Alberta cattle producer Sean McGrath has been employing intensive grazing methods for more than 20 years. Steve Kenyon has been doing it just about as long, and Alberta Agriculture grazing expert Grant Lastiwka has been studying it.
All of which is to say that high-intensity grazing is sustainable.
If you do it right.
“From an ecological process point of view it is, but you’ve still got to allow that recovery time,” said McGrath.
“What you’re doing is you’re grazing all the plants in a hurry. If you weren’t allowing enough recovery time before you come back, it’s absolutely not sustainable. But if you’re allowing that recovery time, then it is sustainable. And that’s not a lot different from any other type of grazing.”
Intensive grazing dispenses with any plans to turn the cows and calves out in spring, check a few times over the summer and then round them up in fall for weaning. There’s more management and more moving of cattle, and the word “intensive” might discourage some ranchers from doing it.
“It’s a commitment,” McGrath said. “But once you’re set up it can be as complicated or as simple as you want. It would be like if you were learning to skate and they threw you on the ice with an NHL team. Nobody starts at that level.
“Put the first fence in. If you have one field, split it in half. At least half your field is resting while the other half is being grazed. That’s a big step forward. It doesn’t have to be split into 82 different chunks. You can kind of grow into it.”
McGrath expects to graze his cows well into the winter months on his 3,000-acre Vermilion-area operation. Grazing management has allowed him to do so, because enough grass is there.
“Where our trade-off is, because we grow more forage in the summertime, my winter labour is reduced dramatically because I’ve still got that forage resource through December and January. We won’t be feeding cows until, well, maybe not at all this winter. So you kind of have to look at the whole year, the whole system. When stuff is growing fast, yes, you’re moving cattle lots.”
By maximizing forage yield through grazing management, he gets more pounds of beef per acre.
“The forage yield will be more and also the total weight production will tend to be higher than a lot of other systems. Your calves may be smaller but cost per acre, you’ll produce a lot more pounds per acre.”
Steve Kenyon of Busby, Alta., grazes 1,200 head of cattle — his own and those belonging to others — using intensive grazing management. Growing soil is his goal and livestock grazing is key to optimal use of plants.
“You need to understand the graze period, the rest period, the stock density and the animal impact. You put those four concepts together… then adjust for the environment.”
Grazing is the fastest way to build soils using a perennial polyculture, said Kenyon. Plants and their ground cover are necessary to build soil. With cattle providing the free fertilizer, the earthworms, dung beetles, microbes, yeasts and fungi become the employees.
“I haven’t used fertilizer in 20 years,” said Kenyon. “The fertility is there.”
About 80 percent of what a cow eats is excreted, and the cow gets 20 percent as its “pay” for being part of the cycle.
When it comes to intensive grazing, terminology has changed though the concepts Kenyon employs have remained the same.
“When I first started into this, I did something like holistic planned grazing. Then it switched to sustainable grazing. Now it’s called regenerative grazing. My practices haven’t really changed. The terminology doesn’t mean as much.
“Being sustainable is staying the same but regenerative is rebuilding and making it better. So my theory on that would be, I need to regenerate the land to the point where it can be sustainable.”
Forage extension specialist Lastiwka said intensive grazing management has a major role to play in profitability and with that comes benefits to people, livestock and soil.
“What we’re looking at here, in my mind, is we have to say to ourselves if we want to keep the steward in stewardship, the steward has to be able to make a living, to be profitable enough to make a living. So we need to look at the situation from a systems approach.”
Simply allowing cows to wander and graze at will doesn’t bring the same benefits as does producer management to ensure optimum stocking rates, grazing amount and attention to forage conditions.
Adaptive, multi-paddock grazing is one way to ensure that, and the extra labour involved has a major payoff.
“It is a system that is very rewarding because the results are so notable,” Lastiwka said. And with land prices high and new property harder to find, higher production from existing land is made possible through more intensive management.
“There’s more people realizing that the one thing they can control, more than they thought, is in fact the environment and that’s what they’re working towards. We’re finding that there’s many benefits that are coming…and the benefits are still not even fully known yet. It’s very rewarding to feel we’re doing things that are largely improving the landscape, because producers care so much about the land and the animals… It really rewards the soul, even.”
Lastiwka lists the benefits of higher grazing management: animal satisfaction, swift plant growth, higher stocking rates per acre and more productive forage stands over a longer period.
McGrath said he’s learned a lot over the years simply by paying attention to plant stands before and after grazing and making adjustments accordingly.
“I always call our system an ‘it depends’ grazing system. The way you manage? It depends.
“Probably the best rule of thumb … if you have a paddock that’s in better shape than the one you’re on now, you should move your cows. But obviously there’s some nuance to that.
“Any time anybody pays attention to their grazing system, no matter how intense they want to make it, just that act of paying attention, there’s quite a bit of profit to be had.”