Grass and MoneyWritten by Dallas Mount
Recently I had the pleasure of conducting a whole-ranch enterprise analysis on a well-managed range-based cattle operation. While working with the ranch and looking across the fence, it really drove home the fact that range management is an economic issue. This ranch for years has paid close attention to the condition of their rangeland and has constructed infrastructure and a management plan around encouraging desirable plants. The result is that the ranch had the capacity to be a productive forage producer in most years. We estimated that the ranch would produce around 0.5 AUMs of available feed per acre during the “average” year (this ranch is in a favorable precip zone). Just down the road there was another operation that did not share the same concern for the health of the rangeland and had grazed in such a way that low productive potential plants now dominated the range and, even in a good year, the ranch would likely not produce more than 0.2 AUMs per acre.
For demonstration purposes, let’s assume both of these ranches are 10,000 acres, and let’s also assume an AUM (The amount of grass needed to support a 1,000-pound cow for one month on private land) is valued at $18.
Through their good management, Ranch A has managed to improve the forage value of their ranch by $54,000 each year when compared to Ranch B. Even if Ranch A invested $10,000 each year in stock water development or cross-fencing, this still is a paying proposition. I would also suggest that during wet years this difference would be even larger. Is range management on the ranch a significant economic issue? You bet!
What can you do to improve forage production and harvest efficiency? This list is not exhaustive, but here are some ideas:
• Stockwater development – usually the biggest limiting factor on grazing is adequate water, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers cost share to help ranches address this in many cases.
• Season of use – In Wyoming, cool season grasses are responsible for the majority of our forage production, and repeated grazings of these cool season plants during their rapid-growth period will decrease their population. Rotate the timing of grazing in your pastures so no pasture gets grazed during those critical spring months in consecutive years.
• Fencing – You thought it would be number one, didn’t you? There is an economic threshold to how many fences make sense, depending on the productivity of the site. Be able to control grazing, but don’t get too carried away. Consider permanent or temporary electric fence, also. Intensive grazing on productive or irrigated pastures usually does make economic sense.
• Manage for the plants you want – Don’t get carried away with fighting all the bad stuff; know how to identify your desired grasses and manage for these. In most cases, the good will crowd out the bad. But, don’t ignore control of noxious weeds.
• Winter graze – Grasses are much more tolerant of grazing during the dormant season. Winter grazing allows you to come back to pastures and graze forage that was not used during the growing season. It also makes it easier to manage that critical spring season if your grazing is stretched out over a longer period.
This list could be entirely different based upon your individual situation, and by all means it’s not exhaustive. You need to develop your own list of priorities and management strategies.
Your ranch’s forage production is the foundation of your livestock business. Be careful that you don’t get so caught up in the color of the paint on the tool that you forget to manage the factory. I hope moisture finds your ranch this spring.