Moving cell-grazed cattle at just the right time to support plant recovery is a winning strategy for this Nebraska rancher
By: Loretta Sorensen
Long before he heard Allan Savory talk about holistic management, John Ravenscroft was interested in soil conservation. He was using a four-pasture grazing system on his 30,000 acres of western Nebraska grasslands. However, Ravenscroft decided to rethink his grazing strategy after hearing Savory’s comments regarding grazing a few acres with a large number of cattle to effectively harvest grass with no damage.
“That was in 1985,” Ravenscroft recalls. “At the time, my brother and I ranched together. We were looking for ways to improve our rangeland and expand our herd. We didn’t have access to more grassland but Savory said grazing forage properly allowed ranchers to double the stocking rate. That really got my attention.”
Rangeland researchers have learned that switching from continuous grazing to rotational/intensive grazing can extend the grazing season, boost for age quantity and reduce forage stress by providing significant rest periods. Healthy, unstressed plants have been shown to start spring growth earlier, produce higher yield in summer and continue growing longer in the fall.
“When you graze continuously, especially late in the summer, you graze pasture short and keep it short,” explains Dr. Dan Undersander, Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin. “In that situation, plants don’t have enough leaf area to intercept sunlight and grow at a rapid rate. That slows down overall growth and production of tonnage per acre.”
Undersander notes that cattle in a continuous grazing system usually tend to graze down an area and then return to it often because they find new, succulent growth there. The result is an area where grass has no opportunity to fully recover from grazing.
“We have to remember that, when forage is harvested either by haying or grazing, a portion of the forage’s root system dies back,” Undersander adds. “If the plant is allowed to recover, it builds up photosynthate (sugar produced by photosynthesis) and rebuilds the root system. A healthy root system means the plant will better withstand water stress.”
Short grasses store energy in the base of the plant, which is above ground. If grass is grazed too short, energy the plant needed to prepare for regrowth is gone. That means regrowth is likely to be slower, decreasing overall forage production for the season.
“Key elements for maintaining quality pasture forage are allowing plants to store carbohydrates for regrowth and maintaining a healthy root system to help them survive a drought period,” Undersander says. “If grass is grazed too short, there aren’t enough leaves for the plant to maximize the interception of sunlight, which is necessary to regrowth.”
IN JUST ONE YEAR
As part of his initial transition, Ravenscroft gave serious consideration to Savory’s recommendation that ranchers work in harmony with nature, especially at calving time, so cows have access to the best quality grass when they need the most energy and nutrition.
“For years we calved in March,” Ravenscroft recalls. “One of our first changes was to move calving to May.”
Ravenscroft was so convinced that Savory’s grazing principles would be effective he reorganized his entire grazing strategy in just one year. That first year he established permanent cross fencing to create about 80 400- acre paddocks. He nearly doubled his stocking rate, running as many as 1,500 cattle in one herd.
“I believe there’s a rule that when you first implement intensive grazing there has to be drought,” Ravenscroft shares.
“That was our experience. We brought in yearlings to increase our stocking rate. We usually have about 15 inches of rain but had virtually no rain that summer. No matter how you graze, rain helps grazed grass recover faster. We adjusted grazing plans throughout that summer to make up for lack of rain. I’m not sorry we implemented our grazing strategy in one year. If I had it to do over, I’d increase stocking rate at a slower pace, in case I encountered something like drought.”
Ravenscroft brought his grasslands through the 1986 drought. His biggest issue that year was not having stockpiled grass for winter. Since then, he’s been able to retain ample grass in his paddock system. Now cows graze and receive a protein range cube but receive virtually no winter hay supplement.
“There’s been just one year when we had so much snow we had to feed hay,” Ravenscroft says. “Many times it seems what snow we have blows off from large enough areas so cows can get to the grass. Once they learn there’s no hay coming, cows are more aggressive about going out and finding the feed they need.”
Ravenscroft’s soils at Nenzel are sandy and sandy loam. Most paddocks are quite hilly. In the past, he hayed valley areas found between hills. In his new grazing system, he gets by with putting up about 25% of the hay he used to, harvesting some best hay-producing areas.
He finds native Nebraska cool and warm season grasses on his rangeland. Varieties include Western Wheatgrass, Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Sideoats Grama, Brome grass, Indian Grass and more. In summer, when cattle first enter a paddock, Ravenscroft flags a plant in order to measure the difference between it and plants grazed around it. He wants to see enough leaves on plants so they utilize photosynthesis, regrow and recover before the herd returns.
IS IT RECOVERED?
“There’s always the question, when is a plant recovered?” Ravenscroft says. “You have to ask yourself if you want to see a seedhead or just what you expect a recovered plant to look like. Early in the year grass growth is faster so you have to take that into account. Early in the season we may flash graze some paddocks to take advantage of high quality forage. In spring, we typically rotate through paddocks in 30 days. From there, rotation slows down.”
Plant quality is high when plants are small. As plants mature, they become stemmier and a greater percentage of nutrients are found in undigestible forms (such as lignins). The more undigestible fiber in a plant, the less total digestible nutrient (TDN) is available to cows. One discovery that surprised Ravenscroft as he moved into a more intense grazing plan was that too much rest was counter-productive for his grassland, too.
When grass isn’t grazed, older or dead leaves can shade young leaves, slowing new growth. Most pasture forages regrow from low-lying or underground stems, crowns or roots. Taller growing forages are likely to die out in a continuous grazing system because most of their leaves are grazed off in a continuous grazing system, preventing storage of carbohydrates.
If they’re allowed to recover, tall forage can help shade out shorter forages and weeds, improving forage quality and quantity. There was no time during his grazing transition when Ravenscroft saw cow nutrition issues. Since he didn’t observe body condition problems, he didn’t conduct fecal testing or take specific steps to verify cow health. It took between 4 and 5 years to see grass quality improvements as a result of intensive grazing.
Among the positive changes were more diverse grass varieties, reduced runoff, increased water infiltration and firmer soil. “Our grasses have better root systems,” Ravenscroft says. “That’s important in years when there isn’t much rain. That healthy root system helps grasses recover faster.
Because we move cattle often, flies stay behind with manure, which breaks down faster because there’s increased soil microbiology. If you return to a paddock three or four days after we move, you won’t find manure. It’s been broken down and taken into the soil. That’s especially true in our meadow areas.”
THREE HERDS NOW
Before reorganizing his grazing strategy, Ravenscroft had grazed cattle in herds of about 200 head. At the beginning of his intense grazing system, he consolidated cattle into one herd, with as many as 1,500 cattle in the same paddock.
Currently he runs approximately 1,200 head. “It took a lot of water for 1,500 cattle,” Ravenscroft states. “We used 30- foot water tanks and a pump jack on a windmill to pipe water to between 30 and 40 tanks. It didn’t take long to realize one well wasn’t adequate. We drilled a new well and went to a submersible pump with a diesel-powered generator to ensure we had enough water. Digging the second well was a feasible option for us because water is very accessible here.”
Although he’s experienced few problems with his grazing strategy, Ravenscroft has tweaked and refined the system throughout the years. Most recently he replaced some windmills with solar-powered pumps, which has proven satisfactory so far. They have a couple of carts that make it easy to move the electric fence equipment to a new paddock. He’s also split the cattle into three different herds for the 2015 grazing season.
“We have groups of mature cows, replacement heifers and first-calf heifers,” he describes. “That means we won’t move cows quite as often.” They pretty much move themselves anyway, Ravenscroft claims. “I was never intimidated by the larger herd. It seemed easier to monitor the cattle when they were all together. But we’ll see how it works with these three groups.”