As i get older, i’m more aware of how much time and hard work a piece of property can be. Many years ago, my grandpa gave me a 160 acre piece of his land and i now realize that he was about my age now when he gave it. I was much younger and was thrilled, but now i can see that he was probably tired of managing and fixing all its problems. In fact, it is only about the east 80 acres of the farm i now have that incurs 80% of the work i do on the 520 acres i now own/manage. (it is a sad reflection of our time that in north Missouri that is no where near enough property to make a living on). At the same time, it’s the corner of that piece that is the best for working and loading out livestock. (interestingly, my daughter, at about age 11 made the comment, ‘i don’t like this farm, it is too much work!”)
Truth be told, if it was possible for me to control the land to the north of me and to the south, i could all but eliminate the massive erosion and washing problems which cause my little piece to be so much work. But i don’t, so difficult repairs are recurring. Controlling the ‘heads’ of the water by building ponds or dams would practically stop all but the worst rain events which cause such destruction. The biggest help would be to seed down the hills that are being farmed every year. There are no roots to hold any soil in place and increase water infiltration on acres and acres of slope.
So, a point i’m trying to make is – look to your future self when purchasing a property – is this property you are considering fixable? or will it be constant work? We actually looked at a property last year that was adjoining and for sale, but with all it’s deep ditches and no control of the head, it would be more work than what we wanted to take on now at retirement age. It is FAR too much asking price anyway. (It’s still for sale)
So, the short story is that an awesomely talented and accomplished woman, Mimi Hillenbrand, has for some years owned and managed the 777 Bison Ranch in South Dakota in a holistic manner vis-à-vis that which is promoted by the Savory Institute or Holistic Management International. Bison on an open ranch of thousands of acres requires a bit different approach to grazing pressure and rest to improve the soil health and forage quality/quantity. It was very interesting to hear how she handles the animals.
These past few years, she purchased a smaller property in Chile she named 45 South to not only improve the pastures, (though using cattle this time) but also just to really enjoy the beautiful scenery and to live in a completely different culture –at least part time.
I cannot do justice to the sweet hospitality of this young family. Our Savory Institute journey group is here to learn about the improvements they have experienced using the holistic management techniques. The grass is thick, lush, and tender – rested paddocks are ready for consuming.
Whenever a group of ranchers get together, sooner or later the conversation will turn to whose place just got sold and what did it bring. There will be some head shaking and bemoaning how you just can’t afford to buy another ranch or help your kid get started on a new place.
In much of the country, the price of ranch land is driven by non-ranching factors. People are paying way more for the recreational value or the view from the ranch than what livestock production can afford to pay.
There generally is a common-knowledge guide for how many acres it takes to run a cow in any neighborhood. Most people seem to believe this is a predetermined stocking rate that is determined almost entirely by the amount of rainfall received in any given year. The truth is, environment determines only the upper limit of the carrying capacity potential of a ranch. It is the ranchers grazing management that determines how much of that potential is actually realized.
The plain and simple truth of the matter is most ranches in the US are managed in a way that generally captures less than half of the biological carrying capacity of the ranch. The two primary ingredients for producing beef are sunshine and water. Most ranches are ineffective at harvesting these two “free” inputs. While sunshine and rain water are free ingredients, the landscape we use as our solar panel and water catchment is not free.
If we decide we need to increase the beef output on our ranch by 40% to generate the revenue flow we need to make a living, how might we go about doing that?
One obvious way is to buy another ranch that is 40% the size of our current holdings. If our current ranch is worth $1,000/acre and we have 1,000 acres, we would need to buy 400 more acres at $1,000 to get 40% more grazing capacity. That would be $400,000 outlay, plus there would be closing costs, an increase in taxes, and so forth.
The failed approach the ranching industry has taken has been the quest to increase output per individual cow by 40%. Rather than having cows that wean 500 pounds, let’s have cows that wean 700 pounds. The number of articles published in the last five years showing the folly of this approach is astounding. Go to the winter cattle production meetings and every one of them seems to feature a university researcher now showing big cows decrease ranch profitability, not the other way around.
A less obvious way to increase stocking rate is to get 40% more production out of every acre we currently own or control. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream ranchers can only think of adding irrigation or more fertilizer or tear up the native range to plant some foreign wonder-grass. Is that really all we can do?
What if we found a way to capture more solar energy and water on every acre? How could we do that and what might it cost?
Let’s step back and ask why are most ranches operating at less than 50% of their biological carrying capacity? The simplest answer is there is too much bare ground. Bare ground doesn’t capture solar energy and make cow feed. Bare ground allows water to run off or set on the surface and evaporate. Why do most ranches have too much bare ground? Because cattle stay too long in the same place and pasture and rangeland are not allowed adequate recovery time to maintain plant vigor.
In 40 years of commercial ranching and grazing research I have learned the primary determinants of range and pasture productivity are:
The amount of time stock are allowed to be on a particular piece of ground
The time allowed for recovery
That local common-knowledge guide for how many acres it takes to run a cow is fundamentally flawed because it is based on management that completely ignores the role of time management on the nature of our soil health and plant community.
For the last 50 years the ranching industry and community focused on the animal and animal genetics, which misses the point that it is the land base controlled and the productivity of that land that drives ranch profitability, not individual animal productivity.
On a commercial ranch, most of our production costs are land-based costs, not animal-based costs. This is the reason why increasing the productivity of an acre of grazing land by 40% will always have much more impact of bottom line profitability than will increasing individual cow productivity by 40%.
There are very few reasons for mobs of livestock to have access to ponds beyond and emergency drinking water access. My reason here is that these heifers needed to be separated from the main cow herd for the 45 day breeding season and the only paddock I have does not have shade or even a high point to catch a breeze such as the pond dam where the heifers in the second photo are standing.
Ideally, allotting short term adequate shaded space is the optimal. Video below shows comfortable cows and calves.
In many cases, cattle not selected for heat tolerance will immerse themselves in a pond for relief. The flip side is that oftentimes these cattle will tolerate severe cold better than the others. We can spend decades selecting for the genetics which thrive in each of our unique environments and management. Hopefully also providing a quality eating experience for the consumer.
This week’s Classic by NatGLC is from Jim Gerrish. Jim will be speaking about Grazing Lands Economics at the National Grazing Lands Conference in Reno in December, so we thought you’d like to have an idea of what he might cover. Jim is one of over over 50 producers who will be part of the conference talking about innovative grazing management. We hope you’ll join us! Register before October 16 to get the reduced rate of $395, and bring a friend or spouse with you for just $175 more.
Hay feeding still ranks as one of the top costs of being in the cow-calf business in the U.S. The good news is we do see more and more livestock producers ‘Kicking the Hay Habit’ with each passing year. There is much more to kicking the habit than just deciding one day that you’re not going to feed any more hay. It usually takes several management changes to get there.
Here are what I am seeing as the top five moves for getting out of the hay feeding rut.
1. Have a plan for year-around grazing.
This doesn’t mean just hoping you have some grass left over in the fall to use during winter. It means making a critical evaluation of all of your forage resources and mapping out when they can be used most optimally. Develop a calendar of when your stock are going to have their highest and lowest demands. As an industry we have given a lot of lip service to matching forage and animal resources, but the majority of ranchers still do a pretty poor job of implementing a sound plan.
2. Change your calving season to a less demanding time of year.
It is much easier to graze a dry, pregnant cow through the winter than a lactating mama. For many of today’s moderate to high milk producing beef cows, daily forage demand at peak lactation is 50-80% higher than when she is at dry, pregnant maintenance. Late spring or early summer calving seasons work well in a lot of ranch country once you change your mind about a few things. I’ve met very few ranchers who switched to later calving who ever went back to winter calving.
3. Make sure your cattle match your environment and climatic conditions.
You really want your cattle to survive and thrive on the native resources of your ranch. The more petroleum and iron you put between the sun’s solar energy and your cow’s belly, the less profitable you are likely to be. Cattle should be able to earn their own living. You shouldn’t have to earn it for them. Consider every head of cattle on your place to be a ranch employee. Your primary job as manager is to create a working environment for your employees to do their job.
4. Manage all of your pasture and rangeland more intensively.
This does not mean graze it more intensively, this means manage it more intensively. If you do, you will get more forage production and greater carrying capacity from your land. Simply rationing out what you are already growing is one of the easiest places to pick up more grazing days from every acre. One of the strongest arguments I can make for Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) in the summertime is to create more winter pasture opportunities.
5. Change range use from summer grazing to winter grazing.
In most environments with degraded rangeland, switching to predominantly winter use is a great strategy for improving range condition. Many public lands offices are very willing to work with ranchers on this kind of positive change. We do see some agency offices and employees who drag their feet on making any kind of change, but most are willing to work with you if you have a grazing plan that will help them meet their conservation goals.
You may not need to make all these changes in your operation. It depends on where you are right now and where you want to end up being. While some operations go cold turkey and try to make the entire shift in a single year, it may be easier to make the transition over 3 or 4 years. You will take some learning and adjustments to get comfortable with the new approach. Your livestock will also need to adapt to the new management regime.
Most beef herds in the US and Canada are made up of cows that are too big and have too much milking ability to live within the resource capability of the land base. Winter grazing is a lot easier with the proper type of cow on your place. Making the switch in calving season might be as easy as just holding the bulls out for a couple extra months. Changing cow type to a more moderate framed and lower milk producing animal will take quite a bit longer.
The key point is to have a plan for making the transition with a clear target of where you want to go.
Thanks to the On Pasture readers providing financial support.
Jim Gerrish is the author of “Management-Intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming” and “Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing” and is a popular speaker at conferences around the world. His company, American GrazingLands Services LLC is dedicated to improving the health and sustainable productivity of grazing lands around the world through the use of Management-intensive Grazing practices. They work with small farms, large ranches, government agencies and NGO’s to promote economically and environmentally sustainable grazing operations and believe healthy farms and ranches are the basis of healthy communities and healthy consumers. Visit their website to find out more about their consulting services and grazing management tools, including electric fencing, stock water systems, forage seed, and other management tools.
Enonkishu Conservancy, (Maa for ‘place of healthy cattle’) located in southwestern Kenya, is one of the newest Savory Hubs. Designed to demonstrate the attributes of managed grazing in a challenging environment and to encourage local community involvement. The young couple who have pulled this endeavor together to qualify as a Savory Hub and move forward with implementation have indeed set a challenging yet heartfelt mission before them.
Their stated mission:
Enonkishu Conservancy is committed to sustainable rangeland management that allows space and resources for all people, cattle, and wildlife. To achieve this it seeks a balance between conservation of the ecosystem and appropriate enterprise for the resident Maasai communities. Enonkishu is adopting a unique approach to conserving land by creating a viable livestock enterprise through a Holistic Management (HM) Approach. Through HM, Enonkishu intends to improve productivity of the livestock in the region, improve livelihoods and maintain heritage.”
The desire to improve the land, livestock, and wildlife is admirable, but no more so than the commitment to lift up the lives of the local people by finding ways for more children to seek formal education and to put more dollars in the pockets of families.
‘Regenerative’ is the new buzzword and thinking to replace ‘sustainable.’ I think it’s a good change. Why sustain something that is in decline or degraded? Regeneration of poor soils is tantamount to improved lives. From the dust of the earth was man created -Genesis 2:7.
However, offering and encouraging education in holistic management or any other ideology must be introduced with gentleness and respect into a culture and society which may push back with decades of ingrained practices and customs. Even in our rural county in Missouri, USA with one of the premier managed-grazing schools at our fingertips, there is little adoption of the regenerative practices. To form a cooperative of producers willing to allow their comingled cow herds to be managed as one mob by someone else on comingled land would not even be considered. Yet this is the simplified explanation of one component of what is happening with Enonkishu Conservancy and the Mara Training Centre. With any new organisation, family or business, there are growing and learning pains. Rookie mistakes, which should be avoided by heeding advice from those who have already made them, creep into any undertaking. One of the key elements of Allan Savory’s management courses is defining goals and testing objectives. Good, basic advice for anyone at any point in their lives.
Admittedly, i’m glad i don’t have to manage the massive number of mega wildlife that Lippa and Tarquin do – no worries about lions, leopards, elephants, zebras here in north Missouri. Wow!
We learnt so much on this wonderful expedition – not only did we meet great travel mates, hosts, servers, and leaders, but we enjoyed safari and game drives, superb meals prepared by Chef Purity and graciously served by Godfrey, guides who surely have no equal, and opportunities to enjoy local life. More on all that in future entries.
Two hours on that sort of gravel road was the last of our five hour drive from Nairobi to House In the Wild. I’ll not complain about gravel roads in Jackson Township, Linn County, Missouri, USA again!
Even though the soil is much better covered on the Enonkishu Conservancy, despite the massive amounts of wildlife (which continues to increase because of better forage), there is much work to be done. My observations are that the cows are the forward grazers and receive the more mature grasses. This, of course, challenges them to maintain body condition. I don’t know what the conception rates are. I asked about how the wildlife are managed and the comments was that oddly, the wildlife seems to follow the cattle. This is no mystery as to why they do this! The wildlife are getting that coveted second bite, the one that shouldn’t be taken until the grass has had adequate rest. This is one point that many graziers differ with Allan Savory’s grazing management. He says that the amount of time grazing is the most important, whereas many of us believe the amount of time rested is most important. The key is to move the stock before the blades can be grazed too short- often this is one bite, then move on. However, time grazing and time resting will vary with seasons and weather conditions. For example, in my operation in a typical fast growing cool season forages spring, the cows will be in a paddock no more than three days, then that paddock should rest at least 30 days. However, if the rains don’t come, this rest period could easily extend to 60 or 90 days. This would require longer stays in paddocks and possible herd reduction.
Anyway, my point is that the wildlife on Enonkishu are fat grazing the creme of the grass crop and quite likely slowing down the regenerative process. However, tourism is a huge part of the income and goals, so this must be taken into consideration and balance.
The boma is a mainstay amongst cattlemen and shepherds in conservancies of southwestern Kenya. Stock must be corralled each night for protection from serious predators like lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and other wildlife which like beef as much as we do. Bomas are designed to be easily set up and taken down and the overnight dunging by mobbed stock can improve soil structure and productivity very quickly IF the area is allowed to rest for along time after use.
The Enonkishu Conservancy as a new Savory Hub is doing a smart, yet difficult thing. Mistakes in management have been made and I hope that leaders will continue learning and talking to people who are not only ‘experts’ but also producers, those of us who put these ideas to practice. We’ve already made the mistakes and most are glad to share our failures and successes.