This article appeared in the October issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

While many of his fellow Floridians are feeding hay four months each year, Jaime “Jim” Elizondo uses managed grazing to completely forgo hay and to build the soil for higher stocking rates.

He has developed a combination grazing method that sets aside a portion of the ranch sufficient for winter forage requirements and uses the remainder of the ranch in what Elizondo describes as non-selective grazing with a shorter recovery period than you would use in tall-forage, long-recovery grazing methods. This is grazing at high enough stock density that it stops selectivity of grasses and other forages by the cattle. Yet, the moves are frequent enough and the recovery periods short enough to come back into paddocks when the forage is at or near peak quality.

The designated winter and growing-season areas of the ranch are alternated each year so some of the forage gets season-long rest.

Since he came to northern Florida in 2012, Elizondo has used these methods to turn an old tree nursery, wherein the soil was kept naked by herbicides for more than 20 years, into a good producing, year-around grazing ranch which supports about 650 cows, plus bulls and calves, on 500 acres — all this with no hay.

Elizondo brought his family to the United States from his home in central Mexico, where he owned and operated a grass dairy and, in 1990, started a stocker operation at high stock density and high stocking rates. He honed his skills in low-cost, high-production ranch management in Mexico before arriving in Florida.

Elizondo says, “On the dry-land ranch with 750 acres we went from one animal per 10 acres to 1 animal per 1.3 acres. All this with no hay and minimal protein supplementation due to our much lower beef prices and much higher protein supplement prices.”

The area gets 30 inches of unreliable average rainfall, often in a period of three or four months. This was more than a seven-fold increase in stocking rate. Elizondo adds that he increased the soil organic matter on the dairy ranch from about 2 percent to almost 4 percent from the time he bought it until he left Mexico.

Like many other advanced graziers, Elizondo has tried many variations of management. A rotation that tries to keep all the forage at just the “perfect” stage of growth — sometimes called stage 2 or vegetative — has always been problematic and Elizondo didn’t like it either.

He also experimented with extremely long rest periods and multiple paddocks throughout the entire ranch. The land improved dramatically, but cattle performance was poorer than he thought it should be.

Finally, he learned the basis for his current system from Johann Zietsman, a Zimbabwean rancher who may have been the first in the world to succeed with ultra-high-stock-density grazing.

How he does it

Elizondo says your first step is to estimate the percentage of the year your ranch forage will be in a dormant state. If that is 50 percent of the year then you’ll most likely start with 50 percent of the ranch set aside for your winter forage. If it is 30 percent you may want to set aside about 30 percent of the ranch. You will not graze that portion at all during the growing season. This will vary with the year, depending on rainfall, he says.

That portion of the ranch should grow deep, full root systems and help develop soil life and begin to rebuild soil organic matter. Recent scientific data from Texas and the Southeast is showing this to be true.

After the first year, you’ll be able to fine-tune how much of the ranch you set aside, or stockpile, for winter grazing.

The other half of the ranch, or whatever percentage you have kept out for the actively grazed segment, Elizondo says, you should manage for the best quality possible. This is done within reason, meaning you attempt to keep high-quality forage going into the animals — vegetative, but not too short or too tall. Always graze this non-selectively, he adds.

If you need to move faster for a time, you can drop out some paddocks from your growing-season portion of the ranch and move faster. If you need more forage, you may have to graze part of the ranch you were saving for winter.

That’s why, if you’ve been a traditional, hay-using rancher, you want to continue keeping some hay or other stored forage until you get the system worked out, Elizondo says.

Further, Elizondo says he’s found that ultra-high stock density, which he calls non-selective grazing, is the key to this system all year. He prefers to move the animals two times per day in the growing season and four times per day or more than that in the winter, when taking down stockpiled forage on the saved portion of the ranch.

In both cases, he is trying to get everything in the paddocks knocked down or eaten down.

“I want it mostly eaten, in contrast to people that want it knocked down,” he says.

Elizondo shows pictures of spotty grazing with cows in a paddock and says, “I tried grazing more lightly and moving fewer times each day and this is what I got.

“Then I tried mowing behind the cattle to make everything even. But research shows us that cattle saliva stimulates plant regrowth after grazing by up to 80 percent over mowed or clipped plants, and I could see much difference in recovery rate of the grazed plants.”

Now he prefers higher stock densities and non-selective grazing, meaning the cattle consume the forage plants more evenly and graze more “severely,” in smaller paddocks, and then are moved more quickly to a fresh paddock.

The whole process is building up the soil on the ranch and allowing Elizondo to increase stocking rate every year. That’s on top of saving the cost of hay and hay equipment.

He adds that Mashona cattle, a Bos taurus African breed, are especially well-suited to the tough grazing conditions. They were selected across hundreds of years and under limited grazing conditions with nightly corralling, daily herding and culling of non-reproductive cattle.

You can see pictures of these cattle and the Florida forage and ranch, plus read some of Elizondo’s writing on his website.