Intensive Rotational Grazing System in the Flint Hills of Kansas

Final Report for FNC92-023

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1992: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1994
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $56,744.00
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


The Ferrell Ranch consists of 9800 acres of native tall grass prairie. Located 45 miles east of Wichita, Kansas, the original part of the ranch was founded in 1888 by my great grandfather. The average annual rain gall at this location for the past 30 years has been 35”. My income is derived from beef production via three enterprises: cow/calf, bred heifers, and custom grazing. I raise no crops.

Since 1987, I have used accrual bookkeeping methods to project and track my economic and financial activity. I have practiced cell grazing (also know as managed grazing) since 1988. In 1993, about 40% of this ranch was cell grazed.

Dr. Stan Parsons with Ranch Management Consultants of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been consulting this ranch since 1987 and was instrumental in guiding me toward the aforementioned sustainable practices. Dr. Burt Smith of Kamuela, Hawaii, was very helpful in identifying stockmanship problems I might encounter handling large number of cattle in one herd. Jerry Russell of Beaumont, Kansas, operations manager for the Ferrell Ranch, was a co-generator of the initial idea had has continued to provide valuable input during the project. Dale Kirkham of the Greenwood County Soil Conservation Service in Eureka, Kansas, has assisted me in monitoring the range condition throughout the season.

My goal was to simulate the activity and biological response observed in existing grazing cells using none of the conventional technology (i.e. permanent fence and piped water), but rather by using a professional herder. Using good stockmanship skills, the herder, either on foot, horse back, or on a mountain bike, was to simply contain a large herd on a relatively small acreage (30 to 50 acres) for a relatively short period of time (24 to 48 hours). This “human fence” would routinely move the herd within an unfenced area to fresh grass as I am accustomed to doing within the confines of a permanent grazing cell. My initial proposal called for a multispecies herd of sheep, goats, and cattle.

A) Improve profitability – depending upon the equity position of a ranching business, it may be more financially feasible to convert the large depreciable capital input needed to build permanent grazing cells into the fractionally smaller, seasonal expense needed to pay a herder. For example, on this ranch it has cost as much as $25 to $30 per acre to install the fixtures needed for permanent grazing cells. The salary for a herder (including an allowance for housing) divided by the number of acres to which he was assigned was budgeted to cost about $2.50 per acre and could immediately double the production off that acreage.
B) Better pasture management without delay. – The “herder” concept could expedite the practice of managed grazing because little or no time need be spent building permanent improvements.
C) Reduce erosion – about a third of this ranch is rough, steep country covered with shallow soils which erode easily. We have many areas with 60 degree slopes. Permanent fences on steep slopes of ten promote parallel trails and eventually, gullies. Because of the highly flexible nature of the “herder” system, the paddock boundaries need not be in exactly the same spot with each rotation thereby discouraging permanent trailing.
D) Jobs for rural communities – if proven viable, herding could in the long run provide more jobs in economically distressed rural areas. An investment in people and good husbandry may prove superior to purchases of additional hardware for cell grazing infrastructure which will eventually have to be replaced.

A) Bad weather – my original grant was approved for the 1993 grazing season. Due to an extremely difficult winter and spring that year, I requested that the grant be deferred to 1994. I was in no position to begin an ambitious project.
B) Inexperience with sheep and goat – ignorance, once again proved itself a formidable foe. As I began to investigate the dynamics of a multispecies herd, I realized that that component in itself was a major undertaking. Since my original issue was one of forage (not livestock) production, I trimmed the multispecies component early in the planning process.
C) Reluctant clients – I have developed a substantial custom grazing business over the past twelve years. Ranchers from all over the mid-west send me their yearlings for late spring and early summer grazing. I am paid either by the head or on a gain basis. In spite of an excellent track record in caring for their cattle, these cattle owners retain a certain prejudice against cell grazing and were even less enthusiastic about participating in my “herding” experiment. This meant that I would have to come up with all the cattle needed for the project. The obvious thing to do was use my own cow herd. But because I did not wish to expand the herd, I had to cut back on the acreage involved to achieve the desired stocking rate.
D) Lack of qualified, interested job applicants – when I began searching for a herder, I had three qualities in mind: patience, persistence and physical strength. Previous experience with livestock was not a prerequisite. However, patience and persistence are key elements for anyone with good stockmanship skills. Furthermore, the long hours involved would require a significant amount of endurance and strength. When I would describe the job to potential applicants (cowboys), most looked at me like I’d just landed from Mars. The commitment of time was the most common objection. I had hoped to find someone with advanced stick handling skills.

In spite of these problems, I persevered and completed what turned out to be a successful and even enjoyable project.

In certain situations, it is possible (and perhaps desirable) to simulate the activity and biological response of a permanent grazing cell using temporary fence materials. This technique avoids capital expenditures for new infrastructure while capturing the economic returns of managed grazing.

The interface between good economics and good ecology remains the strongest selling point of this project. The economic analysis clearly shows that I cannot make a profit with a cow/calf enterprise unless the herd is managed using a grazing cell or its equivalent.
Herding , Grazing Cell, Conventional
# Cows 342 342 342
Stocking rate 5.2 5.2 10.0
Acreage needed 1780 1780 3420

1994 gross margin $53135 $53135 $53135
Gross margin/acre $29.85 $29.85 $15.54

1994 overheads/a $26.82 $26.76 $26.22
Overheads needed
For enterprise $47740 $47633 $89672

Enterprise profit
(Loss) $5395 $5502 ($36537)
Per acre $3.03 $3.09 ($10.68)

The additional acreage needed to produce the same dollars, while the incumbent overheads remain relatively unchanged, renders conventional grazing of a cow/calf enterprise not feasible under the current market conditions.

Bad weather of a different sport plagued the project in the spring of 1994. This area normally receives over 9 inches of rain in the months of May and June, our prime growing season. This year we received only 2” coupled with sever heat in the last three weeds of June. By the Fourth of July, the range looked like it normally does in late August. Because I was using time controlled grazing, it was much easier to build a feed bank in the face of what appeared to be a sever drought. Thankfully, it rained in late July (7”) and August (5”), none of it in heavy showers. This produced an abundance of grass but left me still needing stock water in the creeks and draws. A lack of adequate, clean stock water remains a weakness in this area of the ranch. Nonetheless, the utilization of grass on the steep slopes of this particular area is the best I have seen in my entire life. Moribund stand of grass were knocked down with the resulting regrowth far more palatable and vegetative than the previous biomass. Furthermore, the herding technique allowed us to increase the managed grazing area on this ranch to 60%.

I was able to achieve the aforementioned economic and ecological performance by hiring a herder, Prewitt Putman of Atlanta, Kansas who used temporary fence materials to build a 30 to 50 acre paddock every day or as needed. Because I couldn’t find anyone with the skills or perseverance needed for true herding (using no fence whatsoever), I trained Prewitt to use a portable paddock system that turned out quite well. Using five 1 mile reels of polytwine, a solar powered charger, three dozen steel posts, and approximately 300 step-in fiberglass posts, Prewitt and I kept no less than one and sometimes as many as three paddocks built “in front” of the herd. By doing so, we converted a rough, mostly unfenced area consisting of two large pastures and two traps into a 36 (1st cycle) and 52 (2nd cycle) paddock grazing cell. The hard part was to make sure the cattle had access to adequate water form ponds or draws at all times. The drought made it difficult. The maps (Appendix A) show how we were able to use a spoke-wheel arrangement off of existing ponds and a square paddock design when we needed creek access.
[Editor’s note: Appendix A could not be posted on the website. If you would like a copy of the Appendix please email us at [email protected] or call us at 800-529-1342. Thanks]

My original notion was to employ the technique of managed grazing in an area that was traditionally grazed in an extensive manner without building a permanent infrastructure. This proved viable, but not in the manner I originally envisioned. I regard the project as a success because:
a) the stocking rate and economic returns were equivalent to known production within our permanent grazing cells while
b) avoiding overgrazing and
c) still producing an abundance of grass.
The use of temporary fence materials, although not initially planned, was probably unavoidable unless I had been willing to hire two herders, one for a day shift and the other to work nights. Obviously, if a sole proprietor had the time to build the paddocks himself, the cost of the herder could be eliminated entirely, thereby improving the financial picture even more.

This was a difficult project which required a great deal of planning. The learning curve for Prewitt and me was very steep in the early months of the project. Our efficiency was not good until we learned how to mange the materials and quickly lay out, erect, and dismantle the paddocks. Fortunately, this vow herd was already “trained” to respect hot wire and presented few handling problems during the project. An unforeseen benefit was that Prewitt and I were both far more physically fit at the end of the project due to all the walking we did.

I would recommend this grazing technique to persons in the following situations:
1) Those whose lack of equity precludes the availability of the necessary capital to build a permanent infrastructure.
2) Those who wish to discover the best layout for a permanent grazing cell by trying several temporary designs first.
3) Those leasing from landlords who are unwilling to allow permanent grazing cells to be installed on their property.
4) Those landowners who, for aesthetic reasons, do not wish to see permanent grazing cells built on their property.
5) Those whole land is comprised of steep, shallow soils which are prone to erosion.
6) Those who wish to have a better basic understanding of managed grazing and the ecological change it can affect.

1) The cattle market lost 20% of it’s value this year.
2) Includes cost of herder ($0.45/acre) and portable fence materials ($0.15/acre) which increased entire ranch overheads by $0.60/acre. When figured against the assigned acreage only (1780A), the herder’s expenses (including housing) and the fence materials cost $3.80/acre.
3) Excludes cost of herder and fence materials ($0.60/acre. Includes 1/10th depreciation ($0.54/acre) on projected capital expenditure of $53400 (1780 x $30).
4) Does not include cost of herder and fence materials ($0.60/acre) or projected depreciation cost ($0.54/acre)/

Three groups toured the ranch during the “Dancing with Hooves” project.
• Leaders of the Heartland Network cluster groups came to the ranch on July 15th, 1994.
• Representatives of the National Family Farm Transition Network toured the ranch on July 18, 1994.
• Interns from The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, visited on October 12, 1994.

Furthermore, I have agreed to share this information at the “Beginning Farmers Conference” hosted by Successful Farming magazine in Columbia, Missouri, on Saturday, Feb. 25, 1995.


Participation Summary
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.