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Beefs and Beliefs

Here's why planned, high-stock-density grazing pays big

Science is finally helping prove that the right kind of grazing can build soil, and do it profitably.


I believe we're finally getting a lock on the key ingredients that will dramatically improve land with cattle.

In the early years of controlled grazing, we were using stock densities that rarely topped 15,000 pounds of livestock per acre and which used recovery periods as short as 15 days and rarely topping 60 days, depending on the forage, rainfall and other resources. But we saw improvements in the land and therefore assumed we were on the right track. That was in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Since then, we've seen that using more intensity in cattle management makes much more improvement in the land, and appears it could take us much closer to conditions when the Europeans first ventured onto the Great Plains. Then even the thin prairie soils mostly had organic matter content of 5% or greater.

Now science is finally proving up these things the people on the land have been learning for 10-20 years. First, Texas A&M range scientist Richard Teague showed these trends to be true in a study in north-central Texas in a 2011 study. Teague's work measured only moderately high stock density.

More recently, consultant/rancher Allen Williams gathered data on soil conditions under three different management schemes in northern Mississippi. Williams' work measures very high stock density grazing, which typically runs at least 100,000 pounds per acre and sometimes as high as 500,000 pounds per acre. This is part of a study by the Arizona State University Soil Carbon Nation team.

1. Williams is using a cow-calf herd in planned, high-stock-density grazing, with moves to fresh paddocks of one to four times per day or more all year long, and including long recovery periods.

2. Another operation for 50 years has been using slower rotations and lower stock densities such that cattle are in paddocks up to several days, and with shorter rest periods.

3. The third operation has been continuous grazing with cows and calves has for more than 40 years.

The soil health data is summarized in this chart from Williams and you can read his summary of the work on the Grassfed Exchange site.

Here's why planned, high-stock-density grazing pays big

AHSD is the high-stock-density land. CG-Good is the land with 50 years of low-stock-density rotation. CG-Poor is the land continuously grazed 40 years. Each of the six soil horizons represents six inches.

Williams notes that soil conditions on the operation he is managing were poor in that first year and soil organic matter averaged less than 1.5%. As you can see from the chart, soil organic matter on that location, labeled AHSD, is now 4.26% in the top six inches of soil.

This is exciting news because it shows why beef producers who use planned, high-stock-density grazing are making such dramatic gains and doing it so quickly. It also knocks a lot of false doctrine in the head, such as the oft-repeated statement by range scientists that "You can't build organic matter."

So to reiterate my point, we can use planned, high-stock-density grazing to dramatically increase organic matter in five years or less. This doubles, then triples and often quadruples stocking rates, which dramatically increases profits.

It also radically increases natural fertility, water infiltration and water-holding capacity of the soil. This is the building and storing of biological capital, as Walt Davis has always called it.

To accomplish this we must do several things:

1. Create diversity of plant types so we will foster growth of mycorrhiza fungi in the soil life mixture and improve soil structure.

2. Let the forage roots grow deep into the soil to increase both root material and living organisms in the soil. This is done with lengthy rest periods.

3. Use high stock density so urine and dung is more evenly distributed, as is grazing pressure and hoof action on the soil and all the plant types.

In answer to those who don't want to control grazing enough to use high stock density at least part of the year, this is my answer: I suggest you're not really interested in raising profits nor in being a true steward of the land.

Harsh words? Perhaps, but the evidence I'm correct continues growing.

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