Cowboys and Grassmen

by Dave Pratt

I once heard Bud Williams say, “Ranchers love their cows and hate their grass.”  Bud thought they had it backwards. They should love their grass and hate their cattle. I know that Bud didn’t really hate cattle or think that anyone else ought to hate them, but his point was that for a livestock business to be profitable, it must be a grass business first.

Ranchers often talk about utilization. I’ve even seen phrases like “…to make efficient use of our forage resource” incorporated into mission statements describing the purpose of ranch businesses. That’s fine, but doesn’t it seem like we ought to place at least as much emphasis on efficiently growing grass as we do on using it?

It’s almost as though we don’t care how much we grow as long as it gets used efficiently. Tactics that increase the efficient use of forages include shortening graze periods, increasing stock density and matching the number and type of animals to the resource. But these tactics are unlikely to significantly affect the amount of grass we grow. Providing adequate recovery for plants after grazing is the single biggest factor affecting pasture and range productivity.  Not providing enough recovery is the single biggest problem in grazing management.

A second factor reducing productivity is grazing pastures too severely during the growing season. Leaving plenty of leaves on plants reduces the recovery period plants need and maximizes plant growth after grazing. Leaving plenty of cover on the soil improves water penetration and increases the soil’s moisture holding capacity, which extends the growing season and increases productivity. Unfortunately, when we focus on “efficient utilization” a lot of us graze pastures too severely, taking too many leaves and removing too much cover, reducing our overall productivity.   

It is understandable that our focus tends to be more on the animals than the grass.  After all, we call ourselves cattlemen and cowboys, not grassguys and foragefolks. But we’d be much healthier economically and ecologically if we would focus on growing abundant forage before we worry about how efficiently our animals will use that forage. If you want to separate the men from the boys in the ranching business, you’ll find that the most profitable ranchers are grassmen first and cowboys second.

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