Steve and Charles Fettig, Napoleon, N.D., have increased stocking rates and improved the amount of forage their ranch produces by adopting a planned grazing system.
The Fettigs started planned grazing in 1987 with a herd of 180 cow/calf pairs. They built the herd to 400 pairs and didn't buy or rent any additional land. They sold the cow herd in 1997, in part to eliminate all labor and costs associated with calving, and now custom graze 1,000-1,300 head of yearling heifers as one herd from May to mid-October. The heifers typically gain 1.25- 1.5 pounds per day.
They have divided their grasslands into 34 permanent pastures. Each season they subdivide the pastures with electric poly wire fence in infinite ways. One year, they had 75 different paddocks.
The Fettigs turn cattle into each paddock for a short time, anywhere from six hours to two days, and then move them off and let the grass recover for the rest of year. In the process, the animals not only harvest the grass, but they also fertilize and seed the land, too.
By mimicking the way buffalo herds once roamed the prairie, the Fettigs are helping the grass establish strong, deep roots.
"If we improve everything below the soil surface, we improve everything above the soil surface," Steve says.
Some of the grazing tips that they shared during the North Dakota Grazing Land Coalition's tour of their ranch in 2014, included:
When to move cattle: When trying to decide when to take cattle off a paddock, the Fettigs check to see how much grass is still left. They typically try to leave 50% or more cover, though the amount can vary depending on what they are trying to accomplish. If they are trying to eliminate thistles or brush, there may not be much of anything left standing. They allow the cattle to trample the old standing forage down onto the soil surface. They watch the cattle, too. If the cattle seem content and are lying around part of the time and there is still plenty of grass, they can probably stay in the pasture longer. If they are walking around the fence, it's time to move them.
Justifying the time and labor: In a planned grazing system, you have to check grass and water and move cattle. It's a daily – and sometimes twice a day -- chore. But there is plenty of incentive to do the work. The Fettigs have doubled stocking rates and lengthened the grazing season. They used to run 400 cow-calf pairs on about the same number of acres and have added about a month to their typical grazing year. "It's our job," Steve says, of moving cattle. "It's how we get paid. The longer we are able to keep the cattle out on grass, the more money we make."
Favorite gates: The Fettigs like spring gates. Not only are they easy to use, but they serve as electric fence circuit breakers. By opening a gate, you stop the electric current from flowing beyond the gate.
Fencing materials and equipment: Their permanent pastures are built with a single strand of 12.5 gauge high tensile steel wire. They use a single strand poly wire to subdivide their permanent pastures. "It's cheap, doesn't require much more than an ATV to handle and is quick to take down and put up," Steve says. They don't pull the wire "fiddle string tight" when building a paddock. Instead, they leave it loose so if an animal pushes on it there is some give to it. They use 13 joule chargers that generate 3,000 to 9,000 volts. One charger handles as many as nine miles of fence.
Controlling weeds: They don't routinely spray pastures for weeds anymore. They spot treat leafy spurge and yellow toadflax. When the cattle are bunched in a smaller area they will eat or trample weeds. "If what we call weeds becomes feed, we're okay with that," Steve says. "Some of these weeds are high in protein". They also don't reseed cropland when converting it to grass. They graze what comes up naturally. Eventually grass spreads into the cropland.
Moving and handling cattle: Moving 1,300 head of yearling heifers isn't a problem for the Fettigs, even though they start each year with a new herd. The first time they have to move cattle from old grass to new grass, it takes about 45 minutes, Steve says. They lead the cattle and have to drive the stragglers. The second time, the move only takes about 20 minutes. The third time, 10 minutes. After that "you have to get out of the way," Steve says. Loading cattle at the end of the season is easy, too, and can be done by one person. They built a Bud Box in their corral. The principle behind the Bud Box is that you "let the cattle go where they think they are going to get away," Steve says. They can load a pot of cattle in 10 minutes without any hooting or hollering or using prods or hot shots. "It takes the stress off the cattle and it takes the stress off of me," Steve says.
Herd health: "We don't treat anything anymore," Steve says. Yearlings that come down with pinkeye or hoof problems heal themselves. Steve thinks the cattle recover on their own because they are moved to new forage so frequently. The absence of flies helps. Cattle are moved off a pasture long before flies begin hatching out of the manure. "Moving cattle about 1/4 mile seems to keep the newly emerged flies from finding the animals," Steve says.
Walking to water: The furthest the cattle have to walk to water from any of the paddocks is about 3/8ths of a mile. The Fettigs have seven wells and a pipeline system. The waterers consist of four 8- x 20-foot 2,000-gallon capacity tanks plumbed together. A 10-gallon per minute pump keeps up with consumption. "There is plenty of space at the tanks," Steve says. "The cattle seem to take turns. It's like a McDonald restaurant. Thousands of people stop there, but not all at the same time."
For more information on planned grazing, contact Joshua Dukart, coordinator/field representative for the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition at 701-870-1184 or Joshua_Dukart@yahoo.com, or see www.ndglc.com.
Steve Fettig stands in front cropland that he and his brother Chuck are converting to grassland. They didn't seed it. The grass spreads naturally and they are using cattle to control the weeds, and create a shift in species.
Grass remains in a field that the Fettigs grazed once. They will rest the pasture for nearly a year before grazing it again.
A cone flower growing one of the Fettigs' paddocks is a sign of range health.
Participants in a North Dakota Grazing Land Coalition tour stop at a grazed paddock on the Fettig ranch.
Heifers pause from grazing to check out a visitor. There are more than 1,000 heifers in herd that moves through Steve and Chuck Fettig's ranch in a planned grazing system.