Grazing guru teaches ranchers ‘intensive’ approach

Cattle feed under a management-intensive grazing system at Jim Gerrish's ranch in May, Idaho.

SALMON, Idaho — James Gerrish coined the term “management-intensive grazing,” describing an approach to managing cattle he said improves ranchers’ soil health while boosting the carrying capacity of their pastures by more than 40 percent.

To convince more ranchers to try his approach, the May, Idaho, grazing expert works as a consultant, public speaker and author of how-to guides such as “Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing.” Though he’s still slowly winning over converts, Gerrish emphasizes the method’s core principles have been outlined in writings dating back 250 years.

Gerrish was the featured speaker during a four-day grazing workshop hosted by University of Idaho Extension Sept. 12-15 at the Eagle Valley Ranch in Salmon.

Before animals were domesticated, they grazed in tight herds and never stayed in one place for long, resulting in a uniform removal of vegetation and distribution of manure, Gerrish explained. In modern times, they’ve been left to graze in large pastures, feeding less uniformly on the plants they like best, while leaving behind species most tolerant of grazing pressure and reducing rangeland diversity.

His system uses electric fencing to make small pastures, in which cattle graze at high densities to spur competition for forage and are moved frequently to fresh pastures — often for intervals as short as a day — leaving behind just enough forage for grasses to quickly recover.

“My best success story would be a four-fold increase in carrying capacity,” Gerrish said. “I have clients in Idaho and Montana who graze year-round now and feed no hay.”

Owyhee County Extension educator Scott Jensen said 17 people enrolled in the recent training, which is hosted annually in September. Participants came from several states. Deseret Ranches, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Ted Turner ranches were represented. Jensen said participants were divided into teams and assigned to set up pastures to meet various grazing objectives, such as accommodating a specified number of cattle to graze for a day or leaving behind a desired amount of forage after grazing.

“The quality and amount of forage that’s there could be the difference between a cow gaining a half a pound per day and 3 pounds per day,” Jensen said.

Jensen, who uses management-intensive grazing on his small ranch, said the labor involved isn’t overwhelming. He can set up fencing for a portable pasture in under 20 minutes. Following workshops, Jensen often fields calls from producers seeking help in implementing the system, and finds those who request assistance have greater success in overcoming obstacles.

Dallin Carter, of Pingree, started management-intensive grazing a couple of years ago, but attended the recent training to refine his program. Based on what he’s learned, he may shorten his three- to five-day grazing rotations to daily intervals. He also plans to start using management-intensive grazing for better utilization when he turns cattle loose on crop residue.

“I do believe I’ve gotten better gains and more production,” Carter said. “I see improvements in grass quality, and I’ve been able to run a lot more calves.”

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