More than 400 grazing enthusiasts from across the U.S. gathered in Orlando, FL, Dec. 9-12 for the Fifth National Conference on Grazing Lands (5NCGL) - and I was fortunate enough to be among them.
Because many of my friends - and my own kids - were envious of my Florida assignment, I will preface my remarks by clarifying that while the event was held in Orlando, I did not find time to hob-nob with the famous, big-eared mouse, nor did I get to soak up as much sunshine as one would hope. Rather, I spent my time listening to speakers and taking notes, and being thankful I packed a sweater because even in Florida the meeting rooms are icy cold.
However, this conference - which is held every three years - is one of my favorites because everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic about sharing the grazing experiences on their ranch - including the mistakes they've learned from.
With that, I share with you the lessons gleaned from the conference:
1)Water is the big issue. Many of the ranchers who shared their grazing goals talked about managing for vegetative cover to enhance water infiltration; or as Gene Goven of Turtle Lake, ND, put it: "Capturing every raindrop where it falls."
Land managers must come to realize this is as important in a dry year as it is in a wet year. As an example, Lowry, S.D., rancher Lyle Perman talked about the massive flooding the Dakotas have seen in the past five years - and questioned if it is because we've gotten more precipitation than ever before in history, or if the explanation is more likely tied to the amount of tillage that is occurring and fewer lands in grasslands to help capture the rainfall and minimize runoff? I think most of us can acknowledge that it is the later.
Perman also shared some interesting cowboy math with regard to water. He noted that on 5,000 acres if he gets 9.61 inches of rain from March to November, and there are 27,154 gallons in an acre inch, that adds up to 1.3 billion gallons of water that he manages on his ranch (27,154 X 9.61 X 5,000 = 1.3 billion). In a wet year, that can increase to as much as 3 billion gallons. Did you ever stop to consider that you are a steward of so much water? What are you doing to capture every raindrop?
2) Focus on soil health. Along with managing the water, soil was also a major topic among these grazing managers - so much so that at times I felt like I was at an agronomy conference. "Soil health is priceless," said rancher Ken Miller of Fort Rice, ND.
Rice does a variation of mob grazing and bale grazing and is focused on getting vegetative litter on the ground. He notes that litter helps capture moisture - and keeps the soil cooler so that plants are more productive. He says, "You want to leave residue after grazing. When I look down I don't want to see any soil."
3) Cover crops are king - for pasture too. Sure cover crops are catching on in crop aftermath, but these guys are seeding it into pastures to rejuvenate them as well. The afore mentioned Ken Miller in North Dakota has had great success in grazing a cool-season pasture of mostly smooth brome in the spring, burning it down chemically and then seeding a "cocktail mix" of warm season plants into it for winter grazing. The mix of dee- rooted plants and legumes (sunflowers, radishes, turnips, etc.) is helping build that soil health; cattle love to graze it, and Miller has provided habitat for wildlife as well.
Jerry Doan, a rancher from McKenzie, ND, emphasized that with cover crops he has been able to successfully winter graze until January - and even March in a light snowfall year. This has saved his ranch as much as $50,000 in feed costs, and he says, "That's a family income; that's helping my two sons come back to the ranch."
4) May/June calving is key. I heard more than one producer from Montana and the Dakotas mention that their switch from February/March calving to May/June was the "smartest thing they ever did." Many of them admitted it took a few years to finally make the move, but once they did they've never looked back. North Dakota's Doan said, "The number one thing we've done for profitability was get away from spring calving."
5) Nature tourism has arrived. Bruce Hoffman, a rancher and investment broker from Texas, shared an interesting statistic: Texas Parks & Wildlife has not seen an increase in the sale of hunting licenses over the last 15 years - at a time when the population is still growing. So, while hunting is hitting a plateau; meanwhile, people still want to get out into nature - and are willing to pay for it. Meaning the opportunity for nature tourism, like bird and wildlife watching and nature photography are booming.
Hoffman talked about adding nature tourism as a viable entity to just about any ranch - that is tolerant of visitors, of course. He noted that in Texas, some ranchers are fetching as much as $250/day/person to allow them to get onto private lands and take wildlife and wildflower photos.
6) Tips from Temple. I've heard Temple Grandin speak many times about livestock handling, but I still gleaned a couple new nuggets from her. She talked about when you see the whites of an animal's eyes they are likely agitated and fearful. And, she demonstrated how when cattle are in a squeeze chute but not moving forward to the headgate, if you start at their head and briskly walk along their side toward their tail and then move away from the chute, they should walk forward - which is counter-intuitive, but worth a try, right.
Grandin also shared that non-slip flooring is imperative to reduce injuries in livestock loading areas and in-front of chutes. She mentioned that a Kansas company, Double D Family Mat Shop makes the best mats out of tires that she's seen. Find them at (www.ddfamilymats.net/).
In recent years, Grandin has advocated that our industry must do a better job of educating others about what ranchers do. With regard to livestock grazing, she noted there is still a stereotype that cattle are detrimental to the land. Grandin said, "We've got to keep educating people that with management cattle can be beneficial for grazing lands and the environment.
7) Dealing with drought. We've all heard before that it's important to have a drought plan in place and be ready to act when the rain doesn't come. One comment that University of Kentucky forage specialist and professor Garry Lacefield suggested was to have a "sacrifice" pasture. Rather than overgraze several - or all - of your pastures during drought. Select one pasture that you are willing to put your cattle on and give them supplemental feed. Of course, destocking should still be considered - as should the cost of the supplemental feed, but Lacefield pointed out that this way your other pastures will be able to rebound faster when the rain does come.
8) A ranch with a higher purpose. During one of the dinner table conversations, I heard two folks talk about Purple Heart Ranch in Texas. Later, I visited their website, www.militarywarriors.org/skills4life, and learned about the great work they do for wounded veterans and their families.
9) Think "out-of-the-box." A common phrase said by many of the speakers was "my neighbors think I'm nuts." But these innovative thinkers never seemed deterred; they relish their role as problem-solvers, and their families and their farm/ranch operations are better for it. Besides, their neighbors were still back home, while they were sharing their stories in Florida!
10) God's caretakers. It was also noted that many of the speakers mentioned God in their presentations, and their desire to care for the land, livestock and people He had created. How many conferences do you hear that sentiment at? University of Kentucky's Lacefield shared a poignant luncheon keynote and concluded with a YouTube video of Paul Harvey's "So God Made A Farmer." It's definitely worth viewing at www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3GtXAqhSgo.