Jay and Krista Reiser were considering taking over a 2700 acre North Dakota ranch they knew they were facing some problems. First, their financial adviser told them to expect a $38,000 annual loss if they continued to operate the ranch as it had always been run. Second, their pastures were depleted, with lots of bare ground, and not enough forage. They decided that mob grazing might be the right tool to solve both problems. Three years later, when reporting on their Northeast SARE funded project to pilot mob grazing on the ranch, Jay and Krista have seen some positive results.
Increased Grazing Days
They met their goal of increasing grazing days through mob grazing. In that area of the country, most ranchers plan for 15-19 cow days per acre. With mob grazing the Reisers increased that to 32 cow days per acre. Part of this was a result of more efficient forage utilization as cattle in smaller cells competed to get their share of what they thought was limited forage. In addition, while the cattle were mob grazed on a small portion of the ranch, the majority of the land was rested. Some of this stockpile was used to extend their grazing season into the winter months.
The stockpile helped the Reisers solve financial issues. Krista noted that it saved them $8,000 – $10,000 in hay costs that first winter. The excess forage also gave them the opportunity for custom grazing cattle, boosting their bottom line.
Rest is the Best
The Reisers think that REST is the number one benefit of using mob grazing on their ranch. When showing before and after pictures of the changing forage on their place, Krista said, “It was easy. All we did was let it rest.”
They sum it up best in their final report saying, “The rest that was incorporated with mob grazing allowed our plants to increase in vigor and production. While we were mob grazing we would graze a piece of ground and then we would not come back and graze that area for a year or more. The different classes of grasses and forbs were able to better complement each other and form a fuller canopy. Our warm season plants were better able to express themselves since they were able to mature and go to seed on certain areas of our land base.”
But There Are Frustrations Too!
The practice of mob-grazing is not immune from Murphy’s law. So things can and will go wrong. In the article describing the Reisers’ fencing showed how they used batt latches to automatically let cattle into the next grazing cell. Sometimes the cattle didn’t find the latch, or the gate didn’t open, or the cattle decided it was too hot to graze and they laid around by the water source instead of heading to the next pasture. Figuring out how big a grazing cell should be was a learning process and it was complicated by varying production rates on hills and bottoms, and surprise rainstorms that left areas pugged if the cattle weren’t moved quickly enough. And then their were the dumb calves who couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to do, the mosquitoes and gnats that chowed down on Jay and Krista as they built fences. These are all things that can be resolved (except maybe the bugs). If you’re expecting these things, you can prepare for them in advance, hopefully reducing your frustration levels a bit. So thank Jay and Krista for leading the way.
Here’s what Jay and Krista suggest if you’re considering implementing mob-grazing on your large landscape ranch:
1. Move into it slowly and take the time to learn from others.
Mob grazing takes a lot of time and you have to be willing to take time to watch your cattle and make sure you’re evaluating their performance.
2. Consider your trample to graze ratio goal when figuring cell size.
The right cell size will get you the results you want. Developing an experienced eye will take some time.
3. Don’t expect immediate results
Nature doesn’t change as quickly as humans would like. Everything takes time and patience.
4. Use mob-grazing as a tool, not a whole ranch system.
Jay and Krista found that their topography meant that some areas had thinner vegetation. They discovered that the labor output to mob-graze (with 4 times a day moves) those areas didn’t result in a corresponding increase in production. Those are areas that they won’t continue to mob-graze. Instead they’ll move cattle on a once a day or even once a week basis.
Krista described their grazing management as “getting the cows to the right place at the right time for the right reasons.” Those reasons can include soil building and stockpiling, by using multiple moves per day while giving other areas plenty of rest, or dealing with unwanted forage, like mobbing the herd to deal with wormwood crowding out newly planted grasses, or my favorite, Quality of Life Grazing, where they put the cows in a pasture big enough to allow Jay and Krista to take a vacation.
Thanks to the Reisers and to Northeast SARE for this project. It’s given us a lot of food for thought.
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: