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Regenerative ranching focuses on forages

A Nebraska Sandhills rancher shares his experiences in promoting forage production, healthy animals, healthy land and profit.

Elizabeth Hodges, Staff Writer

June 17, 2024

4 Min Read
cattle in field
FOCUS ON FORAGE: Nebraska Sandhills rancher Matt McGinn told ranchers attending the Nebraska Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference in Kearney last winter that if they let cows manage the business, then they will not be in business for long. Special attention should be focused on forage production and utilizing cows as a tool to bring profitability to the forage.Farm Progress

“I took a ranch that had been managed a certain way for 67 years and basically turned it upside down, and was the first generation that changed how it ran completely,” said Matt McGinn, a sixth-generation Nebraska Sandhills rancher who has been adopting regenerative ranching practices recently on the family operation near Anselmo.

It can be easy to get stuck in a continuous thought process based on past belief systems when farming or ranching in a multigenerational operation, McGinn said.

That’s why he shifted the paradigm when he started to employ the adaptive grazing system at his ranch.

Adaptive grazing consists of prioritizing soil health, water availability and rotating cattle. By using these principles, McGinn has tripled his carrying capacity by paying close attention to soil health and the environment.

At the 2024 Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference, hosted by the Nebraska Farm Bureau, McGinn shared his grazing experiences.

With this new technique, he can keep his ranch resilient against natural disasters while still improving land and cattle performance.

Previous practices

McGinn runs a commercial cow-calf operation and a custom-grazing service on the family ranch, which was founded in 1891. The operation now specializes in regenerative ranching practices.

Related:Cattle grading 101

McGinn believes that with all the technology that the agriculture industry has been integrating, soil health might be getting passed up.

Drawing upon past practices, he has completely shifted the way that his ranch operates.

Elizabeth Hodges - McGinn shared adaptive grazing practices with fellow farmers

By focusing on increasing soil aggregates and developing a better soil microbiome, McGinn realized this was the key to creating better forages.

“It isn’t the nature of grass to stay in one place, and it’s in the nature of the cows to move around. But we have asked the cows to move into confinement, and they’re spending much time and money making the grass move to the cow,” he said, quoting a passage by renowned grass forage expert and journalist Allan Nation of Stockman Grass Farmer.

McGinn said that cows are just the tool to manage forage production, and without grass available to graze, ranchers will not make money.

“Your focus should be on grass production and soil health,” McGinn noted.

Strategic design

The first step in this regenerative ranching journey for McGinn was mapping out his ranch and locating undergrazed areas.

“When you get into adaptive grazing situations, your No. 1 resource is going to be water,” McGinn said. “It is also going to be your No. 1 headache.”

When mapping out his pastures, he drew circles around existing water sources. There was a direct correlation between where the cattle stopped grazing and the distance from the water source.

McGinn said that cattle will generally not graze much farther than a quarter-mile out from a water source. This proved to be true on his ranch and was the first step in his adaptive grazing transition.

To utilize all his pasture, he started on his water design. After thought and consultations, he installed a 3-inch water main line in his pastures that stretched for 8 miles.

Once the water design was created, he started calculating carrying capacity and stocking densities. McGinn credited his best tool — the grazing stick — for making accurate estimates on forage availability.

A grazing stick utilizes simple plant leaf height measurements in inches to help establish how many pounds of dry plant material is available in a given location.

“I helped a rancher last summer measure his entire ranch and calculated his total forage production at the kitchen table,” McGinn said. “Halfway through, he started having tears running down his face. It was the first time ever he knew exactly his forage production over his ranch, and it was the first time ever he did not have to worry about moving the ranch because he can make strategic decisions accordingly.”

Utilizing trigger points

Drawing upon Nation’s wisdom, McGinn realizes that without the grass, there are no cows. A key aspect of adaptive grazing is using trigger points during a drought to protect the grass.

There are three thresholds that ranchers need to put into place in the case of a drought to protect the forage and, ultimately, ensure the longevity of the ranch.

McGinn separates the cattle grazing into three separate groups based on priority. The lowest priority is custom-grazed cattle, then yearlings, and lastly, cows and bred heifers.

Once the first threshold is hit during a drought, he pulls the custom-grazed cattle off. Once the second threshold is reached, the yearlings come off. In a worst-case scenario, he is willing to pull the cows and bred heifers off to ensure the land’s productivity.

“Knowing what I know now, those cows are going to die without the grass,” McGinn said. “You can buy back cows; they may not be the ones that you fell in love with. But you’re going to save production on your plan. That, to me, is more valuable of an investment.”

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About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Hodges

Staff Writer, Farm Progress

Growing up on a third-generation purebred Berkshire hog operation, Elizabeth Hodges of Julian, Neb., credits her farm background as showing her what it takes to be involved in the ag industry. She began her journalism career while in high school, reporting on producer progress for the Midwest Messenger newspaper.

While a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she became a Husker Harvest Days intern at Nebraska Farmer in 2022. The next year, she was hired full time as a staff writer for Farm Progress. She plans to graduate in 2024 with a double major in ag and environmental sciences communications, as well as animal science.

Being on the 2022 Meat Judging team at UNL led her to be on the 2023 Livestock Judging team, where she saw all aspects of the livestock industry. She is also in Block and Bridle and has held different leadership positions within the club.

Hodges’ father, Michael, raises hogs, and her mother, Christy, is an ag education teacher and FFA advisor at Johnson County Central. Hodges is the oldest sibling of four.

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