Thinking Strategically About Reducing Fossil Fuel Inputs in Your Grazing Operation

This months’ Grazier’s Focus was inspired by some very fascinating ideas from rancher Richard Moyer. Richard has been thinking about the problems associated with finding, buying, and affording the hay he needs to keep his cow herd going. The roadblocks Richard sees are expensive fuel, expensive fertilizer, and just plain scarce supplies of hay (caused by the first two issues he mentioned as well as ongoing drought in the West and Midwest). He suggested some very inventive ideas to (hopefully) help solve these problems.

While I found Richard’s ideas fascinating, I found myself thinking about his problems in a different way. Here’s my take:

The Problem is Energy

All the problems Richard mentions are actually problems associated with energy. Specifically, the high cost of energy, and even more specifically, the high cost of fossil fuels. Let’s face it: gas and diesel are energy. Fertilizer is energy. Chemicals are energy. And in fact, the costs of producing, operating and maintaining a tractor or a piece of hay equipment are actually primarily energy. Following that line of thinking, even hay is a function of the energy it costs us to produce it. In fact, almost everything we do on the ranch can be measured as a function of how much energy it demands.

This leads to a simple (but perhaps scary) concept:

The volume and cost of raw energy you use — especially energy derived from fossil fuels — will directly affect the economics of your ranching operation.

And right about now, someone out there is saying, “Well shoot, every dummy knows that. When costs go up, profit goes down.”

But honestly, we sure don’t act like it. What I actually see is an ever-increasing trend toward more and more energy being used on ranches across America.

Time to Think Differently

The future economic success of your farm/ranch will likely be highly dependent on your ability to control or reduce the amount of energy you use to produce a pound of beef. And this is about more than just hay. This is about having a fundamental mindset that constantly drives you to seek ways to reduce the amount of energy you are consuming.

It is extremely difficult to make small modifications to the classic/traditional cow/calf model and come up with a new model that uses significantly less energy. Most ranches will need to make significant structural changes, and those changes will include adopting an animal model that takes more advantage of energy from the sun and less energy from fossil fuels. Here are some basic ideas to consider:

Move to a more seasonal grazing model, one in which your animal herd’s energy needs are more closely aligned with grazing and less with anything else. If you simply must maintain a permanent cow herd base, make it a smaller percentage of your animal component. Seek other classes of animals to utilize the forage you grow with solar power. Match the total forage output of your property to the total demand for forage of your animal component.

Then, consider when you have more forage and when you have less. If your forage growth curve looks like the example below, you might seek an animal population graph that looks a lot like this too!

Models that Might Move You in the Right Direction

Here are some little ideas for your consideration. Please take a moment to think before you dismiss them. Better yet, use these to help stimulate your own creative juices!

Replace a significant percentage of your mother cows with short-term stocker cattle.
Don’t worry too much about what class they are. Worry about having the correct number of mouths on the ground at the proper time of year.

Replace all of your mother cows with some kind of stocker cattle.
Once again, your goal is to match your solar energy forage to the proper number of animals.

If you are highly-skilled in buying, processing and caring for auction yard cattle, go ahead and do it.
If you are not highly skilled, look for someone who is and discuss running cattle for that person. Custom grazing is not very sexy or romantic, but I would make a point: custom grazed stocker cattle (regardless of class) should ALWAYS have a positive gross margin. If you are losing money raising cattle in a traditional cow/calf model, this is a way to instantly move toward profitability.

If you are simply not able to see yourself as a regular custom grazier or an auction-yard bottom feeder, stop in at every purebred ranch in the county and offer your services as a custom grazier.
Propose taking special care of their replacement heifers or their young bulls or any other cattle they may have. Express the idea that this is a way for them to expand or to feed less hay. Many registered outfits would love to expand.

Stop at your local vet or AI tech office and put up a poster offering your skills and resources for people who have more animal resources than they do forage.
Or put an add on social media or even in an ag-mag offering your expertise, great facilities, great forage in return for cash income.

Ranchers could turn the whole custom grazing thing on it’s head. Instead of selling off stock and replacing it with other people’s cattle, consider sending your own cattle out on a custom grazing mission. This might be emotionally more palatable than selling your favorite cows. Do the math, of course, to see if this works for you.

I’m certain there are plenty of readers out there shaking their heads and swearing. After all, most people who own land and cattle simply have a hard time conceiving of themselves as custom graziers or even just seasonal graziers. Well, fine. But sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we do what we have to. And if you are feeling the need to overcome high energy costs (fuel, fertilizer, chemicals, tractors,…all of it) you will probably have to change what you have been doing and adopt a more solar-based and forage-based model.

Trust me: it won’t be as bad as you think.

Happy grazing!

John

Thinking About It

Kathy here!

I know we’ve hit you with a lot to think about. So let’s step back and look at some tools that might help you think about changes.

John suggests that redesigning your stocking plan is an excellent time to use two fine tools: a forage curve and a grazing chart.

First, draw your own forage growth curve like the one above, making sure to note that this is depiction of growth rate, not total forage on hand. What you want is a picture of when you have the most forage and when you have the least. This will help you think about how many animals you can feed at different times of the year. It might help you think about what your “base herd” size is and what it can grow to, and when it needs to shrink again.

He also recommends getting a copy of Troy Bishop’s free Grazing Chart and filling in the blanks. Below is a link to an On Pasture article that walks you through how to use your grazing chart. Head there for the links for downloading your free grazing chart and even more information on getting started with your grazing plan.

A Walk Through of How to Use Your Grazing Chart

Next, ask yourself:

Are there practices on my operation that would reduce my energy inputs if I adjusted my grazing management?

Though large changes to your operation might be in the works, not everyone is ready for that. So it’s ok to start small. These small changes might lead to something larger, or make the transition to a new way of operating a little easier.

Happy thinking!

2 thoughts on “Thinking Strategically About Reducing Fossil Fuel Inputs in Your Grazing Operation

  1. One of the best articles I’ve read in years and what we have implemented here in New Zealand. Has increased our profit and resilience big time. Don’t want too many changing or there won’t be as many opportunities!!

  2. Thank you for sharing these ideas. Changing a mindset is difficult to implement–almost impossible, it seems. But a default on a payment or high prices for energy inputs help make re-thinking a little easier if not an absolute necessity. I wish all the cattlemen’s associations in our area would get this article for discussion.

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