Irrigated ground on the Cunningham family’s 105-year-old ranch outside Jordan Valley, Ore., is producing more forage lately.
Ranchers Sean and Liz Cunningham have seen a 20% increase in forage production in their meadows since shifting to short-duration, high-intensity “mob” grazing five years ago.
“We have gone from about 2.5 tons per acre to 3 tons per acre,” Liz Cunningham said. “We’re always trying to improve our soil.”
They bring some of their range cattle in to graze in bunches, or “mobs,” when the grass is growing quickly — typically from mid-May to mid-June. The mobs move daily.
“We believe it builds up the soil, and makes the soil able to retain more moisture,” Cunningham said. “Then the cows have their own fertilizing effects, so there is no use of synthetic fertilizers, and no pesticides.”
With the move to mob grazing came an exit from the hay trade.
“We still hay about 50 acres” for winter feed and weaning calves, Cunningham said. “We used to hay about 300 acres. Now, most of that ground is in native grasses — native, wild meadow grasses mostly.”
Even their range cattle graze in a fairly high-intensity fashion lately. Weaned cows have been staying on U.S. Bureau of Land Management range in late fall to graze densely on medusahead and cheat grasses as part of an Oregon State University Extension study.
Cunningham Ranch supplies Cunningham Pastured Meats. Liz and Sean, a fourth-generation rancher, started the meat marketing business in 2014 after researching grass-fed beef’s health benefits and discovering it was hard to find in stores.
The marketing business sells meat from pasture-fed pigs, lambs and cattle — mainly Red Angus — as well as pasture-fed chicken raised elsewhere to quality standards. It has seen strong growth in the two years since it started offering retail-sized cuts like steaks and consumer-sized packages of ground beef in addition to half and quarter sides.
Recent growth in the marketing business has prompted the Cunninghams to consider shipping some meat to the West Coast.
Its own growth notwithstanding, the marketing business benefits the ranch.
“Another reason we started the marketing business was to use undervalued animals like cull cows,” Cunningham said.
An Ada Soil & Water Conservation District tour of the site, to showcase mob grazing and year-round pasture management, is scheduled June 1.