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Animal Health Notebook

Too many cattle

Alan Newport Dense herd of cattle
High stocking rate is important to profitability, but it must be a sustainable stocking rate.
Profitability is best when we are fully stocked but not overstocked. But stocking rate can be improved.

The late Gordon Hazard, a Mississippi grazier and veterinarian of some renown, told me more than twice that a ranch is better off with a few too few cattle than to have too many.

Profitability is best when we are fully stocked and profitability is only accurate and truly meaningful when figured on a per acre basis. But too many cattle are a problem and in many cases are a wreck in progress. Cow-calf operations are top of the list when it comes to the effects of being overstocked.

More important, most cattle operations are overstocked not because they have too many pounds of cattle but because of management style.

A patron of ours threw a book at me several weeks ago called The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. I certainly don’t know the author but the book was published in 1979 and is very extensive and windy. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. I started in the middle of the book when young Roosevelt decided to invest $40,000 in 1883 in the cattle business on the little Missouri River badlands in western North Dakota. The vast majority of the buffalo herd had been killed several years earlier and reservation Sioux had been encouraged to slaughter some 15,000 of the remaining buffalo in the summer of 1883. Hundreds of other buffalo were killed that year by Northern Pacific Railway passengers. The prairies were full of three-foot-tall western wheatgrass, green and slender needle grass, prairie sand grass, prairie cordgrass and likely several tall warm-season grasses like big bluestem, little bluestem and purple top. The warm-season grasses and forbs were likely site specific and no longer seem to be regarded as important in much of that country.   

There were only a handful of ranches west of Dickinson, N.D., and the range was very rough and generally without fence but was still “free.” Water was often lacking and a major limitation. Remember that there was zero hay, yet there seemed to be an endless amount of forage. By the spring of 1886 huge numbers of cattle were brought in by investors, and drought followed by the horrible winter of 1886-1887 took out 80-90% of the cattle before April. The grass was gone and so were most of the people. Most settlements became ghost towns.

Teddy Roosevelt lost at least one-third of his total net worth to the cattle business in one winter. (Roosevelt was not worth more than $200,000.)The cattle died. By the way it is a fact that the cattle always die before the grass does unless they are heavily supplemented. The western Dakotas, eastern Montana and Wyoming became the “Great American Desert” once again. Similar scenarios have been repeated since 1887. Actually the scene depicted is repeated to a lesser extent by most producers nationwide every winter.

We recently finished an eight-ranch road trip in the Dakotas and eastern Montana. Every ranch we visited was near fully stocked. One or two were still making hay. One operation run by Dave, Deanna and Chase Hayden hasn’t fed hay to speak of in 10 years. Most of that country has been in drought for 30-plus months and experienced a seriously cold winter thru much of May 2018. It was green and pretty in mid-June when we were there, but there were evident signs of drought.

Plant spacing indicates the brittleness of the environment. The farther the plants are spaced the more brittle the locale. Brittleness refers to the infrequency of rain over long periods. A place can have a monsoon season with huge amounts of rainfall and then be regularly without rain for many months and be considered very brittle.

It was interesting to me that the outfits routinely practicing “boom and bust” grazing with complete plant recovery had the closest plant spacing, the best soil health and growth, and the least amount of rescue grasses such as cheat. We saw sizable ranges as we traveled that were covered with cheatgrass.

I must say the people in that part of the West could not have been better hosts, and most are doing a better job with their resources than the average eastern cattle manager. But costs of production are still too high most everyplace we traveled. The size and cost of our mistakes is in bad need of reduction. A shirttail full of ranchers are getting really good at moving cattle on at least a daily basis. Hayden ranch, southeast of Baker, Montana, has already doubled their stocking rate in the past 10 years by cattle movement and pasture recovery. They are now finding that complete plant recovery timing has extended the grazing season and applying chaos in planning grazing timing is a real advantage. We never recommend grazing a pasture the same time of the year or years on a regular basis. This is the definition of chaos grazing management. The Haydens understand natural principles.

Returning to the theme of too many cattle, truth is there are zero cow-calf operations in nature. Instead there are cow/calf and yearlings and developing breeding stock operations. They are all in one herd until some event splits bunches of a herd off or takes them out.

Several ranchers have instituted a one-herd approach along these lines with success. This does not mean there are never two or three herds. It does mean that there are multiple groups for only short periods on an annual basis.

Weaned calves at 320 days of age do not have to leave the herd for more than a few weeks. The same is true of yearlings and replacements. Bulls likely never need to see their fifth birthday on the ranch, and $1,500 to $2,000 dollar bulls at four years of age are almost a profit center.

My thoughts and planning to avoid the too-many-cattle issue include these ideas:

  • Keep a base cow-calf herd. The more brittle the environment the smaller the total percentage of cattle needs to be cow-calf.
  • Retain weaned calves, short yearlings, long yearlings, and replacement bulls and heifers.
  • Apply very little replacement selection by the rancher.
  • Make high use of natural selection.
  • Use supplement (especially energy) as needed year round.
  • Increase emphasis on soil health, plant growth, plant spacing and biodiversity. High plant biomass is an essential.
  • Apply consistent monitoring of the range and pastures and positive response and execution to what we are finding and seeing.

The fact is that partial plant rest is the cattleman’s No. 1 enemy. This means that complete plant recovery following a severe, short-timed graze is our ace in the hole.

In bad years -- when we are too dry, too cold, too wet or too cloudy -- we normally proceed as follows:

  • Sell weaned calves in the winter or early spring.
  • Market yearlings early, meaning May through August.
  • Cull into the cow herd with a little more vigor.
  • Load and sell the dry cows early.

Partial destocking or actually not being forced to destock is an attainable goal. It requires keeping a few simple records, doing a little work every day, paying attention and thinking ahead.

For some reason the “thinking” part is the hardest for many of us to learn.

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