In the old days the buffalo roamed wherever they chose, and the cattle that replaced them did likewise. But we have learned a lot about range management since then.
Left alone, animals will eat the most tender and juicy forage they can find. Early in the summer, those leaves are quickly replaced by new leaves that are even more tender and juicy – and the cows will return to bite them off again. In the meantime, the less desirable plants grow bigger and tougher every day.
The grass leaves are the factories that turn sunlight into food. So when those factory-leaves are bitten off, the plant must utilize root reserves to re-grow those leaves until they are of sufficient size to begin producing again. If cattle are still in that field, they are likely to return to those same young and succulent plants again and again until the root reserves are depleted and the plants die.
Under Management Intensive Grazing the cattle are confined to a small enough area that they bite off all the individual grass plants - then the cattle are moved away so that the plants can recover. Such a program actually invigorates the plants, and they produce more forage than if left ungrazed. And the cattle are forced to graze off the older and less desirable grasses in each field, to be replaced by fresh young leaves.
Such intensive grazing, however, requires a level of fencing and access to water that is sometimes impractical in the western United States. On our ranch it takes 5 acres of grass per month to graze a cow, and the land is steep and rugged. Watering points are limited, and moveable electric fencing is impractical in the higher country. So we have found a compromise.
With the help of Matt Ricketts, Regional Range Management Specialist for the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Conservation Service, we have instituted a “twice through” grazing system that has added at least 50 pounds to every calf we sell every year.
When we first turn out our cows out to grass in June, we move them every week to a new pasture. We have five fields through which we rotate them, giving five weeks of re-growth before we return to the first pasture. That allows the plants that were bitten off in the first pass to grow out, mature, and set seed before the cows come back. These mature plants aren’t as sweet and tasty as new growth, but they provide adequate nutrition for the cows and calves to grow fat and sassy after the plants have stored adequate root reserves for next year’s crop.
Such a program does require us to drop whatever we are doing and get ahorseback among the cows on the mountain every week – rather than doing the more mundane mechanical jobs down along river.
It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. And the economic rewards are substantial, both in the near term - increased pounds of calf to sell each year, and in the long term - improved forage quality and quantity into the future.