Taking a systems approach to ranch management

Taking a systems approach to ranch management

News Type: State, Regional Source: Magic Valley
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TWIN FALLS — Finding ways to add gain per acre is like acquiring additional land without paying property taxes on it.

To boost ranch profitability, producers must increase turnover, reduce overhead or increase gross margins. Adaptive grazing — essentially short grazing periods followed by lengthy rest periods — is one management technique that is helping ranchers meet one or all of those objectives.

Take the example of a rancher in Montana who spent $50 per acre on electric fence and water improvements to use adaptive grazing where cattle graze smaller paddocks for a short but intensive period. That investment allowed him to reduce the number of acres per cow-calf pair from 30 to 16, essentially doubling his carrying capacity.

“It’s like he just bought another ranch for $50 an acre and he doesn’t have to pay property taxes on it,” said Burke Terchert during a University of Idaho range management symposium. “He didn’t have to add a pickup or a stock horse or an employee.”

Days are longer when he’s preg checking cows or loading cattle but otherwise he gets by with the same labor as before even though he is moving cattle to new pastures more frequently.

“Think of the economic power of that,” Terchert said especially at a time when low cattle prices are squeezing profits. Ranches in Montana are averaging $60 per acre, the ranch management consultant added.

In Texas, a producer is moving 6,000 head of stocker cattle at least once a day, sometimes up to six times a day. He doesn’t get as much gain per day as he did when the cattle were in pastures for 90 days but he has increased gain per acre.

“Everything on the ranch that is not being grazed is recovering,” Terchert explained.

Water availability is the key to determining how long the recovery period should be. On western ranches were rainfall is the primarily source of water, the rest period can be 12 to 18 months. One key to making adaptive management work is not grazing a pasture at the same time of year to allow the plants to reach different maturity levels. “Make sure you are not there at the same time next year,” Terchert said.

Where rainfall is plentiful or irrigation water is available, producers can boost pasture production by introducing other species.

Terchert used a producer in Mississippi who got tired of feeding hay during the winter months when his warm season pastures gave out as another example. The producer had heard about cover crops and no-till techniques and decided to try inter-seeding cereals, legumes and other cool season species into his warm season pastures when they started to turn yellow in the fall.

The experiment proved so successful that legumes provided all the nitrogen his pastures needed and he stopped applying commercial fertilizer. He also stopped providing protein supplements to the herd during the winter months. He only buys a little hay for emergencies.

“He has not lost any carrying capacity but he has lost his fertilizer bill. He lost his hay bill,” Terchert said. “The costs he took away are far greater than the cost of the seed and operating a no-till drill.”

While success stories like these may seem beyond what most southern Idaho ranchers can hope to do, Terchert said those successes came because producers were utilizing a systems approach to management. Anyone can adopt a systems approach even if they don’t go all the way to adaptive grazing.

He used his own family’s ranch as an example of how not taking a systems approach can lead to unintended consequences. When he was growing up his father moved the calving season from late spring to March.

“I don’t know why he did it. I was too young,” Terchert said, “But I do know he didn’t think about how much more hay they would have to feed, or how much higher calf mortality would be or how much conception rates would fall. All those are important factors that should have been considered.”

Cattle breeding is another common decision where looking at a single component rather than the entire operation can cause problems. Some producers have put an emphasis on increased cow size to increase calf growth rates. But to raise those bigger calves, cows need to produce more milk and that means they require more feed forcing ranchers to either acquire more range or provide more outside feed.

One management decision impacts how the whole operation functions. When margins are tight, it’s easy to look for places to cut expenses but Terchert recommends looking for ways to add value rather than cut corners.