For cow-calf producer Terry Gompert, the role of cattle extends well beyond beef production. The animals are part of a holistic pasture management system, and when grazed in very high numbers for short periods, they can restore grass health and productivity.
Gompert, also a University of Nebraska extension educator, is one of the nation's leading proponents of mob grazing, a concept developed by grazing guru Allan Savory.
“Ultra-high stock densities — up to 1,600 head per acre — heal the land as well as increase production and profits,” says Gompert.
He attributes the positive impact of mob grazing to the fact that the tops of plants are either recycled as manure and urine or mashed into the ground by cows' hooves. That stimulates nutrient recycling and plant regrowth.
“You don't want any oxidized grass left standing,” he says. “You want it on the ground so the microbes can digest it.”
One criterion of success for mob graziers is seeing at least one hoof print in every cow pie.
“The objective is to create a major disturbance and then move on. Depending on the carrying capacity of the site and the herd density, this could mean moving animals several times in one day.”
Of equal importance are the extended rest periods given to pastures between grazings. They allow disturbed plants to recover.
“You might be looking at grazing a piece of land once, maybe twice, a year,” says Gompert. “It's quite possible that you could be grazing a specific portion of land just hours out of the year.”
Over the last five years, he has tracked the progress of several cow-calf operators who successfully integrated mob grazing into their beef production systems.
“Once these producers get their stock densities up and are moving their animals one or more times per day, they're reporting that forage production on their ground is increasing two- to four-fold,” he says.
Chad Peterson, who operates a 9,000-acre spread near Newport, NE, is one of those producers. Since 2001, Peterson has gradually introduced more of his land base to a grazing program that routinely involves very short-term stocking densities of more than 1,000 animals per acre.
“This means moving my cattle five to seven times a day,” he says.
Peterson estimates that 15-20% of his pastures are mob grazed between April and November. Grass on the remaining acreage is stockpiled and used as winter feed for pregnant cows and the previous year's calves. He sells his calf crop in spring as yearlings.
Since introducing the practice, he has seen dramatic changes.
“On some of my meadows I would get 30-40 animal days per acre,” he says. “Now, with mob grazing, I get 200.”
Within three to four years, the volume and quality of grass have improved, there's a healthier balance of cool- and warm-season grasses, and the range in plant age is wider than before, says Peterson.
“As a result, something is always growing.” he says.
While most of his neighbors' pastures are brown and dormant by July, his remain green and productive until the first hard frost in November.
“We no longer experience a midsummer slump in forage production,” he says. “In fact, July is now our most productive month.”