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Archives | December 2010


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Planned Grazing 12: Move Toward the Goal

Sometimes progress comes in medium steps, and sometimes it comes in small steps.

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's Note: This is the final 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.

When it comes to grazing management, one-size-does-not fit all. Each operator has to do what is best for the land, the livestock and the wildlife in his or her care. Of course, the trick is figuring out exactly what that is.

For Lowry McAllen, who operates the Las Colmenas Ranch in northwest Hidalgo County near the community of McCook, the answer is balancing natural resources with financial resources.

"As a rancher, you have to be a steward of your natural resources and financial resources," McAllen, who began managing the family's ranch full time in 2002, says. "You have to take care of each in equal measure."

This point became crystal clear to McAllen and his father, Robert, as they were completing the Ranching for Profit school. The men attended at different times, but came to the same philosophical and operational point of view.

"As a family, we had no resistance to looking at the ranch as a business," McAllen says. "We have no urge to clear brush just so it looks better. We don't have cowboys who head and heel just to maintain tradition, because we've found ways to do it more efficiently. We've been able to look at the business side of the ranch and run it as a business."

They run a profitable business because they plan and manage for a profit. They have quarterly meetings that include spouses Margaret and Jessica at which they strategize for the future by using gross margin analysis to ascertain the ranch's productivity, and by developing an annual cash-flow plan. They use sell-buy accounting and buy the most undervalued animals using Bud Williams' principles.

Robert completed the Ranching for Profit school in 1994 and began the process of transitioning the ranch to a rotational grazing system, which has evolved and intensified through the years.

"We didn't make the change rapidly," Lowry McAllen says. "We'd take a small step and a -medium step and another small step, but we continued to move -toward our goal."

When they started rotational grazing, the cow-calf operation had 3 large pastures and 1 trap. The family began building on what they had, "adding a handful of cross fences." According to McAllen, it was a "big deal to move cattle every 6 weeks" back then.

The timing of the move is based on observation and experience. "I'm looking for a balance between what the cattle are consuming and what they are doing for grass and soil," he says. "If I think the cattle are getting more than they're giving, then I'm operating too tight, and vice versa."

Today, McAllen and his assistant move the cattle every day. The ranch has 42 permanent pastures, which are primarily buffelgrass and 2 naturalized Old World bluestem species. These pastures are further divided with temporary electric fences. The crew relies on animal behavior to achieve the move.

"Our cattle are just tipping the grass, which is what you want with buffelgrass to keep it from getting seedy and stemmy, but they still move without any problem," McAllen says. "My best explanation is the buffet analogy. Even if all the dishes on the buffet look pretty good, you're naturally attracted to the hot, fresh steaming one that they just brought out from the kitchen. Cattle are attracted to fresh grass."

The size of area being grazed and the density of the herd changes throughout the year in response to the rate of grass growth and the grass quality. On the Las Colmenas Ranch in mid-September 2010, cattle were introduced to about 14 acres of fresh grass per day, he says. This is equivalent to running about 25,000 pounds of live weight per acre. At other times of year, the stock density could be as much as 10 times as great. Light use combined with a sufficient recovery period in the growing season make for much stronger forage during hard times.

Within the last 2 years, the cows and calves that traditionally have been the operation's mainstays have been replaced by steers. The steers, which are all purchased in Texas to avoid any point-of-origin issues associated with Mexican cattle, come from a variety of sources ranging from auction markets to private treaty sales.

"Our area is very drought-prone. In fact, we have more direct solar radiation than any other place in the nation except southern Florida, but if you compare how much rain they get versus our area at 20 inches, you'll understand the issue," McAllen says. Rainfall comes irregularly in deep South Texas. "Because drought is so prevalent, we have to confront it. By working to manage our grass and soil well, we protect our financial sustainability. Switching to stockers from a cow-calf operation has also helped us avoid ‘stocking rate inertia.'"

When a drought hits, it is often hard to liquidate a cow herd because of considerations of the reproductive cycle. An operator doesn't want to sell if the whole herd is ready to drop calves or if the mamas have small calves by their side, he says.

Once ranchers have de-stocked due to a drought, they may wait several months after it starts to rain again trying to determine if the drought has really broken. From McAllen's point of view, steers are easier to liquidate and acquire, making it easier to respond to the forces of weather and the market place.

"Using the system we have now, it is very clear when it is time to destock because I have a very clear idea, every day, of exactly how much grass I have to utilize," McAllen says. "It's much more difficult to see this in a set-stocked, continuous grazing situation." For instance, all the grass will likely be grazed down around the water sources and there is likely tall grass standing in the far reaches of the pasture that will never get eaten," he says.

"When you have a different number of pastures and you are rotating the cattle through them all, the cattle cover the whole place," McAllen says. "It creates a more uniform coverage of grass across the whole ranch, helping move toward more consistency across the pastures."

"As a ranch, we have to be profitable because this is not a hobby," McAllen says. "Our goal is to keep the family on the ranch and the ranch in the family for a long time, so it has to be psychologically and financially rewarding."

Although the Las Colmenas Ranch is in deep South Texas, McAllen's management is similar to others profiled in this series from across Texas and situated in many diverse environments. Ranch owners and managers from high rainfall regimes in East Texas to the arid plains and mountains of West Texas are successfully using this management philosophy and framework. It has been adapted for very large to very small properties.

Dr. Wayne Hanselka, professor and Extension specialist emeritus with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, says, "Planned grazing is based on the concept that ranching is a business, and management should follow a business model that includes planning, implementation, monitoring and re-planning. The goal is to focus on the triple bottom line (economic, ecological and social goals) and structure the business to make a profit in the short and long term."

Infrastructure and purchases are limited to those that are needed to ensure a sustainable profit, and contingency plans are developed each year to minimize drought impacts, he says. It has been successfully used for multiple enterprises involving cow-calf, stocker and seasonal grazing, as well as forage production systems and wildlife habitat considerations.

Livestock are managed for short periods of grazing to provide light-to-moderate defoliation, which provides a good quality diet for the livestock while allowing the grass plants to recover quickly and impacting the land positively through the grazing activity.

The grazed pasture is left to regrow prior to being grazed again. This cycle allows the vegetation to maintain itself, cover bare ground, and gain in strength and diversity. As the grazing land gradually improves, stocking rates can be increased. And, the manager can observe all the livestock in one place on the ranch as often as necessary, making management easier and less time-consuming.

Dr. Richard Teague, associate resident director and professor at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Vernon, adds, "When correctly applied, many positive benefits have been measured that improve short- and long-term profit. These improvements to the land include improved vegetative cover, species diversity, and improved water retention, nutrient flow, energy capture, and control of vegetation dynamics."

This results in improvements in livestock nutrition, maintenance and production at lower costs, he says. Wildlife habitat improvements have been reflected in healthier populations of both game and non-game wild animals.

The decision-making capacities of the manager are also enhanced allowing him or her to be more proactive in dealing with potential problems. Improved management and quality of life are common for managers who follow "Planned Grazing" concepts and principles, Teague says.

Tips for Getting Started in Planned Grazing

  • Go to school. Ranching for Profit and Holistic Management will provide a solid foundation.
  • Talk with successful practitioners and visit successful operations. Planned grazing proponents have learned lessons the hard way and are willing to share their expertise.
  • Attend field days and short courses. Dixon Water Foundation and HMI-Texas are good sources of information about upcoming events.
  • Read and study everything you can about the subject. Books and articles by Allan Nation, Jim Gerrish, Jim Howell and Greg Judy are good sources of information, as is The Stockman Grass Farmer.
  • Never stop learning. Ranching is dynamic and the environment is dynamic, so managers can't afford to let their knowledge become stagnant.

"Planned Grazing 12 - "Move Toward the Goal" is from the December 2010 issue of The Cattleman magazine.