By JOHN O'CONNELL
Jim Gerrish recalls the Circle Pi Ranch was already well managed when he moved to May, Idaho, in 2005 to run its upper-elevation grazing unit.
Nonetheless, Gerrish estimates his ranching method has improved his unit's grazing capacity by 50-60 percent. He's among a growing group of ranchers utilizing management-intensive grazing.
The approach mimics the densely packed buffalo herds of nature that are constantly moving, allowing vegetation to fully recover before returning to graze.
Using electric fencing, he confines livestock to a small area for about a day, allowing them to eat roughly half of the forage and trample the rest for soil nutrients. Cattle manure is distributed uniformly to enrich soil, and grasses are left to grow tall before cattle return, sheltering soil from heat and wind during dry spells.
Gerrish adopted the method 25 years ago in Missouri. He's since become a consultant, teaching ranchers the method and hosting an annual Lost Rivers Grazing School with University of Idaho. He estimates 10 percent of Idaho ranchers practice management-intensive grazing, which he vows can cut production costs to below $300 per animal, compared with a national average of $650-$700.
His son manages a Missouri ranch with 1,000 head of cattle, utilizing a management-intensive grazing method called "mob" grazing, requiring livestock to move to new paddocks several times per day.
"Anybody can do it if they put their mind to it, and if they want to survive in the cattle business once cattle prices fall off again, they'd better be doing it," Gerrish said.
Ray Archuleta, a conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in North Carolina, said management-intensive grazing also controls weeds as cattle feed less selectively with heightened competition. Ranchers may need to adjust grazing density based on season, weather and livestock classes.
"Some of our grazers have completely eliminated haying," Archuleta said, explaining their improved soil health supports year-round grazing.
He said NRCS can assist in drafting management plans and cost shares on startup equipment.
For two weeks of August, Center, Colo., potato grower Brendon Rockey will allow a rancher to mob graze 70 acres of cover crops he planted before spuds.
The cattle will replace the tractor Rockey has used to work cover crops into his soil, saving fuel. Under mob grazing, he expects cattle won't linger long enough to compact soil and will distribute manure evenly as a nutrient source to supplement compost.
Ann Adams, with the New Mexico-based nonprofit sustainable management organization Holistic Management International, has witnessed "train wrecks" by ranchers who tried grazing in tight bunches without promptly moving livestock.
"My concern is people don't go down the wrong path and get burned," Adams said. "We're definitely seeing growth in people contacting us and wanting information and help."
Advanced classes of the Lost Rivers Grazing School will be May 14-17 in Shoshone, Idaho, and beginner courses will be June 11-14 and Sept. 9-12 in Salmon.Contact Chad Cheyney at 208-527-8587.