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From Minimal to Mob – Lifestyle and Economic Considerations for Designing your Grazing Program

By   /  January 15, 2018  /  12 Comments

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America is a great place. In this neck of the woods we get to do almost anything we want, and nowhere is that more true than in the grazing world. Graziers get to decide what their business, their land, even their life looks like.

But here’s the trouble with all that freedom: lots of choices means lots of decisions and lots of decisions means we actually have to think about what we’re doing and take responsibility for the outcomes. We get to decide how we live, but we’re sort of stuck with the results.

My friend Ron lives on a little ranch just down the road. Ron’s generally a pretty happy fellow who absolutely loves his life on the ranch. One day we were talking about cows and grass and all things “ranch”. Ron told me,

“I know you like movin’ those cows around, but for me, I just turn ‘em out and when the grass is gone, I start feedin’ hay.”

Of course, hay-making season is the most joyful time of the year for Ron, and his cows eat hay for about 8 months each year. And man, is he happy.

Not so long back I was at a grazing conference where people were talking about how frequently they move their cattle. One fellow said nearly every day. Another fellow said twice each day. Finally, one fellow said he moved his cattle seven times per day. That pretty much shut everyone else up.

I’ve been thinking about the extremes of grazing management, from Ron’s one move per year to the fellow who moves his cattle seven times per day, and also about all the other schemes that fall somewhere in between. It occurs to me that there must be some reasons why people select the different management styles they do, and I believe those reasons fall into two categories: lifestyle and economics.

Lifestyle

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the term lifestyle has gotten a bad rap. Somehow, choices related to lifestyle are seen as frivolous. Let me say right now: lifestyle choices are critical to happiness, and issues that influence the way we live and the quality of our life are terribly important and I think everyone should do exactly whatever they want. And that includes designing a grazing program that fits in with the rest of your life. You should run the ranch however you want. But now, repeat after me:

“As long as you can afford it.”

Economics

This is the so-called “dismal science” that helps us determine whether we can support the lifestyle choices we have made. Or, often, help explain why our plans didn’t work.

So, let’s take a quick look at the kinds of schemes people have come up with to describe their grazing programs and their lifestyles. This being America, I found quite a list of options, and undoubtedly, I missed a few. Take a look:

Figure 1

A note about Management Intensity: Management Intensity is a catch-all phrase that I made up to describe just how zealous a person is about manipulating his livestock, land, and forage. Management Intensity includes things like # of paddock moves per day, length of grazing period, stock density, and # of paddocks. In other words, all the things we can easily measure to tell just how hard a grazier is working.

Currently, our grazing industry seems transfixed with Management Intensity. Every article I read seems to suggest that the more frequent the movement, or the higher the number of paddocks, or the higher the stock density, the “better” the management is. At a recent pasture tour, I observed the leader quizzing people about their Stock Density (#of mouths or pounds per acre) and heaping praise on those with the highest numbers as they were obviously achieving the highest level of management or perhaps following the path of grazing righteousness. Perhaps I should confess right here: I’m not so sure that’s correct. As in, I’m not convinced that the highest stock density or the highest number of moves per day equals the Highest Path of Enlightenment or the most profit. My doubts are centered on economics.

What Are We Doing, and Why?

If we look back to the start of this article there is a graph with some of the many, many names of grazing systems that people use. For the sake of brevity, I would like to call them all Managed Grazing (as opposed to my friend Ron’s style: Un-managed Grazing.) So, regardless of which particular style people choose, why do people pursue Managed Grazing at all? The simple answer is: to increase production. To grow more forage, which translates into more pounds of red meat. Along the way, we may gain tremendous additional benefits like ecological diversity, wildlife, water quality and all the rest, but if there is not a positive economic basis for the structure of our grazing system we will not be managing that property for very long. So, Managed Grazing is about making your land more productive and your ranch more profitable. If that’s so, then doesn’t it follow that the greater the intensity of management the greater the profit? I don’t think so. Check this out:

Figure 2

Can this graph be correct? As we continually increase the Management Intensity does production constantly and inevitably continue to increase? Forever? If that were true, we should be moving cattle once per minute. Talk about needing geared reels for your poly fence!

Here’s my point: there is a practical limitation to increasing production through Management Intensity. It has to do with the physical nature of the work we do and it also has to do with labor cost. What I believe actually happens as we move from Unmanaged grazing to Managed Grazing is a significant increase in forage production…for a while. But in every grass-growing environment there will come a point where the effect of each additional paddock, each additional paddock shift, each increase in Stock Density results in a smaller increase in production than the previous increase in Management Intensity brought. This is the point of Optimum Management, and this is where we should hesitate and analyze just how much harder we want to push the system for ever-declining increases in production.

In real life, I think the production graph (Figure 2 above) looks something like this:

Figure 3

Finally, each increase in Management Intensity also brings an increase in time and some degree of impact on lifestyle. As we shift from moving cows once per month to once per day to ten times per day, the lifestyle of the grazing manager becomes more and more focused on grazing and less and less on fishing (or whatever else you like to do).

And Now for a Look at Labor Costs

Try this exercise:

Let’s say you have a nice little ranch with 100 cows, and you move them to a new paddock once each day. Let’s say that you’re kind of slow and somehow that single move takes you a couple of hours. You have all this extra time on your hands, and the neighbors already think you’re crazy, so you decide to begin moving the cows twice per day. I have no doubt that there will be some sort of observable increase in production, as long as you keep really good records. (Unlike me).

Next, let’s say you have the same 100-cow ranch and you are moving the cows once per day. But in this case, you take your extra time and use it to drive down the road to the other ranch you have rented and move a second herd of cows once per day.

Note here that the labor requirements for each scenario are approximately the same. Would anyone like to argue about which scenario would have the most effect on your productivity or on production? Or at the very least, which scenario represents the best use of your time or labor?

Economics and Lifestyle Bottom Lines

One bottom line is this: increasing the degree of Management Intensity is not a straight-line formula where every increase is rewarded by an equal increase in production or profit. There is a point of optimum management on your ranch, where economic return is highest for your effort. And that optimum point is what we should each be looking for.

A second bottom line is coming to grips with the idea that the degree of Management Intensity in grazing must dovetail with the lifestyle you have chosen. If you want to spend your entire day setting up and taking down poly fence, recognize that you will spend very little time on other tasks or pursuits. If this is what floats your boat, great. But I think graziers should make the effort to take a critical look at how different management strategies impact their quality of life.

Happy grazing!

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About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

12 Comments

  1. Patrick Tobola says:

    John,
    Thanks for sharing this with us. I have found that separating management activities from labor has helped me manage my time more effectively. I think Bud Williams said that a manager’s job is to know what needs to be done and to make sure that it gets done. I think most of us tend to rush into something without really spending the time that it takes to determine what really needs to be done to accomplish our goals for our operation and then we may wind up deploying a lot of labor on something that may not help with accomplishing our goals.

    On the subject of UHSD, anyone that is interested in this management guideline should carefully read chapters 22 and 39 in Savory’s Holistic Management published in 1999. It’s recommended to be used only periodically and not continuously to maintain grasslands and it’s effects are different in brittle vs non-brittle environments.

  2. Chad Fisher says:

    Wow! I was blown away by John’s article. I’ve become so fascinated with the idea of high intensity grazing, and even mob grazing super small paddocks on weekends, that I’ve kind of forgotten the impact it will have on my family time once our system completely finished.

    I think I’ll step back, take a deep breath and maybe change my plans a little as I go along.

  3. Justin Mills says:

    Very good article and I also really appreciated Tyler Carlson’s response.

  4. Sue Michalsky says:

    Great article. I have always wondered why intensive grazers don’t seem to put a value on their time. I also agree with Tyler Carlson that trampling the ‘solar panel’ means more recovery time. Especially critical in areas of low precipitation and a season of winter dormancy.

  5. Tyler Carlson says:

    I used to move cattle 6-7 times a day in our first 3-4 years of grazing. This was touted as the holy grail of grazing…a silver bullet that solves all of the world’s problems. After not seeing much magic happen I dropped to twice a day and then to once a day moves due to time constraints (we finish on grass so I had the cow-calf herd, the finishing herd, and at times a small herd of breeding bulls…talk about playing chess on the pasture map). I didn’t notice any change in productivity and the cattle seemed healthier. This past year we made time for more vacations and I started moving (now 2 herds) every 1.5 days…this meant that every third day I spent no time on cattle chores and could focus on other tasks, enterprises or personal needs. What I have observed this year is very encouraging. With more space, the cattle have a chance to be a little bit choosy while still utilizing the pasture relatively uniformly. Their individual condition is far better with just a little more choice and space and the grass plants are not trampled as in the UHSD we were using. This, I have found, results in much faster regrowth and a shorter rest period as the plants maintain a solar panel that continues to grow (no need to start over from buds at or below ground level) and far better residual habitat value for wildlife. The point is that when I stepped back on the management intensity a bit and gave the plants and animals a chance to interact more naturally, a lot of great things started to happen. I have found UHSD grazing has its place in certain situations, but they should be punctuated events throughout the year in response to something specific (re: limiting weed seed, knocking back brush, and resetting pastures or hay fields that have gotten away or been intentionally left for bird nesting etc, and strip grazing stockpile and annuals). I have found little benefit to come from season-long trampling (UHSD)…mostly headaches and wasted time. As a beginning farmer I look back with frustration at the books, news articles, and conference sessions and field days that have pushed UHSD/mob grazing as gospel with little scientific verification of the outcomes. It’s high time for farmers and ranchers to move beyond anecdotal decision-making and I’m grateful for On Pasture and its work to that end.

    • Rob Havard says:

      Thanks Tyler – I’ve always done once a day or every 2 days and always had a nagging feeling that I’m missing out on forage production and/or carrying capacity. I’m not sure that is that case now.

      My only caveat is that I will graze it off in the dormant winter season as long as there is no impact on pugging particularly if coarse grasses are starting to dominate too much reducing plant spacing. I will leave some with plenty of solar panel left for the start of my growing season plan though.

      I think the UHSD/trampled grass is more important in arid/brittle environments where covering the soil is so important and also when you have 500 cows drinking plenty of water bunched up you are basically watering the desert with plant available nitrogen which is gonna help you in a drought.

  6. Doug says:

    A very well-written, informative take on the “busyness” of ranching. For a long time I have been interested in the “time and motion” aspects of ranching, from pastured poultry and pigs to grazed flocks and herds. You begin with tasks and, after the first series (somewhat screwed up) you try to rationalize and streamline your processes. Another important thing is to “right-size” tasks in terms of labor. There are one-person jobs and there are two (or more) person jobs. The more things you can get to be one-person, streamlined jobs the better–the more efficient. Finally, if you have 100 head of cattle on 250 acres divided into twenty 12.5 acre paddocks, you can graze them one day and rotate, resting each paddock for 19 days, or you can graze them two days and rotate, resting each paddock for 38 days. The question is not how fast can you rotate your cattle, but how does your soil and pasture respond to 1/19 versus 2/38. I suspect 2/38 in most situations will be better.

  7. curt gesch says:

    Thank you for this helpful article. Two comments: 1) Perhaps it is assumed, but simply pasturing animals means that you spend more time in the field and on the ground than if you use the “stored feed” model which involves you “on the field” in a tractor or baler, e.g. 2) The choice of method also involves the way each person is made. There are people who are superb at whispering to grass, and other who whisper to machines, and love to solve the intricacies of fencing or milking machines. The uniqueness of the individual is a contribution to a community of sharing and there is a place for all. I have seen dairy farms where one partner was unbelievable and almost intuitively talented in growing hay and haylage and his partner an exceptional machine man. It was/is a partnership made in heaven, or close.

    • Richard A Moyer says:

      John, Thanks for stressing that optimal point; unique for each of us. And asking us to think about economic and quality of life tradeoffs. Agreed on the principle of diminishing returns.

      Curt, Well said; some prefer tractor time, others working while walking in pasture. When my neighbors exclaim in wonder: “you move your cows every day!”, I sometimes ask if they feed every day. Most days now, moving my wire across stockpiled forage takes less time than feeding my hay. We’re in the season where we do both; but I learned polywire first. When the weather is colder than anticipated and some cows let me know they’re getting hungry, it’s much quicker to pull the wire over another 5 feet than load up and roll out hay. Any member of my family can and do move that wire; in this system there indeed is a “place for all”, even for those who don’t/shouldn’t be running equipment.

      Our optimal point is 1X per day, largely because daily feeding, regardless of system, helps me see if any animal is limping or not eating. On a subzero morning a few weeks ago, you can bet I checked back that day on the one animal who did not get up when everyone else did. She’s fine, but some folks lost cattle in that cold snap.

      The pattern of once a day feeding, whether by me or trusted neighbors when I’m away, forces us to keep up with cattle health. (We came to cattle late, forages first.) Soon as the cattle see me, they will tell me if feed or water isn’t right.

      You are right. Finding the time & money to make/buy/haul/feed hay; that’s part of the economics, too. My “marriage made in heaven” is neighbors who enjoy making & selling quality hay much more than managing cattle. And others who observing our system, have learned to move a wire or open a gap daily so we can take vacations.

  8. Gene Schriefer says:

    Lifestyle aside, any increase in production or function of the pasture needs to cover the additional cost of labor to do so. Improved manure distribution, better water infiltration would result in improved pasture production over time and under more adverse environmental conditions. Higher moving frequency is a more benefit with larger herds IMO than small ones.

  9. troy bishopp says:

    Dear John, This phrase could be revolutionary, “I think graziers should make the effort to take a critical look at how different management strategies impact their quality of life”. Very good insight! Thanks for taking the time to address this. GW

  10. Rob Havard says:

    Excellent Article.

    I move them every other day so that I can move them on the other ranch/farm the second day. I don’t find that dung distribution or trampling is any different to moving once a day. As long as I’m leaving enough and not re-grazing the re-growing plant I’m happy.

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