Financial Value of Grazing Management Poorly Documented

Beefs and Beliefs

I exchange information with a reader on the lack of economic studies on value of good grazing management.

Published on: October 20, 2011

A couple days ago I had an email from a reader asking if I knew of any documentation on the financial advantages of controlled grazing. I wrote back and we’ve exchanged several more notes since.

However, it dawned on me my first response might be worth sharing. Here it is:

Sadly, the scientific community spent the first 20-plus years after Allan Savory and Stan Parsons came to this country trying to disprove them or trying to fit “rotation” grazing into a box they could operate with ease and regularity and measure with ease. They could have been working with the operators and learning with them… But because of what I label as bad attitudes we have little documentation.

Here’s what I can tell you after 20 years chasing this tiger. Most people see dramatic changes in the health of the land and consequently they see increases in stocking rate of triple and quadruple over what it once was. I suspect as we go further into the learning curve those who have been working the hardest on grazing management it will increase further, since the meager history of stocking rates after the bison were all slain indicate huge increases. That is tremendous.

Kim Barker of Waynoka told me 10 years ago or more “I’ve never made this much money in my life.” Neil Dennis in Saskatchewan was running 1,025 steers this year. He has built his land up with ultra-high stock density grazing. Five or six years ago he was running 250 or less each summer. Doak Elledge in the Texas Panhandle took a leased ranch over 15 years to three times the stocking rate. John Phelan at Mountain Park, Oklahoma, has increased pounds of beef per acre produced each year from around 200 pounds to nearly 500 pounds, as I recall (when he’s not in a drought). Walt Davis, our columnist, had an out-of-pocket cost of gain of 2 cents per pound when I met him nearly 20 years ago (remember that was when value of gain was 40-50 cents per pound).

This leads me to another thought: through good planning and management to augment and implement grazing improvements cost of inputs decrease significantly for upper-end management. Most good operators, especially in the drier and more brittle areas, are using Holistic planning or Ranching for Profit planning, including grazing charts. They plan, assume they are wrong and replan to get the desired results.

Greg Judy in Missouri once spent thousands of dollars each year on seed, fertilizer, lime and weed control. He says he spends nothing now.

This reminds me of another factor Walt Davis is always talking about – RISK! When you put money up and lose it in a production cycle, particularly in a low-margin business like the cattle business, the damage can be un-repairable.

And let’s not forget animal performance. If cattle are moving into fresh forage every day or every few hours, performance increases.

As land health increases, drought resistance grows.

High stock densities crush many weeds and woody plants, and all planned grazing makes the grass healthier and more competitive with broadleaf species. This decreases brush and weed control costs.

Long rest periods encourage multiple species of plants, bringing up soil nutrients not otherwise available and this often decreases mineral requirements. That’s case by case and usually doesn’t happen right away, however.

Haying can be reduced or eliminated. Many people have done this, from Saskatchewan to Texas to Illinois to California. And I suppose further, including other continents. I have seen it done in South Africa also.

The green season for forages gets longer, increasing the chance to put pounds on all classes of livestock.

Again, unfortunately no one has done many scientific studies of the economics.

Missouri did some work on stockpiling versus hay and other similar studies at the Forage Systems Research Center at Linneus. You might check their website. I seem to remember Ohio has some economic data. Might check there. Further I found this brief review from Kentucky.

Notice when I write about grazing management I may focus on how to do it but I nearly always write about how things have improved there… I suppose I should push people more for numbers, but I also try to respect people’s financial privacy.

But overall, here’s my position: The many people I know who execute grazing management well as part of improved ranch management are generally stable or expanding and they say they are making money. They are excited to be in the business. Not just proud of a heritage. They are excited about the possibilities. I don’t see much of that anywhere else.