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.
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.”
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:
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:
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:
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.