By DOUG WARNOCK
For the Capital Press
Cattle weight gain more than offsets the upfront investments of water development, fencing and management time in converting Conservation Reserve Program land into pasture, according to John Burns of Condon, Ore.
"I often wonder why more ranchers don't do what we have done, because we clearly realize greater income from this operation than we had from wheat or CRP payments," he said.
The Burns ranch is an example of how a well-managed cattle grazing operation can compete financially with CRP contracts in some areas. Typical CRP contracts in this vicinity go for around $40 per acre and he has experienced returns exceeding that. This is in an area with 12 to 14 inches of rainfall per year.
The Gilliam County, Ore., cattleman started grazing former CRP land in 1997. Since then, he added acreage and seeded some areas with grass and alfalfa.
This year from May to August he ran 200 bred heifers on 350 acres of former CRP land and then put them into a 780-acre former CRP field. He also ran 120 first-calf heifer pairs from May to August on a 225-acre field that had been converted from wheat production to a grass and alfalfa pasture four years ago.
Next, they went into a 400 acre grass-alfalfa pasture that had also been changed over from wheat. These numbers compare quite favorably to the 40 acres per cow needed on the adjacent rangeland.
There are some major considerations in converting cropland and CRP land to grazing. Two major needs that may require investment to be returned over time are provisions for stock water and establishing some type of fencing system. Burns has added some fencing and drilled several wells. Two have solar-powered pumps and two have diesel pumps.
While Burns has been happy with the results of his grazing operation, he strives to increase forage production, improve cattle distribution and make his grazing enterprise more efficient. He recently began working on a plan to convert more low-yielding wheat land to grass and alfalfa and increase animal density on some areas that have been undergrazed.
More intensive, short-term grazing on these areas will help to harvest more of the underused forage and stimulate plant growth, resulting in improved forage quality and quantity.
Burns' family first settled in the Condon area in 1885, so his roots run deep. He went away to college, studied law and eventually went into law practice. He became managing partner of a large law firm with offices in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. He also served two four-year terms in the Oregon Senate and was elected president of the Senate in 1971.
During his law career he continued his connection with the Condon area and agriculture. After retiring from law practice, he returned to Gilliam County, served as district attorney and managed his ranch. Burns loves the area, supports the community and is a champion of activities and programs that help keep people on the land and keep the land productive and viable.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, now lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he consults and writes on ranch management.