Neil Dennis is looking forward to the 2011 grazing season, expecting to see significant gains in the productivity of his pastures.
“The plant density really increased this last year,” he says. “In spring a whole bunch of new legumes showed up. Then later in the year this native bluegrass that had started to come really exploded on me.”
The added species will likely increase his pastures’ carrying capacity, which overall is already 300% higher than when he started mob grazing more than 10 years ago. The method that he calls ultra-high stock density grazing has resulted in healthier pastures capable of producing more pounds of beef per acre.
It has returned prosperity to the Wawota, Saskatchewan, land owned by Dennis and his wife, Barbara.
“It’s the only reason we’re still on the farm,” he says. “If we had kept doing what we were, we would have gone belly up.”
They raised grain and livestock during the 1980s and 90s, but did everything conventionally and were struggling to make ends meet. Looking for alternatives, they attended a class on holistic management, where Dennis says he first learned to look at the grass instead of the animals on it.
He started rotating his cattle differently, increasing his stocking density, shortening his grazing periods and lengthening his recovery times as productivity improved. Today he’s strictly a commercial beef producer and custom grazier, owning very little machinery and enjoying a better quality of life.
He grazes as many as 800 stocker cattle in half-acre paddocks, moving them every few hours. During that time, they either eat all the plant topgrowth or trample it into the ground with their manure and urine to build soil organic matter.
“When I leave a paddock, I want every square inch to have a footprint,” he says.
He lists these benefits:
- Healthier soil, with more microorganisms, earthworms and dung beetles and better water-holding capacity.
- More plant diversity. He has more than 40 species in his pastures, providing more consistent forage production and quality throughout the grazing season. Most new grasses come in naturally, although he occasionally spreads seed on the soil surface and lets cattle trample it in.
- Better grass utilization. “I gain 20-30% more utilization of the grass.”
- No flies. “I don’t have a fly problem because I’m moving so often that I’m breaking the fly cycle.”
- Warmer soils. Ample amounts of litter on the surface keep soil microorganisms active later in fall and let grasses green up earlier in spring.
“My soil stays cooler in the summer, too, so I’m not losing as much moisture to evaporation,” he says.
- Better weight gains. Heifers have each gained up to 1.7 lbs/day on grass with no supplement. “In this area, 1.5 lbs is average for steers over all the years,” he says. That and higher stocking densities have dramatically increased the pounds of beef he produces per acre.
Recognizing the difference between stocking rate and stocking density is key, he says. Stocking rate is the number of animals land will support. Stocking density is “how tight animal numbers graze on that land.”
Mob grazing is more labor-intensive than other methods. But Dennis calculated two years ago that the extra time spent moving cross fences was bringing him $96/hour. Since then he has begun using solar-powered devices that open gates automatically at programmed times.
“That’s one way to cut down on the labor requirement,” he says.
The biggest mistake made by beginning mob graziers is not giving grazed paddocks sufficient time to recover, says Dennis. “You have to realize there’s a difference between rest and recovery.”
To him, full recovery comes when plants are ready to set seed because that’s when their energy content is highest. Leaving plants grow longer also lets them capture the maximum amount of solar energy.
Many of his paddocks are grazed just once per growing season. When they’re grazed twice, he starts with what he calls skim grazing in spring. He moves cattle even more often then, removing less than half of the sward.
“If you only take 40% of the leaf, the root growth doesn’t stop,” he says. “So when the grass is growing fast, I’ll only take 40%, and I don’t lose the benefit of capturing the solar energy.”
He stresses the importance of varying his stocking rates, grazing and recovery periods, etc. “I don’t think you can keep doing the same thing year after year – nature isn’t like that.”
To plan his grazing strategy, he closely monitors his land and cattle. If a paddock needs attention, he often uses a method he calls “deep massage.” He grazes it heavily in spring when the soil is soft, removing all the topgrowth. Then he rolls out bales of hay for the cattle to eat or trample into the ground. He does that twice, staggering hay placement so the entire paddock is covered. It’s a great way to add new seed, increase organic matter and provide food for soil microbes, he says.
In another method, he lets cattle turn a paddock black during a spring rainy period, then lets it recover until the following season.
“In a year it’ll be one of my best paddocks,” he says.
He’s expecting good productivity in 2011 because 2010 was a revelation year for him. The previous year was the second driest year in the last 22, with little rain and very little pasture growth.
“To survive I was forced to take all the topgrowth there was – far more than I wanted to,” he reports. “The cattle gain in 2009 was not what I would have liked, but in hindsight we are further ahead because of the tremendous disturbance the land received. When the rains of 2010 came, and came consistently, there was an explosion of new plants, increasing biodiversity and overall productivity.”
He tells prospective mob graziers to first learn as much as possible from as many practitioners as possible. Then start with modest stock density increases. As your land gets healthier you will be able to increase your stocking rate.
“You have to walk before you can run; work your way into it,” he advises. “All this will work on anybody’s land; you just have to adapt it to the moisture level and soil type of your land, and your quality of life.”