Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Ranching By Number

Are the numbers you’re collecting about your operation helping you paint a more profitable picture?


On more than one occasion I have made disparaging comments about the tendency of our ranching industry to waste time gathering data. We keep spiral-bound notebooks full of all kinds of information, most of which is fairly useless. Folks who are in the business of producing purebred breeding stock may be compelled to gather information like precise birth weight, birth date, and other such data, but for commercial operators, most of this is a complete waste of time. Folks who manage commercial cow-calf herds should concentrate on identifying the (hopefully) small number of truly defective mother cows in their herd, and that determination can be made by simply observing the herd from time to time and making note of crippled cows and their sisters that produce dink or hairball calves. Come marketing time, selling these cows will take care of most of the problems in the commercial herd.

Even more disturbing than collecting irrelevant data is the tendency to collect and use data that guides us down the wrong path. Examples of this are often called production data, and include things like average weaning weight, yearling weight, feed conversion rates, average daily gain (especially on grain). Stocker operators may find some of these numbers useful, but for a cow-calf ranch that is based on grazing, focusing on “improving” these numbers is typically a very poor idea. As cow and calf weights increase (”improve”), biological and economic efficiency declines. Sorry for the bad news.

On the happy side, I should report that there are some kinds of data that can be very helpful to graziers, and those numbers also fall into the category of production. These are the numbers that track the amount of grass or the pounds of red meat that a pasture or a ranch produces. When we track how many cow-days of grazing a ranch provides or how many pounds of live animal the land produces, and we do this on a year-by-year basis, we can easily see the effect that our management is having on the land. Assuming that outside inputs (fertilizer, etc.) are stable, changes in land productivity are tied directly to how we manage our plants, soils and animals. Our grazing management determines changes and trends in grazing production as we go forward. (Yes, I know: grass production is also seriously affected by weather. That said, I cannot do much to influence weather patterns. Over the long term, changes in grazing production will be determined by my actions as a grazing manager.)

A Historical Look at Trends in Grazing Production

Below is a little narrative about how grazing production has changed over time on one little ranch with some very modest data that illustrate the potential for progress through managed grazing.

In 1987 my wife and I were renting a 100-year-old log cabin, desperately looking for a house. After months of searching, we were thrilled to find a small farmhouse on twenty acres. The house was pretty rough, but the electricity and plumbing worked, and suddenly we could quit wearing mittens to bed.

The land itself was in much worse shape than the house. The place had long been used as a retirement home for horses, and the property had suffered horribly. Most of the plants were annual grasses and pioneer weeds. There was plenty of bare ground. Our signature poisonous weed, Tansy Ragwort, dotted the entire ranch. The infrastructure was worse than zero: tumbled-down fences and burn piles dotted the landscape.

Around this time I began studying managed grazing and ranch management. I had some background in “rotational grazing”, but I knew little of modern fencing and water techniques. This place, then, became my experiment station, and I was able to take what I learned here and transfer it to the rest of our properties as time went on.

Pasture on the experiment farm in mid-August. Each of the fence posts you see in the foreground mark the edge of a paddock.


The first year, I set out a water tank and tossed eight yearling steers out when the grass was ready. Our yearling-quality grass typically lasts about 100 days. After a couple of months of rest, I dropped in some cow-calf pairs to clean up the residual and the small amount of re-growth. One year down.

As the years went by, I constantly increased the number of paddocks and improved the water situation. This allowed me to gradually increase the intensity of the grazing program. Currently, our yearlings are moved approximately each 1.5 days, with approximately 40 days of rest. Here are the stats for Year 1 compared to Year 32.

Turns out, improving grass production through management pays pretty well.

I’ve read articles suggesting that we should look at increases in grazing production through the lens of lessening the amount we are paying to rent or buy the land. In my case, our yearling grass production has tripled, while our clean-up grazing has doubled. This would represent a pretty dramatic lessening in land cost, and all of this change in production is due to changes in management.

Aside from the production data shown above, there have been some very encouraging changes on the ground. While I neglected to keep a photo record, I know that as time went by, perennial grasses grew to dominate the land, weeds and bare ground declined, and the grazing season started earlier each year.

Tansy ragwort is one of the few weeds Kathy doesn’t recommend training livestock to eat.

In the end, we all look for critical data points that indicate how our management plan is working, or maybe how our life is working out. A couple weeks ago I went for a walking tour of this little ranch, taking a critical look at bare ground, grass, and weeds. Along the way, I pulled every Tansy Ragwort I came across. (I quit spot spraying years ago, as there were too few weeds to justify the effort.) Arriving back at the house, I counted the yellow blooms as I dropped them into the garbage can. Results:

My total Tansy production for the year on this property was…drum roll: 11 plants. Now that’s the kind of data I like to collect, analyze, and smile about.

Happy grazing!


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John Marble
John Marble
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.

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