We conducted this project on small acreage at an extension station. We broke the continuously grazed system into paddocks of 1.5 acres each, with the rotationally grazed system broken into paddocks equaling 0.375 acres each.
Introducing these projected grazing practices on a working cattle ranch gave the project deeper credibility. We decided to rethink the paradigm of grazing stockers for 180 days and then selling them. Research states that the greatest weight gain, for an approximately 500 lb. calf, is in the first 60 days of grazing. We decided to run groups of stockers through every 60 days for the new study. We also decided that the cattle could be evenly divided with half of them—the control group (conventional rotation grazing, or CRG)— kept for the entire 180 days and the other groups (SSRG calves) purchased every 60 days and then sold at the end of their 60-day rotation.
The first problem was locating quality stocker cattle to purchase for the split-season rotational grazing (SSRG) 60-day rotations. One-and-a-half to 2-pound gains a day are hard to achieve without sound genetics. A boom in the cattle market causing instability compounded this. These circumstances greatly influenced and modified the project. The risks of purchasing the third group of SSRG calves for the final 60-day rotation resulted in reevaluating the project and dismissing the purchase of that third group.
The serious drought in the Pacific Northwest also played an important part in the study – southern Oregon did not receive a significant snow pack during winter. Because of this, the project existed with only two sets of SSRG stockers (one set for each of the 60-day rotations), instead of the planned three sets (with the 180-day control group). The CRG calves were sold prematurely because cattle prices began to decline in September. Because of the water situation, the two groups ran in the same cells, partly because of the scarcity of water and because the various areas of a field are dramatically different in quality. It was important that all cattle receive the same quality of feed.
This project will explore the concept of split-season rotational grazing, comparing that system with conventional rotational grazing. The split-season grazing will take place on a cattle ranch where pastures are a mixture of cool-season grasses (fescue, orchardgrass, clover and timothy). The test will involve four sets of calves with average weights of 500 pounds. The control group will graze the irrigated pastures in a conventional rotation system for the full season of 180 days. The other three sets will graze 60 days each in consecutive periods that parallel the control group. The goal is to show that any increased labor in moving and shipping calves after only 60 days will be offset by increased profits and healthier pastures.
The positive impact of the study is relatively insignificant with the small number of cattle in this trial. However, when extrapolated out to 100, 500 or 1,000 head, it is significant on a yearly or 10-year basis. The information may be more practical for larger operations, versus 100 head or fewer, on an annual basis.
We discovered that animals under small amounts of stress grade higher and are more flavorful than those under a great deal of stress. We achieved this low stress environment by developing a facility that encouraged a “smooth flow” while moving animals from the far south of the ranch to the corrals at the upper end of the ranch for shipment.
The revamped cattle facilities proved valuable since the cattle are continually moved and weighed. We were surprised by how quickly the cattle adapted to the activity (after two cell rotations the cattle could actually be called when it was time for them to move). The convenient location of the scales also contributed to the animals adapting to this phase of the project. Because the producer is continually in the presence of the livestock, they quickly adjust to the human presence. We found in the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center grazing trials that animals in the conventionally grazed paddocks were flighty and harder to handle.
Because stocking ratios were increased and cattle moved in and out of the ranch every 60 days, the challenge of selling them became paramount. By grouping the cattle with other producers’, the ranch put a truck and trailer of calves together and offered them on a video sale. Advertising the special characteristics these cattle possess enhanced potential sales. Consequently, the calves appeal to “natural” and “grass fed” beef programs and were not treated with any antibiotics or growth proponents. Cattle committed to some kind of Beef Quality Assurance Program bring 5-10 cents a pound more than generic beef.
BENEFITS AND IMPACTS ON AGRICULTURE
The immediate benefit of this grazing method is overall pasture health. The cattle, by virtue of confinement, are forced to graze on some of the less desirable grasses. In conventional grazing, cattle will continually go back to only certain sections of pasture that they favor, consequently neglecting some of the other grass species. Rotational grazing is labor intensive, causing the producer to monitor the pasture and livestock on a prescribed schedule. The water resource is also used in a more controlled and thoughtful manner. Livestock movement dictates this circumstance. The animals’ manure and urine are introduced into the soil at a steady rate. This has prevented the need to purchase commercial fertilizer for over 10 years. The health and vitality of the pasture has enabled the haying of the fields after the cattle have moved to other pastures on the ranch. Under “normal” operational approaches, the ranch would start feeding the herd in the middle of October. Because of our pasture management, the cattle—in the middle of November—are being fed only a minimal amount of hay to supplement the available pasture grass.
Margaret Meierhenry published an article titled “Fifteen Acres and A Rural Lifestyle” in The Conservationist newsletter explaining the benefits of rotational grazing for small-acreage producers.
REACTIONS FROM PRODUCERS
Correspondences from producers have been very positive and supportive of our rotational-grazing efforts.
RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESIS
We feel that rotational grazing could enable more families to better use their pastureland and realize a better return on their investment. Although it would work well for large (over 100 head) operations, it could also enhance the concept of small sustainable ranches and farms able to supply local products for their suburban communities. A cooperative developed by a number of small producers may prove profitable if it could appeal to local markets/clientele. The biggest obstacle is slaughter. This is not insurmountable—there are USDA grants for mobile slaughtering units that are USDA certified.
Newspaper articles were published with information about our ranch and its accomplishments. We also created a spreadsheet with weights for the one control and two split season groups along with their weigh-in dates and their final gain analysis. We also interacted often with other producers and shared our knowledge.