The landscape around Last Chance, on the high plains of eastern Colorado, presents strikingly open vistas, with rolling, treeless prairie stretching to the distant horizon. The land is dry and the wind almost always blows.
To an outsider, the prairie might look empty and unproductive. But to Mark Frasier, the scene is a vast and efficient factory fueled by sunlight that powers photosynthesis, producing grass that cattle convert to beef.
Mark Frasier and his brothers Chris and Joe operate Frasier Farms, a cow-calf and yearling operation, tending to 40,000 acres of grass on two ranch locations. The Frasiers’ cow herd varies between about 300 to 500 cows, depending on forage availability, and they typically graze about 3,000 yearlings through the April-to-September growing season.
The yearling operation, Frasier says, allows flexibility in the dry, short-grass prairie environment, as the family can adjust stocking rates and grazing periods based on moisture and forage production. They purchase stocker calves from around the local area through brokers and auction barns, and retain ownership of most cattle through finishing. They base decisions on how many cattle to purchase, how long to graze them and how to market them on forage availability and market signals.
This year, the area received only about 3 inches of moisture from January through July. As the range dried out, the Frasiers shipped yearlings to the feedyard 30 to 60 days earlier than usual to avoid overgrazing. Then, when 4 inches of rain fell during August, the ranch turned green with new growth. Looking at all that grass in mid-September, without cattle to exploit it, Frasier said he did not regret the decision. He sees the fresh growth and unused forage as storage for next spring, which will allow the family to restock at higher rates.
All the Frasiers’ calves are individually identified and source- and process-verified. They have marketed some finished cattle through natural-beef programs and others through U.S. Premium Beef. Source and process verification, Frasier says, allows flexibility in marketing, providing the opportunity to find the right market for the right cattle. That flexibility, he says, typically provides a $15 to $20 per head premium over the average market.
The Frasiers use their individual identification system to follow cattle through finishing and into the packing plant, collecting as much data as possible. Collecting, maintaining and applying the data is a major challenge, but he says the process has “debunked some preconceptions” in terms of which cattle perform best and create the most value. Records also help guide preconditioning and health programs based on past history of cattle from known sources.
The Frasiers use an intensive rotational grazing system to help maintain the range ecosystem. The ranch is divided into 130 electrically fenced paddocks, with the cattle split into three herds that graze 30 to 40 paddocks each. The system allows a short, one- to two-day grazing period on each paddock, followed by a rest period of 40 days or longer, during which the forage has time to recover. At any time, Frasier says, about 90 percent of the ranch is in the rest cycle.
The grazing system encourages a high level of plant diversity, which makes for more consistency in forage production. Frasier explains that in any given season, one species or another might be favored, depending on weather conditions. Maintaining diversity helps ensure that something will grow and be available to the cattle in a variety of conditions.
Water is one of the greatest challenges in a rotational grazing system, Frasier says. The family has installed about 45 miles of underground pipelines to supply water tanks in 40 locations around the ranch. The tanks are positioned at the corners of paddocks, such that each tank serves four paddocks.
Frasier maintains that even more intensive grazing could benefit much of the rangeland on the ranch. To illustrate this contention, he points out an area surrounding a water tank. The ground within about 200 feet of the tank is well-covered with healthy, desirable forage plants. But as you move further from the tank, the grass thins out, and there is more bare soil and higher numbers of undesirable plants. The reason, he says, is the beneficial effects of heavy animal impact near the tank during the short periods cattle graze in that paddock.
As the cost of harvested feeds in-creases, Frasier believes optimizing use of grazed forage provides a competitive advantage. He outlines four principles that influence his range-management philosophy.
The dry, short-grass prairie of eastern Colorado is a “brittle” environment. Dead or dormant plant material left standing in this environment eventually becomes oxidized, losing carbon-based organic components to the atmosphere rather than returning organic material to the soil.
Grazing animals have a positive impact, breaking up the soil surface, returning nutrients to the soil through manure and trampling plant material so that it decomposes in the soil.
Timing of grazing based on the growth curve of forage plants maintains a healthy ecosystem and maximizes forage production. Short-term, intensive grazing impact at the right time helps keep grass plants in a leafy, vegetative state, rather than diverting energy to seed production. The rest period following grazing allows the plants to recover. Frasier explains that when a grazing animal bites off most of the above-ground portion of a grass plant, the plant loses much of its ability to capture sunlight for photosynthesis. Instead, it relies on energy stored in its roots to recover and grow new leaves. Overgrazing occurs when an animal eats those leaves too soon, before the plant rebuilds its energy reserves.
The fourth principle is holism — the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Individual considerations such as timing of grazing, moisture, plant communities or animal impact are important, Frasier says, but the interrelationships between these factors are magnified when viewed as a whole. “This dynamic is the intangible, intuitive definition of management that is hard to describe and even more difficult to quantify.”
For more information on range management and rotational grazing, click here.