Developing a mob grazing system to improve the sustainability and profitability of a cattle operation in North Dakota.
For our project we custom grazed 200 cow-calf pairs and mob grazed them across 320 acres. The cattle did not arrive until July 1st due to the extreme amounts of moisture and flooding in North Dakota. After a period of training the animals to electric fence we started mob grazing them on July 15th. We mob grazed them with a stock density of between 50,000 and 200,000 pounds of live weight per acre. We accomplished this with 2-4 moves per day. We would lay out lanes going away from the water at a width of 580 to 720 feet wide and 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile long. We would then put up cross fences in the lanes to allot the cattle the needed forages for each move. We would be in each lane for 4 to 8 days. Size of the cells was adjusted as needed based on animal needs and forage production. It was not feasible to mob graze everyday of the grazing season. We found that weather played the largest role in determining the days that were good for mob grazing. If it was extremely rainy, the high densities can be detrimental to the soils. Also if it was very hot, we didn’t want to stress the cattle in anyway and thought it was best for them to choose their own diet. Also personal schedules made it extremely difficult to mob graze every day. We custom grazed the pairs for 140 days and mob grazed them about 45 to 50 of those days. We had no desire to mob graze every day, because not all the land needed the mob grazing treatment. We have discovered mob grazing to be a tool, used to accomplish specific resource goals.
- Mob in new cell
- Cows moving into new cell
- Corner using temporary fence – quick and easy!
- After mob grazing, lots of forage left behind to protect the soil. Note: Kentucky Bluegrass is difficult to trample.
- Batt Latch – Automatic Gate Opener
Increase Grazing Days
We were able to increase the grazing days per acre substantially with the use of Mob Grazing. The rancher who previously ran cattle on this ground used a set stocked, continuous graze system. He harvested about 19.5 animal unit days/acre (AUD/A). (1 AUD= 1 cow-calf pair or 1 bull). On the lanes we mob grazed we averaged 35 AUD/A. On the areas where we did a rotational system were we moved the cows to a new cell every 7-12 days we averaged 29.1 AUD/A. We accomplished a 20.3 percent increase over a simple rotation and a 79.5 percent increase over the previous year's set stocked harvest. With the increased rest in the system, we were able to produce more grass. This allowed us to extend the grazing season by fall and winter grazing. 2011 was an extremely high moisture year, so it will be interesting to see what happens in 2012.
Improve Soil and Rangeland Health
Our goal of improving soil health for the first year is completely objective on our part because we only took baseline information pre-grazing. In 2012 we will have the un-objective soil tests and production clippings. What we saw for changes in the first year was that the rest associated with mob grazing showed a little higher production (grass tonnage) compared to the last years of set stocking. We also saw that post-grazing we had some different species seedlings coming compared to the pre-graze composition. Example; pre-grazing a hillside was covered mostly from visual estimations it was 90 percent Blue Grama grass and about 45 days post-grazing we started seeing some Western Wheatgrass seedlings coming.
This year it was very difficult to determine how much the grazing system played into animal performance. The animals came out of one of the toughest winters on records, a cold wet spring, and a very wet and hot summer. The grasses were very low in energy with all the moisture and little sunlight over the course of the grazing season.
The cows were not in the best body condition score when they arrived and the calves showed signs of stress due to all the weather factors. The calves gained 1.4 pounds per day, which is low. We attribute the low daily gain to the factors we saw outside the grazing system.
Animal performance is our number one focus, without animal performance, as a rancher we would have nothing to sell. We were always watching and checking the cattle to make sure they had plenty of selection. We didn’t want to limit their diet or intake at all as that would affect their performance. We would watch the cattle and saw their normal grazing routine which we mimicked in our mob grazing system. The cattle liked to start their morning graze at sunup until about 7-7:30am and they would graze the cell we gave them the night before. Then about 8:00 am they would be put into a new cell. They were then moved by batt latches at around 11 am, 2:00pm and 4:00pm. The last cell was large enough that they would have plenty to last them until the next morning.
We always had to plan for the weather, if there was even a chance of rain we would give them a bigger cell. We always would err on the side of caution; better to give them too much grass than not enough. When mob grazing a person needs to be monitoring almost hourly when you first start out, it takes awhile to train one's eye to determine if there is adequate quality forage so checking the cattle often is very important.
Throughout the summer we adjusted the size of the cells based on the production of each cell and our resource concern. Often the hill tops didn’t have much cover so we would try to get a lot of trample and hoof action and as little graze as possible. We would move quickly across the hill tops and more slowly across areas with high production or higher energy grasses.
- New Western Wheatgrass Growth after Mob Grazing. Due to more rest??? Due to increased hoof action???
- Before – Pasture Continous Grazed
- After with JUST rest and no mob grazing. Mob grazing allows more rest in entire grazing system = more grass!
- Right side of photo plants have 1 week of recovery. Left side of photo, the mob was just removed. One week can make a big difference in rangeland health!
Right now it is very difficult to gage the milestones or accomplishments we have reached in 2011. We won’t really know until the 2012 growing season. We don’t know if we will have a huge improvement of grass diversity or increase in soil microbial activity. We feel it was a big accomplishment getting as many acres mob grazed as we did due to the extreme weather during the 2011 growing season. Our area of ND experienced tremendous moisture and some intense heat that effected many ranchers negatively. On our ranch alone we had over 300 acres of rangeland underwater that can typically be grazed. We are seeing small signs that we are moving the sustainability of our ranch in the right direction. We are cautiously optimistic, we are seeing some new species show up in a few of the mob grazing areas. This first year we were able to extend our grazing season and harvest more animal unit days across our land base. We attribute some of these results to the mob grazing and increased management while understanding that the increased moisture of 2011 had an effect as well.
- Lots of moisture/flooding pasture for entire grazing season. Lots of moisture makes mob grazing difficult due to low energy in grasses and wet soils.
- Soils collected for Soil Food Web Testing Pre Mob Grazing
- Testing Infiltration Rate Before Mob Grazing
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Due to extending our grazing season and a mild winter from 2011 into 2012 we are feeding significantly less hay then we normally would because we have been able to stockpile grass. Some unexpected outcomes were learning a lot about how, when, what, and where cattle eat during different times of the growing season. We spent a lot of time moving and building fences and were able to observe their behavior. Through moving and handling cattle a lot they became very docile and accepting of us around the herd. We also noticed that we received about the same level of trample on one move a day versus three moves per day. We think the trample to graze ratio is similar because the cattle will wander around more in the larger cell. If the cell was bigger than a one-day grazing allotment, we didn’t see the same trample to graze results.