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Animal Health Notebook
Cows and calves grazing at high stock density Alan Newport
High stock density and full plant recovery are keystones of the natural system, author says.

Six big rules of the natural model

Author lists six ways to get nature’s help in your cattle operation.

I sometimes get so caught up trying to make it through a day that I allow the natural model to temporarily escape my mind. It is a good idea to not leave important thought processes or the Creator’s principles and intentions. He plays his cards last.

One of these days I’ll attempt to list and expound on all the principles of nature. Such a list would not likely be exhaustive. But since I’d be nervous about leaving something out I’ll stick with six big ones for now. Remember that all are closely connected.

Binding the rules into your notes for a regular review likely is a good idea. Here are six important ones that will help us all:

1. Land/soil needs living plants

Plants and soil require big ruminants, applied in the right ways. Air quality and water quality and soil quality are interdependent. Humans and our health require all of the above. Cattle movement in high densities onto completely recovered plants that result in the “bust” side of boom-and-bust grazing is regenerative to the entire system. Cattle are the centerpiece tool. Think about time and timing of grazing. Eliminate regular trailing and camp sites.

2. High density, complete recovery

Graze cattle in high densities on completely recovered sites. Every ecosystem is different. Every year and season is different. We are looking for some seed development in our highest-energy plants prior to grazing. The minimum recovery is about 70 days. With brush encroachment we need to increase animal densities and possibly need more frequent moves. Crooked hotwire fencing can increase animal density and decrease trailing.

3. Manage for increased plant diversity

Beef producers need pastures with loaded seed banks. Boom and bust grazing pulses the system and allows for lots of niches. Remember that high-biomass (high-seral) perennial grasses, forbs and legumes build soil. Very few annuals will build new soil. Our two major limiting factors are usually plant biomass and energy. Plant diversity and density yields an increase in energy and system stability. Increased energy increases gains per acre.

4. Avoid partial rest

Partial plant rest is the No. 2 degrader of the land, surpassed only by the plow. Lack of complete plant recovery creates partial plant rest and results in the breaking of the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy cycle and the biological cycle. It removes ranch profitability. Remember that set-stocked and simple rotational programs never build or accumulate new soil. The same is true of haying.

5. Supplement the mineral cycle

Supplement the mineral cycle based on biology, science, and location of the ranch. Remember that calcium is driver No. 1. If you’re not on a limestone or volcanic base you likely need calcium in your soil. Magnesium is No. 2. If you don’t have red clover you likely need a little high-mag lime at the rate of 200-500 pounds per acre annually. I’ve been accused of this not being a natural rule, but I’ll remind everyone that many of our locations did not originally sustain big ruminants for regular periods on a regular basis due to the lack of limestone. The buffalo traveled the limestone creeks and rivers in our area and moved and grazed on low mineral ground for short periods. They spread some calcium but did not stay long. Remember that our cattle recycle over 80% of everything they consume.

6. Methods for natural marketing

We need to sell as close as possible to the desires of the market, as much as the market fits our cattle and forage production. Most of this is predictable even though we should know and plan and understand that every year will differ.

The big deal in the natural model is controlling costs. An extremely low-cost producer makes money every year. Low production costs should be married to near-maximum carrying rate, with the right number of animals figured on a per acre basis. Remember that 85% of the pounds we sell with direct harvesting cattle comes from the air and sunshine and water and are nearly free. Most of us sell cattle by the pound and we should figure our profits on a per acre basis.

Yearlings should outweigh calves by 200-300 pounds. The market likes them in late July, August, and early September most every year. This gives us a chance to take advantage of the growing season forage. I like 750- to 800-pound steers that are true long yearlings. The market normally likes them as well. Spayed heifers often work when the heifer to steer spread is greater than 15 cents per pound.

This year a commodity load of 800-pound steers might average $1.40 or $1,120 per head or $68,000. It’ll take 60 or 61 to fill a truck. You might get 63 on if you load out on Saturday.

Back in early April a pot-load of 550-pound steers would have likely brought $1.65 a pound, or $907.50 each or $80,850. But it took 89 to make a load and they had near-zero low-cost grass gains. Lots of folks have close to $800 in a 550-pound calf, but few people have more than $850 in a long yearling. It took at least 60 less cows to create the yearling loads.

Not every operation can manage and market long yearlings. But the program deserves study and serious consideration.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Beef Producer or Farm Progress.

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