Let the ‘mob’ manage grazing land

Before we started managed grazing on our farm, I thought mob grazing was when the raccoons spent a night ruining our sweet corn patch. Since then, I’ve been learning from a lot of farmers and ranchers who are using a mob of cows — up to 1 million pounds of beef per acre in close quarters for very short periods of time — to utilize forages in the most efficient way possible.

The kicker is that the “hoof effect” of this ultra-high stock density causes good seed-to-soil contact, planting grass and forage seeds in the ground, like the buffalo herds of old, and producing additional forages down the road.

The concept is simple, and the beauty of it is that it seems to work for large or small herds. Once a plant is bitten and eaten, it has to recover from that disturbance. So, as a survivor, the plant sends out more tillers to grow more foliage and seeds. Then, the part of the plant eaten by the cow is digested, and about 80% of the nutrients consumed are returned to the soil in manure and urine. This isn’t a bad way to cycle nutrients.

During the rest period, forage that has been trampled begins to break down and adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil. Complete rest and recovery time is what makes more forage the following year.

There are some challenges when you crowd large numbers of cows together in one place. Just like people crowded into an elevator, they have to get used to it. Damage to the land is a function of time, so some farmers and ranchers with literally hundreds of head of animals crowded on an acre or two of land must be prepared to move the animals several times a day, and allow that paddock to recover the rest of the year.

Water is also a concern, but producers are overcoming this obstacle through innovative portable watering systems. One rancher I know hauls water with a truck and pulls a portable trough behind. Others set up more sophisticated watering systems over time.

Fencing is usually pretty simple, with step-in posts and poly wire for temporary paddocks. Moving cattle several times a day may seem rather daunting, but if you consider the amount of time farmers spend making hay, moving hay and feeding hay, it becomes more reasonable.

A big payoff

Overall, the system doesn’t take much equipment or investment. It takes time to establish paddocks and perimeter fences, but the work pays off big time, according to most ranchers who are doing it. In fact, some ranchers have seen such improved utilization of their forage resources and their rangeland that they can now run their own cows, plus they can custom-graze the neighbor’s herd to boot.

And for farmers who are working toward year-round grazing, allowing the mob to do the job is one of the better tools in the grazing toolbox.

This article published in the June, 2011 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.