Ever browse through a store and think there are just too many choices? Sometimes it would be easier if they stocked just three types of coffee, or four kinds of soap, instead of dozens.

For beef producers, the proliferation of grazing systems can create similar confusion but with more serious implications. Producers who use continuous grazing might improve long-term profitability with rotational or management-intensive grazing, but first they must commit to change, then select a grazing system.

Determining which grazing system makes the most sense is not difficult, says University of Nebraska professor and extension range ecologist Pat Reece, once a landowner selects a prioritized set of objectives for resource management and livestock production. Dr. Reece, in collaboration with other UNL faculty, developed a guide titled “Integrating Management Objectives and Grazing Strategies on Semi-arid Rangeland” (see box). The publication provides an example of the decision-making process using four types of grazing systems  —  season-long continuous grazing, rest-rotation grazing, deferred rotation grazing and intensively managed grazing. Above all, it stresses that producers need to know what they want to achieve.

Decide to change
“Making the decision to change grazing practices shouldn’t be that hard for folks, but it is,” says range-management consultant Charlie Orchard, with Land EKGTM of Bozeman, Mont. “The discomfort of change and fear of the unknown provide reasons not to do it.” When he tells producers about the tremendous success others have had through changing their grazing management, their initial response often is, “It might work there, but it won’t work here.”

Mr. Orchard says choosing a grazing system really boils down to one simple issue: the intensity of management the manager is willing to contribute. “The trade-offs are simple,” he says, “the higher the management intensity  —  don’t confuse this with grazing intensity  —  the higher return from the grazing system.”

Set goals
“Before you can consider a grazing system,” says rancher David James of Durango, Colo., “you have to determine your goal. For example,” he says, “here on our irrigated pastures we have a commitment to a quick rotation because it fits our goals. It fits this type of grass and our interest in producing healthy beef.” The ranch also grazes cattle on more arid public lands, for which Mr. James sets different goals. “There, we do what is possible, and that is rest-rotation.” He describes this system as an imitation of nature, and the way the western landscape evolved. “This takes discipline and a willingness to be focused, with a passion to improve the ecosystem, monitor how you are doing and accept that you may be wrong.”

For Mark Kossler, manager of the Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Mont., designing a grazing system brought a set of complex challenges. The ranch’s owner, Ted Turner, defined a mission for the operation that seeks to balance economically sustainable livestock production  —  in this case bison  —  with ecological sensitivity toward enhancement of wildlife habitat and biodiversity. In addition to grazing large herds of bison, the ranch offers fee hunting for several big-game species. “There is tension between these goals,” Mr. Kossler says.

John Schipf of Swan Ranch in Highwood, Mont., is another rancher who has made a number of major changes toward his goals of better utilization of resources, improved range condition and more efficient beef production. Mr. Schipf says he began looking for ways to improve after participating in the Ranching for Profit Schools, with Ranch Management Consultants’ founder Stan Parsons. Working with other participants in the schools, he identified several opportunities for improvement.

Identify problems
Historically, the ranch used a modified version of season-long grazing, Mr. Schipf says. Through the summer, cows were split into five herds with their placement around the ranch primarily based on water sources.

Once the calves were weaned, the cows moved to a winter grazing area. Prior to calving in February, the family would pull the cows from the winter forage and place them in a calving pasture, Mr. Schipf says. “We would save grass in some pastures for pairs to graze during April and May, then place each herd on a large pasture for season-long grazing.” In some cases, he adds, they would split a pasture, grazing pairs on one half during June and July, then moving them to the other half until weaning.

Much of the ranch’s forage resource was underutilized, with large summer pastures lightly stocked because of water limitations. Even so, season-long grazing resulted in some areas being overgrazed. For winter grazing, the ranch uses a river-bottom area where cows have access to abundant crop residue, hay fields and native grass. Pulling them for calving in February left feed behind, Mr. Schipf says. Each spring the family trucked about 175 pairs to leased land for summer grazing. The labor-intensive operation added production costs, but that issue was about to become moot as it appeared the property soon would not be available for lease.

Through discussions with others, Mr. Schipf came to believe he could increase carrying capacity on the ranch by 30 percent with more intensively managed rotational grazing. He worked with Charlie Orchard and Land EKG to evaluate conditions on the ranch and devise a grazing plan. They noticed that summer pastures subject to season-long grazing had quantities of old, dry standing grass, suggesting a deficiency of the mineral cycling that occurs when cattle trample that material back into the soil. “The pastures were overgrazed, but under-stocked,” he says, explaining that extended-grazing pressure damaged growing plants while the light stocking rates limited mineral cycling.

Back at the Flying D, Mr. Kossler says the ranch initially used no cross-fencing, just a perimeter fence around 80,000 acres. Mr. Kossler knew that he could increase bison production with cross-fencing and intensively managed grazing. “But, fencing the ranch into two-section pastures wouldn’t fit with our goals for wildlife management,” he says.

He found, though, that when the bison had complete access to the entire property, they favored some areas and avoided others. This led to some areas suffering from overuse, and others from under-use. “Either situation can degrade range condition over time,” he says.

Commit to change
After careful evaluation, the Flying D team decided to install some limited cross-fencing and to control grazing through eight large pastures during the growing season. Mr. Kossler and his crew then focused on increasing grazing pressure on underutilized areas and providing adequate rest for areas that had been over-grazed. This strategic grazing, he says, supported by routine rangeland monitoring, has improved forage utilization and range condition across the ranch.

The fencing is designed to contain the bison herd but allow movement of wildlife. “It’s a tradeoff,” Mr. Kossler says, explaining that the limited fencing restricts wildlife somewhat, and more fencing could increase bison production. This system achieves a balance that best supports the operation’s goals.

In 1999, with some apprehension, Mr. Schipf also took the plunge. The family gave up the leased property, combined the 175 cows with 475 on the home ranch and began rotating two larger herds through 20 smaller pastures. “We moved the herds about every seven days regardless of pasture size,” he says.

They also instituted a monitoring system to evaluate the results of the grazing program. For example, Mr. Schipf says he placed wire baskets in pastures prior to grazing, to preserve the forage under the basket. After rotating the cattle out of each pasture, he would monitor how many days it took for the grazed plants to “catch up” with the plants under the basket. Using this method, he determined that a 45- to 60-day grazing interval allowed sufficient rest during the growing season.

Since 1999, Mr. Schipf says the family has installed 17 miles of water lines and 27 water tanks as they further subdivide pastures for rotational grazing. Mr. Schipf notes that during the first few years of the transition, Montana was struck with a severe and prolonged drought. Many producers in the area were forced to reduce their herds significantly, but Swan Ranch actually added cow herd numbers through the drought years. Monitoring has shown that range condition has improved, with better mineral and water cycling.

Swan Ranch also moved calving from February to early April, which achieved several goals. First, the cow herd uses more of the forage available in the winter grazing area. “We feed a dry-mineral supplement during the winter, with some protein, but do not feed hay,” Mr. Schipf says. “The cows come back in great shape.” Calf health also has improved with the later calving season. Mr. Schipf adds that he has moved away from a typical calving-pasture system, instead spreading cows across several large calving areas and moving pregnant cows away from those that have calved. This reduces stress and exposure to pathogens, resulting in just three assisted deliveries and three calves pulled for treatment last spring, out of a calf crop of 700.

Plan to change, again
Mr. Orchard says ranchers sometimes worry about getting locked into a system they do not like. He stresses that there always is opportunity to adapt or fine-tune a grazing plan. The flexibility of electric fencing and portable water sources allows adjustment and adaptation. Managers have the option of changing grazing intervals, fencing and stocking rates from one season to the next. But to make those decisions, he adds, they need good information based on accurate measurement and monitoring toward specific goals, such as improved rangeland health, more beef production or lower input costs. Land EKG, with support from a USDA-SBIR grant, has developed a monitoring system in which a producer can use a hand-held computer to generate real-time calculations of grazing days and carrying capacity of a pasture based on observations anytime during the growing season.

Dr. Reece says managers cannot efficiently change what they cannot measure. “Accurate grazing, precipitation and animal-performance records are needed to critically evaluate grazing-management effects on animal production and natural resources to correctly determine the effectiveness of management decisions,” he says. Animal-performance records should include beginning and ending weights and cow-condition scores for critical intervals of the production cycle. “Livestock scales are one of the best investments in the industry,” he says.

At Swan Ranch, Mr. Schipf says he continues to make changes to improve the system. He has improved forage utilization by moving water sources and fencing to encourage cattle to use areas they otherwise avoided. He also has continued to cross-fence the ranch’s largest pastures. He cites one example of a 1,500-acre pasture where it was difficult to distribute grazing pressure. “We tried herding the cattle through the pasture over several weeks,” he says, “but last year we cross-fenced to split the pasture in three parts.” By rotating the herd through the three pastures, grazing pressure is more uniform and the grazing season is longer on the same piece of land. He also now runs cattle on land formerly reserved for hay production, and says the changes in grazing management will allow the ranch to increase its cow numbers by another 30 to 50 percent.

The University of Nebraska grazing guide is available online at http://ianrpubs.unl.edu/range/ec158.pdf. For more information about Land EKGTM go to www.landekg.com or call 406-582-7480.