Ranching approach yielding more forage on less land
By John O’Connell
Intermountain Farm and Ranch
CALDWELL — Wayne Hungate's holistic ranching method has enabled him to graze a bigger herd on a much smaller acreage of pasture, and yet his forage always seems to grow back thicker and more verdant than before.
Hungate, of Caldwell, explained the system behind his remarkable productivity is called management-intensive grazing. It entails the daily moving of cattle that feed at a high density within small paddocks.
The approach ecologically mimics the cycle of life that evolved surrounding grazing herbivores that cling close together for protection from predators and move often to find fresh forage. Think of the historic bison herds of North America.
Packed tightly, cattle evenly mow the range, picking off weeds that are often left behind in conventional pastures and helping a diversity of plants compete with the taller grasses.
The cattle aren't in a single paddock long enough to cause damage to the plants' root systems and the even distribution of their manure and urine lends fertility to the soil, helping the grasses and forbs regrow quickly and vigorously.
Management-intensive grazing — a term coined by May, Idaho, rancher and educator Jim Gerrish — has been slow to catch on, but proponents such as Hungate believes its time is coming, as range land becomes increasingly precious and production costs steadily rise.
"One of the things Jim Gerrish teaches is if you properly manage a piece of ground you should be able to double the carrying capacity, which makes (my land) the cheapest piece of ground I ever bought," said Hungate, who learned the ropes of the grazing philosophy from Gerrish. "... It is a different concept. It doesn't fit the cowboy range mentality of turning cattle out in the spring and going to get them in the fall."
In the mid-1980s, Hungate worked for Simplot Western Stockmen's and attended schools in holistic grazing management to implement the Simplot program.
"Out of that I've always had a love of taking care of the ground," said Hungate, who also sells insurance policies to ranchers as a Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. of Idaho agent.
While with Simplot, Hungate had the opportunity to tour a ranch in Hawaii that was utilizing a version of management-intensive grazing. The ranch encompassed five different climate zones with annual rainfall varying widely.
"They had 6,000 head of mother cows. At any one time, 95% of the ranch was resting," Hungate said. "Yes, it can be done on a large scale. It's just a different mindset of moving cattle."
Hungate bought his current ranch — 90 acres of irrigated pasture located about a mile from his home — in June 2018. The previous owner grazed it continuously with 60 cow-calf pairs.
"By the end of summer, they were out of feed. They continually grazed it to where the grass wasn't growing," Hungate said.
At the urging of a University of Idaho Extension agent, Hungate attended a grazing workshop led by Gerrish. In the spring of 2019, following Gerrish's protocols, Hungate used a no-till drill to directly seed three types of clover and three grass species into pasture that had previously been a grass monoculture.
That season, he grazed 80 cow-calf pairs, allowing 70 square yards of pasture for every animal unit day — a measure of the forage volume an adult cow consumes in a day.
He uses single-wire electric fencing to construct the temporary paddocks. Moving the cattle so frequently presents no challenge. Eager to access fresh grasses and forbs, the herd chases after him when he drives by in his Polaris Ranger.
When he opens a section of fence to allow them into the next paddock and shouts, "Come on!" the animals come running and he's quick to get out of their way.
This year, based on the improvement in the health of his range land, he increased his density to 110 pairs, allowing just 35 square yards per animal unit day.
"My goal is I'd like to get to 180 pairs on that 90 acres," Hungate said.
His methods have helped him cut back considerably on inputs. The "hoof action" breaks up the manure piles, so he doesn't need to use gas to distribute it mechanically.
The cattle graze so densely that they eat all of the weeds, so he uses no broadleaf herbicide, which also allows his clovers to survive. The clovers, in turn, provide a preferred feed source and fix nitrogen: Hungate anticipates he'll need no artificial fertilizer next spring.
"It's healthier pasture all around," he said.
Hungate used to make a 200-mile round trip to summer his heard in the Council area, where he had 850 acres of private land to graze about 100 head of cows.
He's sold that land since starting management-intensive grazing and now has sufficient forage to keep 110 head on the 90 acres near his home through most of the year with no supplemental hay.
The sole time his cattle leave the pasture is for a few weeks during the fall when he pays neighboring farmers for access to their corn stubble.
Hungate saves on the time and fuel of transporting his cattle to Council, as well as the trips to repair fencing and deliver salt licks on that expansive range land.
The neighboring corn farmers also reap benefits when he practices his management-intensive grazing on their stubble, which they don't have to incorporate into the soil using heavy equipment, saving them about $50 per acre.
Furthermore, they benefit from the nutrients in the cattle excrement.
Hungate and his three sons collaborate on a side business called Hungate Custom Hay. In his own operation, however, he leaves the "swathing" to the animals.
Hungate believes management-intensive grazing is a better fit for irrigated pastures than large public grazing allotments, with rigid regulations about grazing seasons and densities.
However, he believes the nation's food producers will increasingly look to raise pasture under their pivots in lieu of traditional row crops.
"I think we're on the verge of that," Hungate said. "Pasture ground is getting harder and harder to find."
Though many in the cattle industry may view ranchers like Hungate as doing something new and different, Gerrish has been espousing such concepts since the late 1980s.
Back then, Gerrish worked in forage research for the University of Missouri. The principles he taught were encapsulated in the book "Intensive Grazing Management" by Burt Smith.
Allan Nation, who was the editor of Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, griped to Gerrish that too many in the industry misinterpreted intensive grazing management and viewed it as a license to overgraze. Gerrish noted to his friend that the method truly intensifies the management as opposed to the grazing, and the term "management-intensive grazing" was born.
"Once you accept that management of time is the most critical factor in grazing management, your whole view of the world changes and usually for the better," said Gerrish, who grew up as an Illinois crop farmer. "... Almost all legumes require a recovery period after grazing. In this type of system, legumes flourish and pump nitrogen into the system."
Gerrish explained that ranchers who practice management-intensive grazing typically hone their eyes after 30 repetitions of single-day grazing events to accurately estimate the amount of forage their livestock require and can then consistently fence in the right-sized paddock.
"During the period when animals are on pasture, mostly negative things are happening to the plants and soil ... If on the other hand you make grazing a shorter period until you have it down to every day becomes a new grazing period, only on one day are negative things happening to a plant," Gerrish said.
He explained that leaves feed the sun's energy through the plants and into the soil biology through photosynthesis.
"When animals are repeatedly biting the leaves, they're reducing the soil biology. Plants are more susceptible to insects and diseases," Gerrish said.
In addition to public speaking, Gerrish manages the herd at the Patterson Unit of Circle Pi Ranch in the Pahsimeroi Valley. He grazes a 600-animal-unit herd on pasture beneath a 300-acre pivot and a 150-acre pivot.
Though Gerrish sees untold potential in management-intensive grazing, he said national implementation has been dismally slow. According to the limited surveys that have been done, fewer than 15% of U.S. beef producers currently manage with an average grazing period of less than a week, he said.
Gerrish believes market forces would have expedited management-intensive grazing's popularity if not for government support programs and corn subsidies.
"Twenty years ago, I thought we'd be in the 30% to 40% range (of producers using management intensive grazing) by now because it just makes so much sense," Gerrish said.
Visit americangrazinglands.com for more information on management-intensive grazing.
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