This piece is drawn from a presentation Jim Gerrish did in 2015 sponsored by the Iowa Beef Center. We’ve embedded the 15:20 video of the presentation where Jim talks about the benefits of “wasting grass.” We’re also summarizing it in two bite size articles to make it easier for all you farmers and ranchers on the go and those of you with slow internet connections.
Research Jim Gerrish has done, along with his years of experience, shows that when we graze grass down to about 2 inches, it takes significantly longer for that grass to recover than it would have if we’d moved the cows out when the grass was still 4 to 6 inches tall. What he’s looking for is what he calls “Phase 2” residual – grass that has been grazed to between 4 and 6 to 8 inches.
When grass is grazed like what you see in this picture, it takes about 40 days to grow one ton per acre.
Wasting Grass Builds Better Pastures
Making the decision to “waste grass” can be difficult, as Jim describes in this scenario:
“We’ve gone out to the pasture. We went out thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to move the cows today.’ But you look at this and you see all this green grass left behind, and you’ve got the question. Do I leave them there and not waste grass? Or do I move them?”
“Ten years ago, everybody would have said, ‘That’s wasting grass.’ And they’d want to stay there and use it because in this country we have a great fear of wasting grass,” says Jim. But if we want to take the step toward better soils, and more productive pastures and livestock, Jim says we need to understand these three things:
1. Grass feeds grass
2. Grass feeds soil; and last
3. Grass feeds livestock.
“If your approach to feeding livestock is “Gotta feed the cows! Gotta feed the cows!” you just used the grass up feeding cows,” Jim says. “If you leave grass behind, you leave the soil protected, it’s cooler, water’s not evaporating out of it, the plants have a chance to grow back, you can build Organic Matter. As you build Organic matter in the soil, you build infiltration capacity, water storage capacity and you can weather the drought far better than the person who has grazed it short.”
He continues, “If you leave grass behind, you leave the soil protected. It’s cooler, water’s not evaporating out of it. The plants have a chance to grow back. You can build Organic Matter….As you build organic matter in the soil, you build infiltration capacity, water storage capacity, and you can weather the drought far better than the person who has grazed it short.”
Wasting Grass Increases Productivity
If you graze your grass down to 1-3 inches, so it looks like the picture below, there will be a lot less leaf area, and more sunshine will be hitting the ground. Grazed to this degree, it will take about 64 days of recovery to grown one ton of forage.
If you have a 200 day growing season and it takes you 64 days to grow 1 ton, you can grow 3 tons of feed. But, says Jim, “If you can grow a ton of feed in 40 days because you’ve left a better solar panel, you’ll return 5 cycles and grow 5 tons of feed. That’s a 60% increase in production from making the decision to leave more grass out there. We would waste grass and we got 60% more.”
Wasting Grass Increases Profitability
If you need to increase forage, so you can increase the amount of money you make by selling beef, you could buy more land – at the going rate of $2,000 to $4,000 an acre – and graze the way you are now. Or you could change the way you graze. Yes, you’ll have to invest in stock water development, some fencing to do that, and you’ll have to move cattle on a regular basis, but Jim compares the cost of that to the cost of purchasing land.
“What’s a reasonable dollar amount for taking 800 acres and putting good quality water and subdivision fences? $100 to $150 an acre. At $200 an acre that’s less than 10% of buying an acre of land. You can increase productivity by 60% – even double it in some cases. That’s what investing in the infrastructure to more effectively manage your own land can do. You don’t have to go out and pay $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 to get another acre of pasture. You can create another acre of pasture on your own place just by managing it!”
For the next “bite” in this series, Jim will talk about two principles you must follow to make this work, and he’ll show you what the proper heights are for grazing different kinds of grasses.