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Can Cows Save the Planet? I Don’t Know – But Maybe They Can Save the Ranch

By   /  August 27, 2018  /  2 Comments

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Can cows save the planet? Can cows reverse global warming? Can cows sequester carbon and prevent erosion and fix habitat problems? Can cows feed the world?

Honestly, I just don’t know. These are big, complicated questions that seem to depend on a whole bunch of variables, things beyond my ability to suss out.

Some Simple Questions for Graziers

All of that aside, there are some things I am much more confident about. I believe in the power of rumination. More accurately, I believe in the power of the rumen. I believe in the beautiful simplicity of an agricultural system that involves properly selected cattle living happily on properly-managed land. I believe that people can live successfully on their modern homesteads if they have their economic and ecological houses in order. I believe ranchers can be successful. Mostly, I believe in grazing: properly planned, well-managed grazing.

I frequently have the opportunity to visit ranches and chat about the things that ranchers love to talk about: cattle, land, business, grass. Often, these conversations lead to really hard questions about what issues are preventing ranchers from being more successful. For me, the most obvious and critical issues to look at often involve the degree of expertise in grazing management, or perhaps the degree to which managers focus on proper grazing management. Proper grazing is a huge and complicated topic, but over time I have boiled things down to a few rather simple questions, questions that rely on very little math.

Here are my basic questions, and I have a suggestion: Take a piece of scratch paper and write down your own numbers. In the end, perhaps you will learn some things about your grazing program. Try to be honest. It’s a funny thing: if you aren’t honest (or if you just miss-remember) on one answer, the other answers wind up not working out very well. You will soon see what I mean.

Clearly, when we change one of these answers it sends ripples through the rest of the worksheet. And maybe that’s the good news here: by changing one little thing in our grazing operation, we can see predictable, and hopefully positive, results throughout the rest of our program.

•••

Now that you are finished with the worksheet questions, here’s a few thoughts on what I think each question is really about, and how tweaking your answers (changing things on the ground) might help you move forward and make more economic and ecological progress.

The first three questions are basically ecological in nature, but they wind up having big economic impact in the long run. The rest are really about basic economics.

Number of Paddocks

Generally speaking, the number of paddocks indicates something about the level of management intensity you are attempting. Beyond that, it is probably predictive of the direction your land is headed in the ecological sense. Some grazing gurus suggest that ten paddocks is the minimum number necessary to prevent overgrazing.

Overgrazing issues aside, my experience suggests that true ecological progress becomes much easier to achieve when we get to twenty or more paddocks.

Average Grazing/Residence Period

During the period when your grass is actively growing, a grazing/residence period that is longer than three or four days probably results in a “second bite” of the re-growing plant, which is classic overgrazing. Reducing the residence time is always a positive thing. I find it helpful to think about this as if we were managing a single grass plant rather than an entire sward.

Average Rest Period

This is a result of the answers to the two questions above. The calculation is pretty simple. Just take your answer to question 1, multiply it times your answer to question 2 and you have the approximate amount of time your grass plants have available to recover before being grazed again

Number of paddocks (#1) X Grazing/Residence days (#2) = the time it takes to complete a full rotation.

Increasing the rest period is typically a good thing, in that it encourages ecological succession toward perennial grasses.

An example of pastures set up to provide rest periods. Photo by Troy Bishopp

What is your Grass to Hay Ratio?

Most ranches place their livestock on grass for a portion of the year and feed hay (or something) the rest. A critical economic issue for every ranch involves looking at the balance between those two periods, and I find it easiest to look at this as a ratio: Grass months to Hay months, (G:H).

Your answer to question 4 is the “G” part of this ratio. Your answer to question 5 is the “H.”

While many questions about ranch management allow for answers that include wiggle room for different conditions, I believe this one is nearly absolute: the higher your Grass to Hay ratio, the better. The exception here, of course, is if you are running a feedlot. In that case, you have my sympathy.

I can’t give you a real target for what a good G:H ratio is, but you can use your G:H value to compare with what your neighbors are doing, or you can track your own progress from year to year. Bottom line – because winter feed is often the biggest Direct Cost ranchers have, I believe G:H ratio is a terribly important piece of information.

Certainly, a G:H Ratio where the H value is higher than the G value is going to present the rancher with a terribly difficult feed budget. Even a 1:1 G:H Ratio looks tough to me. Perhaps you’ll see why after completing questions #6 and #7.

What are the economics?

The answers to questions #6 and #7 should help with dissecting your internal economics a bit. If we want to view the feed budget for a single cow we need to know the value of each months’ feed. The value of grass is whatever you can sell it for, or whatever you would have to pay your neighbor for his grass. Same goes for hay. One missing piece is the amount of hay each cow eats, and I take a pretty simple approach here: Just say to heck with the variables and budget ½ ton per cow per month.

My Feed Budget

(Grass months X $ / month) + (Hay months x ½ ton x $ / ton)= Feed Cost

Looking at this, I guess we can all see how changing the number of Grass months vs Hay months changes the cost of keeping a cow, and this relates back to the discussion of the G:H Ratio.

Summing Things Up

Ranchers have a multitude of options in designing their business model. Clearly, a tremendous opportunity involves the act of using inexpensive feed (grass) to produce a high value product. Effectively managing your grazing lands to produce higher quality and higher volumes of grass is a no-brainer. Understanding the economic difference between grazing and feeding hay is critical.

Can cows save the world? I don’t know. Can cows save your ranch? Maybe, but only if you constantly work to increase the amount of grass you are growing and decrease the amount of hay you are feeding. Case closed.

Happy Grazing!

John wants to know what you think and would love to have a conversation with you. Share your thoughts in the comments below!

OR…join John and other On Pasture authors at the upcoming National Grazing Lands Conference in Reno, December 2 – 5 and we can sit down with a beverage and talk things through.

Thanks to the On Pasture supporters providing financial support.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. This is pure gold! Thank you! Love your writing style and the info is solid and easy to follow. One thing I found missing is that you don’t give a rule-of-thumb goal for rest periods except to increase them. After thinking about it, I realized that you can’t really do that because your audience lives in such diverse climates.

    Kudos on the great article!

    Kirsten

    • John Marble says:

      Thanks for your kind words and support, Kirsten. Regarding the length of rest periods, you are correct: it depends on climate. But more importantly, it depends on season. A general rule is that the faster the grass is growing, the faster the rotation, and therefore, the shorter the rest period. In my case, when my grass is growing at warp speed, I’m looking for about 30 days of rest, as I am purposely trying to retard grass maturity. Right now, it’s more like ninety days, with my recently-grazed paddocks looking forward to 180 days of rest during the winter.

      As with most things in life, rest is more complicated than it looks.

      Sincerely,

      John

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