Is it possible to adapt mob grazing to work on large scales and native rangelands?
Like many of you, Jay and Krista Reiser asked that question as they consider the North Dakota ranch they hoped to take over. They thought that mob grazing had the potential to help them solve two problems. First, their financial adviser had shown them that if they continued managing the ranch as it had been, they’d see a negative cash flow of $38,000 a year. A large part of that cost was for winter feeding: hay, supplemental feed and pasture rent. They thought that mob grazing might help them extend their grazing season and lower their expenses, making the ranch profitable. Their second problem was that years of continuous, set stock grazing had reduced forage production and soil health. They thought that a mob grazing strategy with rotation, rest, and better distribution of manure and urine could reinvigorate the soil, improve forage quantity and quality and provide drought resistance.
Jay and Krista tried to find examples of other ranchers who had used mob grazing in situations such as theirs, but came up with very little. Thinking that others might benefit from what they learned by trying mob grazing on their ranch, they applied for a farmer/rancher grant for just under $6,000 from North Central SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and got to work.
Located in Washburn, North Dakota, the 2,700 acre Reiser Ranch is typical of many ranches on arid rangelands. Forage quality and quantity varies depending on precipitation, which averages about 16 inches a year, and on topography, with rolling hilltops being drier and supporting less forage, and draws and lowlands having more. Like most ranches this size it comes with very few cross fences. The combination is likely what keeps most ranchers from considering mob grazing.
Mob Grazing Terms
A couple of terms are useful here. The first is Stocking Rate. This is the number of acres needed to support one animal and depends on plant production and the size of the grazing animal. On rangelands this is typically defined as an Animal Unit Month where the base is the requirement to feed one 1,000 pound cow and her calf for one month. (If you’re interested in AUMs, here’s a link to an article with a calculator I built to help you quickly do the math.) Stocking Density is the concentration of animals in one location.
For this project, Jay and Krista weren’t increasing the stocking rate, they were simply increasing the density, or the number of animals in one location. It’s hard to visualize how much a cow will eat in a month, so, because they were working in hours and days, Jay and Krista measured their forage in Cow Days per Acre. (CDA). They grazed pairs with calves that were more than a month old and cows that would be calving in the fall. They did no mob grazing during calving season. They generally moved animals three to four times a day, fenced all the cells to be grazed that day in the morning and used automated gate openers (batt latches) to move the herd on its own from cell to cell.
They went from this, the historic management of the ranch:
To this, using fencing, and without increasing the number of animals:
In practice it looked like the photos below. Notice that the concentration of animals changes depending on forage production. Animals are more concentrated when forage is thick and lush, and less concentrated when it isn’t as abundant.
What this means is there is a lot to learn. That’s why, based on their own experience, Jay and Krista say, “We would tell other ranchers to move into mob grazing slowly, and take the time to learn from others. Mob grazing takes a lot of time and you have to be willing to watch your cattle and make sure you’re evaluating their performance.” This can be a big change if you’re accustomed to putting cattle out in the spring, moving them maybe a few times during the season and bringing them home in the fall. It means evaluating the day to day and season to season flow of your operation and making adjustments. Changing old routines can be challenging.
But is it worth it? And what’s involved?
Jay and Krista found that the “#1 Advantage” they got from mob grazing was rest. When pastures were no longer being continuously grazed, they had less bare ground and grew more forage that was healthier and more diverse. Plants are more vigorous after rest and now when they’re grazed, they respond better.
As for animal performance, while all were healthy and well fed, it was impossible to attribute that to mob grazing. Animals weren’t always grazed as a mob when weather or rancher schedules did not permit. It’s normal for changing weather and schedules to make it so that more than two years of a grazing project are required to come up with a solid conclusion. Jay and Krista are continuing their intensive management, but for now, they say that they’ll be using mob razing as a tool and not a whole ranch grazing system.
We’ll be looking at how they planned their grazing, set up fencing and watering, how they knew when to move the cows to a new cell, what they learned about trampled forage and more about their results in coming articles in this series. So stay tuned!
Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.
Here are the rest of the articles in this series: