Several years ago Beef Producer went to see the operation of Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark on their ranch near Henrietta, Texas, where they practice holistically-planned grazing with one of the largest single herds around -- typically 5,000 steers or more.
In the years since then, Birdwell and Clark have continued improving the land and their management systems to make things work better with such large numbers and to improve the forage and soil. Here are a few of their innovations.
Key: Water improvements
Early on, they ran three cells with three herds of steers and several paddocks in each, partially because water supplies were insufficient for a larger herd, partially because logistics for supplemental feeding for all the cattle at one time was untried, and partially because they were still learning the ranch.
However, when the drought years of 2011-2015 hit, they were running out of grass and water. Birdwell recalled from his training in Holistic Management in the 1980s that Allan Savory advised during drought to combine herds, thereby increasing recovery period for the forage. They went from three herds to one. It's a practice they continue today.
Birdwell also began to put in waterline -- in the end it would be 25 miles of high-density polyethylene pipe. Most was laid on top of the ground in the beginning because they were in a hurry. Eventually it was buried. This was the foundational key to their ability to apply higher stock density and more animal impact.
However, permanent water tanks were expensive and time-consuming, so they needed a better solution. The answer was a moving water tank, which was built from a 14-foot propane tank, cut into a trough and put on a low-slung trailer. They now have more than one of these tanks.
Birdwell says the "trick" is to always have water running from one end of the trough to the other. This is a psychological issue for the cattle. He says the cattle establish a "pecking order" and will line up to drink but will not crowd and cause problems as long as there is water running.
"It's not about how much it holds. It's about how fast you get it in there," Birdwell says.
When they are the farthest from the water supply, they use the smallest of these mobile tanks, assuring the cattle can get water flowing through the entire tank. They have three tanks and will use longer tanks where the flow is better. These tanks are moved into fresh paddocks ahead of the cattle.
Waterline diameter matters a lot, Birdwell says. He installed 2-inch line at first and now says he should have opted for 3-inch line throughout. The flow from the 2-inch line is inadequate, he says. He plans to solve that problem by putting a booster pump on the 2-inch section of line. Flow rate in that smaller pipeline currently is about 90 gallons per minute.
Another important trick they learned was to set the moveable tank's piping so cattle couldn't break it off. They initially ran the line angling up from the ground to the connection on the tank. Cattle would sometimes walk through it and break it off, creating a flood. They learned to run a "double L" in the line so it ran up close to the tank, turned 90 degrees upward, then turned 90 degrees back to connect into the water tank. The cattle seldom damage this setup, Birdwell and Clark say.
The piped water comes from two major ponds on the ranch that have large amounts of water. They have pumps and backup pumps on both these locations and these push water into the lines. In addition, they still use the earthen tanks (ponds) in many of the paddocks as a water source, especially in the winter when they are buying stocker cattle.
When Beef Producer visited the Birdwell-Clark ranch about 2012, cattle movement was still at times difficult. There was a lot of fence-cutting during, and fence repair behind, many of the moves. Now, they mostly use PVC pipe to lift the electric fence up for the cattle to walk under it.
“Yes, moving is easier now,” Clark says. “We almost always use the PVC riser to move cattle. They are trained to it.”
“Humans -- all of us -- are adapted now also to the routine and flow,” she adds. “Last year two new hands came to us: Scott Graham as ranch manager and Shane Hingos as ranch hand. These men are not afraid to work and have quickly learned the routine of frequent moves. It is a dance to move water trough, get water flowing, raise fences, and move cattle. Truly it is a fluid and rhythmic dance.”
Also, today there is also much more subdivision of the paddocks, in part due to the success of the water system.
When they purchased the ranch about 15 years ago, it had10-13 pastures on the ranch, Birdwell began running electric fence to create smaller paddocks. He ran some 150 miles of single-strand high-tensile electric fence, creating more than 140 "permanent" paddocks, which today range from 45-120 acres in size. Further, these are subdivided into far more temporary paddocks, which can total 350 or more throughout any given year.
Typically, they move cattle really fast in early spring, perhaps six to eight of these permanent paddocks per day, trying to use annual grasses and put less pressure on the perennial grasses. Once the perennial warm-season forages begin to grow, they generally slow down and use about two "permanent" paddocks per day, but with several subdivisions and several moves per day of potentially three to four subdivisions in each larger paddock. Therefore, they still may have six to eight moves per day.
Birdwell and Clark manage for a high residual amount of forage left behind. Some people might call this a "less severe" grazing versus a "more severe" consumption and trampling event. In the growing season their graze periods in any paddock are only a few hours.
Their recovery period can be 45-60 days in fast-growth period. In slow-growth period it can be 145 days or longer. To help us understand total usage and total recovery, Birdwell has calculated that in 15 years on the Texas ranch they have had cattle on any given "permanent" paddock only 37 total days or less. This would be in the timeframe from April 1 to October 1.
Further, during growing season Birdwell and Clark will only move the cattle around the ranch 2.5 times. This means they will only graze the most paddocks two times per year, but about half the ranch will get a third grazing. They plan their moves so not to be grazing the same paddocks at the same times as the previous year.
If you want to learn more about Birdwell-Clark operation, see this video presentation.
Winter versus summer grazing
The forage management goal in winter on the Birdwell-Clark ranch is to take off the dormant forage and put it back on the ground as urine and dung and trampled material so the land will be ready for spring and summer growth.
This uses longer grazing periods in which the cattle consume and trample the forage until it is prepared. Then the cattle are moved more frequently.
Fall is purchasing time for the Birdwell-Clark operation. When wheat graze-out season arrives in the spring, Birdwell picks the most-suited cattle to go to leased wheat pasture. The rest go into the grazing rotation on native grass on the ranch.
How much stock density?
We tend to think 5,000 steers would put unbelievable stock density on a paddock, but it's all relative to paddock size.
For the sake of mental exercise and enlightenment, let's calculate an average stock density at the beginning of the Birdwell-Clark grazing season, when steers may average 550 pounds. If we divide the 14,200-acre ranch evenly by the potential 350 paddocks Deborah Clark describes, that would be an average paddock size of just over 40 acres. If we then calculate the total herd weight by multiplying number of animals times average weight, that gives us 2.75 million pounds of stock weight. To get the stocking density, we could then divide the stock weight by the number of acres to get just shy of 68,750 pounds to the acre. Later in the season, when the cattle are heavier, the stock density would of course be higher.
Cattle come into the grazing season about 525 pounds in April and go out in July or August most years at 825 pounds. Birdwell says the price rollback from cattle above 850 pounds in their location is steep, so the out-weight is at least partly a marketing choice.