Planned Grazing 9 - The Balancing Act of Stocking Rates
By Lorie Woodward Cantu
Editor's note: This is the ninth installment in a 12-part series on planned grazing. This series has been created in partnership with Dr. Richard Teague, associate resident director and professor at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Vernon; Dr. C. Wayne Hanselka, a private range management consultant based in Corpus Christi, who also serves as professor and Extension specialist emeritus with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service; and individual ranchers experienced in using planned grazing.
Additional resource information will be posted on The Cattleman's website, thecattlemanmagazine.com.
Ranching is a balancing act. To be successful, ranchers must balance the number of livestock with the amount of forage, the number of wildlife with the abundance of habitat, and their plans for improvements with the numbers in the budget. Planned grazing is a decision-making system that provides a framework for balance.
"We started using planned grazing back in the '80s because we had already figured out that the traditional way wasn't going to work for us," says Clint Josey Jr., who operates 2 ranches in Cooke County near Muenster, 1 in Parker County near Weatherford, and 1 in Presidio County near Marfa.
Initially, Josey, his long-time ranch manager Robby Tuggle and another employee attended a planned grazing course in Albuquerque. Then, they repeated it.
At the school, they realized the first step in finding balance is setting an appropriate goal. Every other decision can be traced to that goal.
In the case of the North Texas ranches, Josey and his management staff wanted to restore parts of the ranches that were a bermudagrass monoculture to a native, tall grass prairie.
Richard Teague, associate resident director of the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Vernon notes that one of the really important things to do when managing rangeland is to produce a grazing plan at the beginning of every year, which Josey and his team have been doing for years.
Consider where your operation is in achieving the goal when you start the plan for the upcoming year. It is important to write down the plan, making sure it has appropriate actions for a normal season, a dry season and a wet season. If the ranchers do this, then they will be in a much better position to make the right decisions to move toward the goal, regardless of weather surprises.
Tuggle says, "The goals vary from ranch to ranch and from rancher to rancher. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If, initially, we had decided that we simply wanted to increase the productivity of our bermudagrass pastures, then the decisions we made and the infrastructure we built would have been very different from what we did, because our goal would have been very different."
Using grazing to move the land from a monoculture to a multi-species tall grass prairie has been more complicated than simply maintaining a monoculture. But, the changes occurred over time, allowing the managers to gain more knowledge and expertise, he says. Experience is a good teacher.
For instance, as more plant species returned and established themselves on the North Texas ranches, the management team had to learn how to control them. The answer was sheep. Today, the sheep have done such a good job of grazing the forbs that they are slowly being decreased in the stocking mix and replaced by cattle, Josey says.
The right stocking rates require attention
Planned grazing is having the right number of animals at the right place at the right time. Wayne Hanselka, Extension specialist emeritus, says, "Stocking rate is defined as the number of animals on a given amount of land over a certain period of time. In planned grazing, all of the animals are in one herd and graze one paddock/pasture for the length of time it takes to remove targeted amounts of forage."
This increased stock density for a short period of time results in increased animal- and herd-impact and consequent changes in the health and productivity of the land, he says.
Josey says, "Through the years, we've learned that when setting stocking rates, establishing grazing periods and recovery periods are important. We start with the traditional stocking rate and slowly increase it as the amount and quality of the forage increases. The key is being actively engaged and paying attention."
Instead of relying on a set schedule for moving the livestock, Josey and his management team consider the condition of the land and the vegetation, the way the vegetation responds to grazing, the amount of precipitation when deciding how many cattle to stock, how long to graze individual paddocks, and how long to allow the paddocks to recover.
The non-graze period needs to be long enough to allow the defoliated plants to refoliate or recover from the grazing.
For instance, on the North Texas ranches, Tuggle gives each paddock a condition score from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Any paddock with a score of 5 or lower is given special consideration, possibly getting grazed for a shorter time or given a longer recovery period.
Tuggle says, "If you want your least productive land to catch up to your most productive land, then you have to make accommodations to it. It may need to be grazed less aggressively or allowed to recover for a longer time than a piece of land that is in better condition." Their approach has worked. On the North Texas ranches, they have been able to double the traditional stocking rate.
On all their ranches, the management team has fully integrated the production and marketing schedules with the forage production.
Tuggle says, "When we decided that we were going increase our productivity, decrease our costs and maximize our forage, we had to fit every piece in the puzzle together. If you're not going to prop up your cattle with a feed truck, then you have to synchronize your breeding season and your calving season to coincide with your peak periods of forage production to ensure that your livestock are on the highest nutritional plane. You have to rely on the cycles of nature, not the pages of a calendar, to provide the nutrition that your cattle need."
To make sure they have the flexibility to deal with drought, the team makes sure that the herd includes livestock that are "easily disposable." Up to half the herd on the North Texas ranches could be sold if the weather dictated, without impacting the seedstock the team wants to maintain, Josey says.
The grass, unlike grass farther west, cannot be held over because it rots instead of oxidizing, making it imperative that the livestock numbers match the forage inventory at all times.
Differences in West Texas
The Presidio County ranch, which they purchased as a demonstration ranch for the Dixon Foundation and have owned for less than a year, is a learning experience, even for seasoned graziers.
Its topography, wildlife and vegetation are vastly different from the tall grass prairies of North Texas. In addition, the area gets about 15 inches of precipitation per year, compared to the 35 inches that fall on the North Texas ranches. The Presidio County ranch had about 60 percent bare ground. The immediate goal was to break up the soil cap, which will help with moisture infiltration and seedling establishment, by using animal impact.
When the management team was establishing the cow herd for the Presidio County ranch, they purchased about a third from a local producer and brought the rest from their North Texas operation. Although the management team was apprehensive about bringing cattle from the tall grass prairie to the Trans Pecos, Josey says it has worked better than they hoped.
Tuggle says, "We hoped the cattle would learn from each other — and they have. The West Texas cattle weren't used to being fenced and handled like our North Texas stock, so we were counting on the North Texas cattle to help the West Texas cattle learn to respect the electric fences and come to whistle — our signal for moving.
"In North Texas, we don't have loco weed, so we were hoping the West Texas cattle would teach our cattle to avoid it. Knock on wood, we haven't had any loco problems, so it appears to be working."
As a baseline, the management team stocked the ranch at the traditionally recommended levels for a cow-calf operation in Presidio County. They divided the 10,000-acre ranch into 30 permanent paddocks and used temporary electric fencing to subdivide the paddocks into twelfths, giving them a potential for 360 subunits.
The managers are strip grazing the ranch, providing a year-long recovery period for the units.
While many people are overwhelmed by the seemingly large number of paddocks the management team uses, Tuggle says managing a larger number of paddocks is easier than managing a smaller number.
"Managing a ranch with 75 to 80 paddocks is much easier than managing a ranch with 4 to 8 paddocks," Tuggle says. "Fewer paddocks mean fewer options and a lower margin for error."
Josey adds, "Of course, with an intensive system, it's important that there is somebody looking over the situation regularly. Every time, one of the managers moves the cattle, they are making a decision about the condition of the cattle and the condition of the range. When you have an entire herd concentrated on 1/360th of a ranch, like we do in Presidio County, you can't just guess and hope for the best."
"Planned Grazing 9 - "The Balancing Act of Stocking Rates" is from the September 2010 issue of The Cattleman