animal(s) alive until you can sell them. But don’t give them a chance to do it again!) A veterinarian once told me, “the best medicine is trailer-mycin, it cures everything!”