As a young man growing up in the narrow green valleys of western Oregon, I was routinely given the following advice:
“If you want to be a rancher, you better move east, because that’s where all the real ranches are.”
The “east” all those folks were speaking of is the huge sea of sagebrush that runs from the foot of the Cascade Mountains all the way to the Rockies. And of course, they were right about one thing: the ranches that cover the high desert are tremendous, vast, huge. Typically, those ranches are measured not in acres but in one-mile squares called sections, while cows are counted by the thousand. Beyond
its sheer scale, the high desert is a stark and stunning country that my grandfather noted was “hard on horses and women.”
My own situation is strikingly different. The country where I ranch is a low elevation valley, somewhere between a marine and Mediterranean climate. Most of our grazing
land is tillable or nearly so. Through managed grazing we are able to run about one cow unit per five acres (annually), with an expectation of grazing for eight or nine months. A 100-cow ranch requires only around 500 acres of grass.
The high desert is a highly variable place in terms of production, but obviously it takes many more acres to graze a cow out there than where I live. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m using 100 acres per cow unit (annually), which means a 100-cow desert ranch requires 10,000 acres of rangeland.
In the decades since my youth I have tramped across many thousands of acres of the high desert, (mostly on public land) and each time I visit I am struck not only by the scale of the country, but also by an interesting contrast: the wide open spaces are crisscrossed by miles and miles of buried water lines and many thousands of miles of barb wire fencing. And with all that, only a modest sprinkling of cattle. At some point I began to wonder how in the world those ranches could possibly support all of that
infrastructure with such a low density of cattle.
One day, a rancher from the high desert stopped by our little ranch to look at some replacement cows. As we drove across the ranch, he asked about our grazing system and our grass and spent a lot of time just looking out the window. Finally, he couldn’t bear it any longer.
“My goodness, but you have a lot of fence here. And all those water lines strung out everywhere. Your infrastructure costs must be outrageous.”
This caused my head to spin a bit, as I immediately thought of my earlier observation about the infrastructure costs on ranches like the one he operates. Next, I began thinking about how to sort this conundrum out.
Calculating Infrastructure Costs on a per Cow Basis
Calculating the value or cost of infrastructure is generally a scary proposition, and not particularly helpful unless we relate those costs to the enterprise that has to support them. For linear items like fences and waterline, this is pretty straightforward. Below is the method I used, and you can easily insert your own acres-per-cow values and do the math for your own place.
Step 1: Make a map.
Start with a sheet of drawing paper. At the top of the page, draw an N for north, and below that add a title. I selected 100 cow ranch @ 5 acres per cow, similar to my own
Step 2: Add dimensions.
Draw a square in the middle of the page. On each side of the square, mark the distance. For help with this, ask Mr. Google. (Note: a 500-acre plot happens to be 4,667 feet on each side.)
My Perimeter Fencing = 18,668 feet
Step 3: Add cross fencing.
Draw a line across the square plot from west to east, then add four north/south lines spaced across the plot. You should now have a ranch that looks like a ten-pane window. It also looks like a simple 10-paddock grazing design.
Note: each of my internal fence segments is also 4,667 feet long.
My Interior fencing = 23,335 feet
Step 4: Add the water system.
For water development, I placed my headquarters on the west edge of the ranch, and drew in a water line along the central west/east interior fence, stopping at the last
north/south cross fence.
My Water System = 3,734 feet.
Step 5: Do the “Infrastructure per Cow” math.
Finally, I divided each value above by 100 to get the amount each cow must support on my ranch:
• Perimeter fencing: 18,668 feet/100 = 187 feet per cow
• Interior fencing: 23,335 feet/100 = 233 feet per cow
• Water line: 3,734 feet/100 = 37 feet per cow
Next, I did the same process for a 10,000-acre desert ranch.
Each side of the 10,000 acre square = 21,140’. So, for a 100 cow ranch @ 100 acres per cow, here’s the answers I came up with:
• Perimeter fencing: 84,480/100 = 845 feet per cow
• Interior fencing: 105,700/100 = 1,057 feet per cow
• Water: 16,912/100 = 169 feet per cow
In this case, the difference in land scale (or density of livestock) means that each cow on the desert ranch has to support 4.5 times as many feet of fencing and water line as her cousin that lives on my place.
Let me repeat that:
4.5 times as much cost for fence and water infrastructure on a per cow basis.
Then consider this: some of the intermountain west rangeland (particularly as we move south) will not support grazing at 100 acres (annually) per cow. For some really
scary numbers, try calculating infrastructure when the range will only support one cow per 250 or even 500 acres. Of course, each increase in acres per cow increases the infrastructure burden per cow. These numbers bring some questions to mind:
Is there a point where infrastructure costs per cow are simply too high to make managed grazing economically feasible?
If so, are we left with continuous grazing as the only economically viable way to graze low-production ranges?
Is it possible to design a herder-based grazing system that would avoid fencing and water costs altogether? What would the economics look like?
Should we just give up on grazing these places? And if we did, what would the impacts of that be?
There are many, many reasons why people choose to live and ranch in a particular place: social, political, environmental, and on occasion, even economic reasons. If the cost of infrastructure per cow were the only consideration, the decision of where to ranch would be a no brainer: we would all select places with highly productive soils and gracious weather patterns where the stocking rate is high, as this is where we would get the most bang for our infrastructure dollar. Grazing on the wide open spaces of the high desert looks terribly expensive when it comes to fencing and water lines.
Thinking About It
In the spirit of the newest addition to On Pasture, “The Thinking Grazier,” here are questions you can ask yourself to practice thinking about your own infrastructure.
What are my infrastructure costs?
What are my maintenance costs for this infrastructure?
What are the benefits (increased grazing days, increased weight gain, more forage, increased profit, etc.) that result from my infrastructure?
What are some downsides of my infrastructure that I could avoid my making adjustments?
Finally, there is technical and financial assistance available through Conservation Districts, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help with infrastructure design and cost better grazing management and resource protection. Contact your local office to see if this is an option for you.
Next week, John will be continuing this discussion of infrastructure in this month’s “The Thinking Grazier.” Stay tuned!