Changes in Grazing Management Strategy at Ucross Ranch
Posted on: Feb 19, 2014
What changes in grazing management strategy were made at Ucross Ranch to help it win the 2014 Society for Range Management's National Excellence in Rangeland Stewardship Award?
Previous managers practiced a set-stocking strategy coupled with high stocking rates. Cattle were placed in pastures for the entirety of the growing season in high numbers and left there. With this strategy, they tended to concentrate in their favorite grazing areas (often near riparian areas), while ignoring available forage in the pastures. An inherent distribution issue was created where de facto stocking rates were high in the grazed areas and quite low in ungrazed areas. This degraded rangeland health, riparian condition, and the ranch's ability to generate revenue.
Ucross solved this problem by adding additional stock water and constructing new pastures using combinations of permanent and temporary electric fence. An ingenious design of using stock tanks accessible to multiple pastures called "water circles" was developed (see photo below) so cattle could readily and simply be moved from one pasture to the next. This provided abundant stock water while reducing labor costs.
Water and fencing enabled adoption of a new grazing strategy that has been central to improvements in pasture performance. This strategy involved altered management of four major variables: grazing duration, recovery periods between grazings, timing of grazings, and stock density.
• Grazing durations were reduced from 130-150 days per pasture down to 7-15 days per pasture. This meant that the number of forage plants exposed to herbivory at any given point in time was greatly reduced versus prior practices, and plant recovery periods were lengthened.
• Those plant recovery periods became over 100 days oftentimes in the same growing season, versus minimal growth time before (since cattle remained in the same pasture). Desired forage plants responded well to the new growth opportunity, and productivity climbed quickly.
• Timing of grazings was also altered annually, so plants were not always exposed to grazing at the same time each year. Ucross's pastures display sensitivity to repeated spring grazing, so care must be taken to provide uninterrupted spring growth opportunities in some years.
• Lastly, the new pasture layout greatly increased stock densities. This is simply the number of cattle in a pasture, and Ucross’s new pastures greatly increased stock density, resulting in much more concentrated hoof action. Ucross's loamy soils may become capped by direct sunlight following a summer rainstorm, and the concentrated hoof action helps disturb that cap. This allows better infiltration of any future moisture.