Developing a mob grazing system to improve the sustainability and profitability of a cattle operation in North Dakota.

Final Report for FNC10-796

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $5,990.60
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Krista Reiser
Reiser Ranch
Co-Coordinators:
Jeremia Reiser
Reiser Ranch
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Project Information

Summary:

We run an all grass operation on about 2700 acres of native prairie in central ND. We run a herd of leased and owned spring calving cows and also custom graze the excess grass that is not planned for our own herd. We plan on grazing our cow herd year around when the weather allows, so we set aside grass for dormant season grazing. This brings in another level of management to our system since we have to plan for grazing in all seasons and nutritional requirements for the different and changing classes of cattle (i.e. early to late gestation). During the times of winter where the weather will not allow us to graze we bale graze to help improve ground cover, soil health and keep the animals out of the corral. Our project focused on mob grazing, however on the acres that were not used for the project we used a rotational grazing strategy focusing on the goals we are trying to reach with the land, the cattle and our own quality of life. This means we generally move cows every 1 to 15 days depending on our goals. The land that we run on is in larger chunks that are wide open and have few to no cross fences so a majority of the cells that we make are with temporary electric fence and from year to year the cell size and placement changes.

Introduction:

We received this grant the first year that my wife and I were ranching on our own. Prior to this we were working on my grandfather’s farm and ranch. While we were there we managed a rotational grazing system that incorporated the use of his cow-calf pairs; as well as helping manage his cropping system for the improvement of soil health. Some of the specific practices were soil testing, cover crops, rotational grazing and crop rotation. We have adopted many new regenerative practices since we are now ranching on our own.

Project Objectives:

  • Extend our grazing season to limit the amount of hay that is fed.
  • Start to change the grass species to more toward a native climax community
  • Improved rangeland and soil health through trampling vegetation and rest.
  • Weight gains on cattle.
  • Improved financial situation for the ranch.

Research

Materials and methods:

For the project we mob grazed cow-calf pairs and fall calving cows at various times of the year across about 300 acres per each year of the grant. The first year we mob grazed cow-calf pairs in July, August and October. This had us grazing during the prime grass growing season as well as in the late growing season to early dormancy. The second year we mob-grazed fall calving cows in late May and early June, and cow-calf pairs during July. This allowed us to see the affect on early season growth and once again on prime growth. The weather differences from the first year to the second were very different. Year one had above average snowfall going into spring and above average moisture throughout the entire growing season. Year 2 gave us no winter snow and far below average rainfall and above average temperatures during the growing season. Year 1 we mob grazed on both lowlands and uplands but a majority of the focus was on the lowland areas. In Year 2 we focused more on the upland areas as to allow longer rest periods on the land we had mob grazed the previous year.

We set up the grazing with the use of temporary electric fence in lanes that went away from water. We would set up our lanes to contain about 5-7 days worth of grass. We set up our lanes in this way because grass will usually start regrowth in about 5 days after being grazed in the high growth early season and about 7 days or longer in the slow growth droughty season. Once the lane was set up I would put the cows into the lane, then starting right next to the water I would allow them the amount of grass they needed for a specific amount of time. Most of the time I would move them about 3-4 times per day by giving them another small allotment of grass with each move. This would get to the desired stock density of between 50,000 and 250,000 pounds of live weight per acre. To decide on the amount of grass for each move I would look at the ground and the activity of the cattle. If the cattle were going back and grazing on a previously grazed area I knew that I needed to either give them more grass for the next move or move them sooner into a new cell. If a lot of grass was left ungrazed and untrampled I would make the size of the next move smaller or lengthen the time they were on an area. I would also look for how content the cattle were, if the cattle were content and looked full on their left side I knew that I gave them the amount that they needed. Cattle that are restless and vocal were a sign that I didn’t give them enough to satisfy their needs and I would have to make adjustments accordingly. I always tried to be on the side of too much grass.

It takes a lot of time to train one’s eye to the amount of grass and time the herd needs to be in a cell. The biggest factor is the production differences of native rangeland. A big realization in this project for us was how difficult it was to make the cells a certain size to get the correct trample to graze ratio. Our native rangeland consists of rolling hills, so some cells would be on top of a thin hill and the next cell would be in a low swale full of grass production. It was difficult to find a balance, but it just takes time and experience to train one’s eye to make the needed adjustments. We also learned that the weather effected cattle grazing behavior. If it was a hot day, the cattle would do most of their grazing at night. We would then adjust our grazing schedule based on the weather. We also didn’t mob graze during the rain, because we didn’t want to damage our soils.

Research results and discussion:

The first result that we wanted to look at was if we were able to lengthen our grazing season by extending the amount of grazing days. We did meet our goal of being able to acquire more grazing days through mob grazing. The suggestion by government agencies and universities for our area is a stocking rate of 15-18 cow days per acre (CDA). In year one, we averaged 32 CDA on the areas where we mob grazed and in year two, we averaged 30 CDA on the area we mob grazed. The larger amount of CDA in year one, we feel is due to the increased rainfall of that year. We were very excited about these results as we were getting about twice the recommended amount of grazing due to the increased efficiencies of utilization that are connected with mob grazing. Not only were we able to increase our efficiencies of utilization but we were able to leave the grass in a better condition. This allowed us to increase our rest periods and have more stockpiled grazing into the dormant season and winter months.

We had said that we would mob graze over 300 acres per year for this grant but we saw that more importantly mob grazing is a tool to be used and not a type of grazing system. We did mob graze more than 300 acres each year but where it really worked best was as a treatment for certain areas that needed more attention and to address specific resource concerns. For example, the mob grazing worked best where we needed to get the ground covered to protect it from excessive drying and to even out areas of over utilized or under-utilized grass caused by the previous continuous grazing.

Increased rest was probably the single greatest result that we saw with the use of mob grazing. With the increase in CDA it took us longer to cover our land so in turn the land in front of us had an increased number of days of rest. This allowed the plants that were there to harvest more sunlight and produce more biomass, which allows an even higher increase in CDA. This increased above ground biomass leads us to believe that we also are increasing our root depth and plant vigor at the same time. The increased rest and extending the grazing season allowed us to be able to graze long into the winter and dormant season. It also allowed more regrowth to be stockpiled on areas for the following year’s graze.

Overall mob grazing affected us financially because we were able to have more stockpiled grass and grow more forage due to the increased rest in the overall grazing system. We were able to winter graze and reduce our dependence on hay. By reducing our dependence on purchased forage, we are able to save money. Also if we grow excess forage we can sell it through our custom grazing cattle.

We have started to see a shift in our plant community. We are unable to conclude if it is from the mob grazing or if the additional rest allows the plants to express themselves. Either way it ties back to our overall management system and mob grazing did play a role.

Although plant communities are slow to change we have seen an increase of western wheat grass on hilltops that were only covered by a small amount of blue grama. The draws have shown an increase of native grasses working their way up the hill sides and we have even seen some switchgrass growing in an upland area.

As young ranchers we feel monitoring is very important to see if we are heading in the right direction. For our project we wanted to get some hard data for comparisons to conventional grazing systems. We think more data is needed to draw any conclusive results from our grant project. We took cattle weights, soil samples, production samples and 10 point frame readings. We weighed our cattle and determined it was inconclusive. It was inconclusive because we would graze based on the weather, so mob grazing would not always occur as planned. Sometimes we needed to be gone and the cattle would not mob graze for a couple of days. It is nearly impossible to mob graze every day, so the cattle weights would not reflect just a mob grazing system. Again, we learned mob grazing isn’t a system, but a tool. We made sure to focus on animal performance, and feel the extreme weather we had the past two years played a bigger role in our cattle weights than anything. The soil samples seemed to be inconclusive, which was a big disappointment for us but we do know it takes a long time for soils to change. We hope to possibly take some samples on our own in the future. The grass production samples were the same but our weather extremes played a big role in grass production. We think it will be awhile before we see an increase in grass production. However, the goal of getting our bare ground covered with mob grazing was achieved. When taking the 10 point frame samples my wife looked directly at the ground and not canopy cover.

Here are the results from our 10 point frame:

Before Mob Grazing:
8/21/2011
Bare Ground 18.8%
Litter 33%
Moss 4.4$
Grass 35%
Forbs 5%
Cow Pies and Rocks 3.8%

After 1 Mob grazing treatment but before second mob grazing treatment.
6/16/2012
Bare Ground 2%
Litter 50.4%
Moss 1.2%
Grass 40.4%
Forbs 4.4%
Cow Pies and Rocks 3.8%

We plan on taking 10 point frames in 2013 so we can have the results from land with two mob grazing treatments.

Impact of Results/Outcomes

The two biggest things that we learned from this grant were; rest associated with mob grazing is the most important tool a rancher can have in his or her toolbox and mob grazing in our area should be used as a tool and not a whole ranch grazing system.

The rest that was incorporated with mob grazing allowed our plants to increase in vigor and production. While we were mob grazing we would graze a piece of ground and then we would not come back and graze that area for a year or more. The different classes of grasses and forbs were able to better complement each other and form a fuller canopy. Our warm season plants were better able to express themselves since they were able to mature and go to seed on certain areas of our land base.

We wrote into our grant that we would mob graze 300 or more acres per year, but we realized that mob grazing works better as a tool on certain areas over others. Into the future we will continue to use mob grazing but we will use it as more of a prescription treatment for the areas that it will benefit the most, rather than having a goal of a certain number of acres that we need to apply it to.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

My wife developed a flyer that we started sending out to people who we thought might be interested in attending. We received some help spreading the word about our workshop from numerous people. I did a radio interview with a well respected Ag News Reporter about our tour and it was played numerous times on the radio for two days before the tour. The county Extension Agent put an advertisement in the local newspaper for us. The Soil Conservation Districts e-mailed our workshop flyer around the state and some even posted it on their website. The ND NRCS hung up flyers in their offices for producers. The wildlife groups sent it to many land managers. We were hoping to have at least 40 people attend our tour on July 30, 2012. We were pleasantly surprised to have 66 people attend our workshop. Attendees included NRCS personnel from across the state, federal and state wildlife land managers from abroad, state university researchers, rangeland professionals and most importantly ranchers from across the state. We were very happy that many local neighbors came out to see what we were working on.

On October 2nd, 16 students from the Bismarck State College rangeland management class were given a tour of our ranch with the focus on our integration of mob grazing.

We were asked to speak at the ND Grazing Lands Coalition winter workshop in 2013, where there were over 150 attendees. We have been approached about speaking at additional producer workshops in 2013. Attending education events has really helped us grow as young ranchers. We enjoy sharing how we overcame some of our hurdles and obstacles. If we can help others by presenting what we have learned, we will do so.

A presentation was given at the 2015 NCR-SARE Farmers Forum, held in conjunction with the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society (NPSAS) Conference. A recording of this is available through NCR-SARE’s YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/3ocEL1e7v-s?list=PLQLK9r1ZBhhFIETmMLo1dZBEVYZWXBIM1

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

My wife and I did a majority of the work for our grant. We did get assistance in taking our first soil food web samples from the NRCS Area Soil Health Specialist. After we learned how to take the samples properly, we took the final samples ourselves and submitted them for testing.

Future Recommendations

We would tell other ranchers to move into mob grazing slowly, and take the time to learn from others before you implement the tool. Mob grazing takes a lot of time and you have to be willing to take time to watch your cattle and make sure you’re evaluating their performance. It is important to make the cells the right size to get the correct trample to graze ratio. Everything takes time as well as developing an experienced eye. Also don’t expect immediate results, nature doesn’t change as quickly as humans would like, everything takes time and patience.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.