Fences and Management-intensive Grazing – Why Bother?

This article ran in February of 2016. We thought it would be helpful as you’re considering what you’ll do this coming spring.

Jim will be speaking at this conference. Click for more info.

My friend, Bob Kinford, recently posed the following question during a conversation about grazing management alternatives. Recognize most of my operating experience is in high rainfall & irrigated environments while Bob comes from much more of a rangeland perspective. I wholeheartedly endorse what Bob does with cattle on rangeland. I enjoy what I do in the wet world.

Bob asks, “My question would be why one would want to go back to fencing and trying to judge the daily feed? I’m not sure there would be enough benefit to the soil to go to the trouble, especially as the cattle will judge how much feed they need better than you can, which in turn helps animal performance in those areas of sparse, low quality feed.”

I thought I would list some of the reasons I use portable electric fence for my daily grazing management. Because Bob is all about getting cows into their ‘happy place’, I thought I would start there.

Jim in his happy place.
Jim in his happy place.

1) One of the most enjoyable times of day for me is when I get to go out and move fences & shift the cattle. I get exercise, I get to look closely at both the pasture & the cattle. It is just a happy place for me. Some people love being on horseback all day long. I never developed that kind of loving relationship with a horse. I like walking along with my fence reel with cattle. When you use the right kind of portable fencing equipment, it is almost effortless.

2) I operate with very specific grazing objectives every day on every acre. Fences allow me to place the cattle on the landscape so that every day I accomplish my objectives. To me what I set out accomplish on the pastures are business decisions. I prefer to make the business decisions in our operation rather than the cows. Cows are very good at being cows, but lousy at business management.

Jim is happy here too...checking in on his cows.
Jim is happy here too…checking in on his cows and sending them to the next pasture to work.

3) Judging daily feed is simple. That is, once you give up all the crap of actually trying to measure dry matter yield and do all the calculations of intake and utilization and just ‘see’ AUD/acre as your unit of yield. It also helps if your permanent fence is built in such a way that it measures area for you with post spacing. Once you know how to do the assessment, the only question is recognizing spatial area. I do agree with Bob that in sparse range forage, the cow can do a better job of sourcing feed than you might be able to do in allocating it. On productive irrigated land, I think cows can indulge in too much luxury consumption if given too much free rein.

Nothing better than a fencing reel and a few cows!
Nothing better than a fencing reel and some cows!

4) If you set up the permanent infrastructure appropriately, daily labor is pretty minimal. Right now with a single herd of 943 head, it takes me about 25 minutes to do a daily move. When I had two separate herds, it took an hour because I had to get from one herd to the next. I have been spending a little more time this year with our other small property with 40 head of custom grazed heifers because I am doing research on knapweed control. I am spending about 30 minutes a day making either 2 or 3 moves to get full consumption of the knapweed while it is blooming. A lot of guys I know can’t catch, saddle, and load their horse in that time. Well, maybe they can and they are just savoring those moments of being in their happy place.

5) Our 450 acres of pivot ground is only split into four permanent divisions, but we can turn it into however many paddocks we want it to be with the movable fences. I have split into over 100 daily increments when I needed to.

Rain, snow or shine, moving the fence and knowing that you're making good use of your forage would make anybody smile.
Rain, snow or shine, moving the fence and knowing that you’re making good use of your forage would make anybody smile.

6) Investment in the movable fence? For the main operation, I have less than $1,000 investment in reels, polybraid, and step-in posts. Most of it has been in use for over 10 years now. What does one good cow horse cost? The saddle & other tack? Annual feed cost? Yes, we have a little ongoing replacement fence cost to the tune of about $50/annually. On the cabin pasture, everything I use is at least 20 years old except for less than 40 posts of different types that I am evaluating.

JimGerrishFencingAd27) Too much time and headaches maintaining electric fence? Buy quality material and use it right and there are very few issues. I spend one or two days in the Spring getting everything ready again after winter. I am pretty sure I spend less than a day fixing any kind of problems that might develop through the course of our grazing season. If you buy crap products, your experience will be completely different when it comes to electric fence.

I could list several more reasons, but I need to move on to other tasks.

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.


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