Nuffield scholar explores high-stocking-rate rotational grazing

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A transition toward high stocking rates on pastures followed by longer recovery periods has spurred profitability on a Manitoba beef farm, attendees at the recent Profitable Pastures online conference learned.

Day three of the conference, hosted by the Ontario Forage Council, featured 2019 Nuffield Scholarship participant and Brandon-area farmer Ryan Boyd. Through the program, Boyd travelled the world with his fellow Nuffield scholars, saw a range of farming systems and followed that by researching and visiting intensive rotational grazing operations in the United States and Australia.

“We covered a ton of ground and I really had my mind wide opened,” Boyd said of the Nuffield experience.

A University of Manitoba agronomy grad who returned to the 3,000-acre farm in 2004, Boyd had always had a few cattle. To carve a place for himself on the farm, he got interested in holistic management and regenerative agriculture.

Livestock integration is seen by many in the regenerative movement as “the holy grail” for achieving positive environmental outcomes, particularly on the Prairies where grazing by ruminants was the natural format of the landscape, Boyd said.

But he found himself asking how livestock could be integrated profitably.

“That was where I kind of set out from (in his Nuffield studies), by looking for people who were effectively doing that – making a profitable farm enterprise with grazing ruminants as the centrepiece.”

In the U.S., he visited Dwayne Beck at the not-for-profit Dakota Lakes research farm in South Dakota. 

“He’s been promoting the reintegration of warm-season grasses into the cropping system,” Boyd said.

“Here – both in Ontario and in the West – we’ve all but eliminated the warm season grasses from our pasture systems.” 

These grasses were major contributors to soil over many centuries, “and why did we go away from perennial systems? It’s simple economics.”

He also travelled to Florida to see a farm managed with the help of Mexican-born grazing guru and holistic management devotee Jaime Elizondo. An agronomist who operates a consulting business called Real Wealth Ranching, Elizondo promotes what Boyd described as “ultra-high-density grazing” and “severe non-selective grazing.”

He makes multiple paddock moves per day with cattle weighing a collective total of 600,000 to a million pounds per acre. It’s intensive but not selective. Everything gets eaten, while manure is evenly distributed. 

“From what I’ve seen, that leads to a rapid improvement of the land condition,” Boyd said.

Intensive grazing coupled with a long recovery period has a substantial regenerative effect on pasture.

umkehrer/iStock/Getty Images

The Manitoba farmer had heard arguments that such intensive grazing could cause plants to shut down and he asked Elizondo about it.

Elizondo responded that much of this argument – and the suggestion that, in rotational grazing systems, roughly half of the plant should be left to recover for the next grazing pass – stems from a 1955 study from Missouri about root growth stoppage. 

“From that, we’ve developed our idea that you should take as little forage as possible.”

That study, Elizondo said, was done using scissors on young plants with 30-day rest periods. 

“In the real world, we’re looking at long recovery periods, we’re looking at the regenerative effects of saliva, we’re looking at even manure distribution,” Boyd said. “And we’re looking at an active soil microbial community.”

Boyd described it as a “paradigm shift” from promoting a “root-based plant recovery to a photosynthesis-based plant recovery” that allows the plant “to express its full life cycle. That’s when the true magic happens in the soil.” 

The soil microbiome is most active when the plant is making leaves.

“Think about what a good crop of hay looks like in your area and then work back” from the gain on cattle on that pasture. 

“Use that as a gauge to where your efficiencies are in your current grazing system.”

When Boyd reflected on his former regime of grazing, leaving half the pasture plants by a shorter recovery to full growth, he said he wasn’t making what he would have by cutting for hay. The plants hadn’t been stimulated in the same way and didn’t come back to the same extent as when they were heavily grazed and given a longer recovery.

Holistic management proponent Graeme Hand has also found profitability through high stocking-rate grazing. When Boyd met with him, the southeastern Australia rancher encouraged farmers to use “safe to fail” trials on their farm to test what works best under their climate and economic realities. Use enough land and cattle to show results but not enough to sink the farm if it doesn’t work out, he advised.

Boyd said Hand also insists that “if you want to focus on this type of grazing, you need to force yourself to become a breeder.” That’s because over the centuries, “we’ve selected far away from a cow that thrives in this non-selective grazing process.” 

It may take several generations of careful, trait-based selection and breeding to develop a herd well-adapted to a particular farm.

Boyd learned, too, about a cropping and livestock farm in West Australia that, over the past 20 years, has shifted from two-thirds of the acreage in pasture to just one-third in pasture without decreasing its stocking rates. 

“We’ve been profitable every year,” the farm’s owner told Boyd, with both cattle and sheep managed with what he described as a “grain and graze” regime.

Aside from the traditional pasture species and rotational grazing system, the farm also uses standing winter cereal and canola crops prior to bolting. 

“It’s kind of like double-dipping,” Boyd said, adding that when the crops are in their vegetative growth stage, the farm can sometimes get a month’s worth of grazing and not significantly affect the final crop yield.

After his Nuffield studies, Boyd continued to explore ways to integrate these ideas onto his farm. The Boyds live about 70 miles north of the U.S. border and typically begin mid-April grazing what he referred to as “stockpiled grass” – pasture that had already been through a long recovery period heading into the winter. Cattle usually see their first green grass around mid-May.

Cattle move four times per day, with automated, programmable fence lifters developed in Argentina that allow cows to move under. 

“They see (the fence) go up, they hear it, and they move under it,” Boyd said.

He showed a photo of grazing cattle stocked at more than 500,000 pounds per acre. 

“By the end of the day, if they’re not chock full, you haven’t fed them enough.” And thanks to even distribution of manure and stimulatory effects of cattle grazing, “you get the gains in landscape function that you’re after.”

Annual rainfall has ranged in his lifetime from more than 20 inches to a measly eight inches, so he agreed the necessary recovery period is much longer than in a wetter environment like southern Ontario.

For him, there’s a risk of having too many cattle nearing finish when a drought is forecast and then being forced to sell into a depressed market.

Given the long recovery period, one Profitable Pastures attendee wondered about grasses getting too mature and affecting forage quality. Boyd agreed that is a hurdle when switching to intensive non-selective grazing.

Breeding for better pasture utilization, in keeping with Hand’s suggestions, will eventually ease this concern. But in the meantime, Boyd sees value in supplemental feed and minerals. 

“The forage is going to get overripe and that’s when I think we’re going to have to think about some supplements,” he said. He acknowledged the viewpoints of some “pasture purists” who believe that “grain on pasture seems like sacrilege . . . But even at today’s (grain) prices, if you can guarantee a certain pounds of gain,” maybe it’s worth it.

Another conference attendee asked about stockpiled grass. Boyd said their cattle don’t thrive in late fall and early winter on pasture that has stopped growing due to frost. But in the spring, when temperatures can rise well above freezing late in the day, it’s ideal feed.

In the fall, the Boyds use crop residue for grazing, often getting enough to take the cattle through Christmas.