Careful, intensive management reduces winter feed costs
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Most ranchers don't graze their land efficiently, Jim Gerrish says.
Gerrish, owner of American GrazingLands Services in May, Idaho, said most commonly used grazing techniques achieve only 50 to 60 percent of the land's potential.
He advises producers to increase the density of ground cover and leave more leaf material after grazing. Most ranchers graze the grass too short and too often, reducing productivity.
"It's not been emphasized to them enough what their real business is," he said. "The real business of farming and ranching is capturing solar energy."
Gerrish recommends approaching the land as though it is a solar panel. Solar energy is the primary input for any agricultural product, he said. Farmers need to focus on capturing that sunlight.
"Grazing allows livestock to directly harvest solar energy, making it the lowest-cost means of feeding cattle," Gerrish said.
University of Idaho Extension forage specialist Glenn Shewmaker and Oregon State University Extension alfalfa agent Mylen Bohle edited the book, "Pasture and Grazing Management in the Northwest."
Most of the previous information was based in other regions, Shewmaker said. The basics are the same, he said, but the West has more irrigation, so the guide combines designs for temporary and permanent fencing with grazing management and pasture rotation.
Shewmaker agrees with Gerrish's assessment. Gerrish contributed to the book.
"Pasture and grazing management is just left to be the poor stepchild of whatever other operation is on the farm," Shewmaker said. Most ranchers continuously stock pastures, leaving animals on a piece of property all season.
Gerrish emphasizes management-intensive grazing. High-intensity or low-intensity grazing are misleading concepts, he said, adding that it's intensity of management that really matters.
"If you don't manage, cows will do all the intensive grazing on their own that you can stand," he said.
He recommends ranchers reduce hay feeding as much as possible, and increase the time spent grazing, which is the biggest factor that will impact the bottom line, he said. Almost every economic assessment of the cow-calf industry has shown winter feed costs to be the single most important factor affecting profitability, he said.
"The industry is being forced to move away from hay feeding because it is simply no longer affordable," he said.
Producers can use intense pasture management to cut their winter feed costs and get as close to year-round grazing as possible.
"For a beef-cow operation, reducing winter feed costs will give them more profitability than the best bull they can buy," Shewmaker said.
Shewmaker recommends limiting the amount of time animals are on one piece of ground, moving them every one to three days. This rotates the pastures so they are used efficiently and capture more solar energy.
Ultra-high stock density, moving animals every day, is not for every producer, Shewmaker said. The benefits are overrated in some cases.
A well-managed pasture should not have weed problems if there's adequate rotation, he said.