Farm Progress

You must manage for healthy plants to have successful grazing and healthy cattle.

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke, Blogger

May 25, 2017

4 Min Read
Although cattle appear attracted to certain plants on any given day, that changes with day, diet and seasons.Alan Newport

Do not forget that it takes grass to grow grass.

That is the verbiage Raymond Cooper, a good friend of mine, says he heard from my lips on our first meeting some 10 years ago, and it stuck with him. I try never to forget it and I will assure you that you’ll have little success growing the plants you need while the cattle are standing on top of those plants. Cattle are very good at taking out the best of the plants in the sward if given an extended, long-term opportunity.

Cooper has traveled across the state of Tennessee and parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa in years past explaining his grazing program. He was nicknamed “No-hay Ray” by his peers and critics 15 or more years ago. This was a reaction to eliminating 100% of the hay making at home and 95% of the hay feeding. His calf sales always resulted in black ink.

Reduction in hay was his major advantage. He took cattle to the market that were of extremely low cost and the sale price could not take him out.

In early March we were grazing in a low bottom with the cattle. Much of this ground used to be in water and the word “swamp” would be an apt description. For the last several years of using boom-and-bust grazing the ground has been getting drier. In the midst of complete recovery fall panicum (a tall, warm-season grass) has started showing up in big numbers. This is like quality switchgrass in July, August, September and beyond. It is a really good add-on and at no cost. It makes lots of seed and in this case it has come at zero cost.

My partner noted that a 300-pound calf was picking fall panicum with gusto in March. I was impressed. We need to pay attention. Another profit center has come from the seed bank and it did so without cost.

One habit that many of us have developed is the habit of “seeing the cattle.” I explain this technique as an almost reflex event. We are viewing the cattle as a group and individually with special regard to health and production. Almost naturally we divide the herd into three groups and make general observations. The herd divisions include:

  1. The bottom cattle

  2. The top cattle

  3. The middle cattle

We put emphasis on the animals on the bottom. They are very important to locate and identify and monitor. We want them to perform at a decent level until we can jump them on  a bus headed toward town and let someone else assume their ownership.

The observations vary a little, depending on the time of year, but also include:

  • Abdominal fill -  cattle must be full all the time in order to gain weight on grass.

  • Sheen of the hair coat, shedding and brightness of eyes.

  • Cud chewing -- cattle not picking need to be chewing.

  • Stretch after rising and head set.

  • Presence or absence of coughing.

  • Lameness.

  • Aggressiveness as to foraging and consuming supplement.

  • Cleanliness of tail.

  • Attitude toward a new cut of forage.

  • Plant selection by the individual animals.

We often notice cattle being attracted to certain plants with first, second or third preference changing on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. The plants that cattle go after with aggression in February and March may be and often are plants considered to be weeds much of the year. Moisture, sunlight and mineralization of the soil have a big part to play in their selection. There are feedback systems in place that direct the animal as to how much volume to consume.

Soil health and our knowledge of what is really going on at the surface and below is still quite embryonic. There is a lot more that we do not know than what we do know. Much of what we know is likely not 100% correct.

Calcium in good amounts is the major mineral driver to soil health, plant health, and ruminant health and production. But we also need magnesium, phosphorus, salt, potassium and several trace minerals in order to see really good things happen.

We continue to physically watch cattle aggressively graze plants with gusto that a few years ago they refused to eat.

It is fun and rewarding to take a few minutes on a regular basis and pay attention to plants and the cattle’s individual selection of what they desire to pick. Learning and adapting this habit is a good and economic investment that pays off big time. High plant diversity and soil health are absolutely a plus in regard to our success.


About the Author(s)

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke


R. P. "Doc" Cooke, DVM, is a mostly retired veterinarian from Sparta, Tennessee. Doc has been in the cattle business since the late 1970s and figures he's driven 800,000 miles, mostly at night, while practicing food animal medicine and surgery in five counties in the Upper Cumberland area of middle Tennessee. He says all those miles schooled him well in "man-made mistakes" and that his age and experiences have allowed him to be mentored by the area’s most fruitful and unfruitful "old timers." Doc believes these relationships provided him unfair advantages in thought and the opportunity to steal others’ ideas and tweak them to fit his operations. Today most of his veterinary work is telephone consultation with graziers in five or six states. He also writes and hosts ranching schools. He is a big believer in having fun while ranching but is serious about business and other producers’ questions. Doc’s operation, 499 Cattle Company, now has an annual stocking rate of about 500 pounds beef per acre of pasture and he grazes 12 months each year with no hay or farm equipment and less than two pounds of daily supplement. You can reach him by cell phone at (931) 256-0928 or at [email protected].

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