Mob Grazing Improves Pasture and Stocking Rate
Mob Grazing Improves Pasture and Stocking Rate

Mob Grazing Improves Pastures and Stocking Rate

by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID

The term mob grazing is often used to describe short duration high-intensity grazing – with many cattle on a small area of pasture, moved once a day or even several times a day to a new section of pasture. Kevin Fulton, of Fulton Farms in central Nebraska, says not everyone has the same definition when they think about mob grazing. “We’ve been doing rotational grazing on our place for nearly 40 years, but didn’t do it very intensively until about 9 years ago when we started doing some daily moves and even some multiple daily moves,” says Fulton.

Any time you can rest pastures longer – dividing a pasture into smaller paddocks and taking more time to get back around to each small piece – you will always get some improvement in forage production. “The more paddocks you have, the more significant the positive changes will be, because the grass has more recovery time. There may be a point of diminishing returns, however, regarding pasture improvement. If you’re moving cattle once or twice a day, will it really pay to move them 5 times per day? I don’t have an answer for that, but moving them daily or sometimes twice a day is a happy medium for us,” he explains.

“Regarding stocking rate, we’ve been able to have 10 to 80% increases by doing mob grazing. How much we can increase it depends on what kind of land it is, what kind of shape it was in when we started, and so on. There are many variables. I’ve heard some people say they increased their stocking rate 300 or 400%. Even if you can increase your stocking rate by 20% it can make a big difference. When you look at what it would cost to rent more ground to graze those additional animals, this is huge,” he says.

“If you told someone they could increase their corn yields by 10 to 20% they’d do handsprings to figure out how they could do it. Yet if you tell people how they can increase their stocking rate by 20% the average person running cattle doesn’t get excited about it because it requires more work,” he says.

“The conventional mentality is that if they want to run 50% more cattle, they rent 50% more land. Yet there’s a good chance they could increase their numbers that much just by changing their management on their own place, without buying more land (and paying more taxes) or renting more. The increase in stocking rate is mostly profit because you don’t have any increase in overhead,” says Fulton. It mainly just requires a little more labor.

You can either increase the stocking rate during your normal grazing period, or use the additional forage production to extend your grazing period during fall and winter, increasing animal unit days. “Some producers extend their grazing period another 1 to 5 months. We’ve gone to a year-round grazing program. Many people say you can’t do that in central Nebraska, and there are times we do have to supplement with a little hay, but we can stockpile grass and graze year round, most years. Some people graze all winter by using corn stalks, but we’re a grass-fed beef operation so we do it with grass.”

Fulton takes in cattle for custom grazing, as well as his own. “We have 600 pairs right now and grass finish 100 to 500 head per year. We also run sheep and goats, and also run pasture poultry (laying hens) behind the cattle – and this takes care of all of our fly problems. The hens scratch through and spread the manure piles, break the fly cycle and provide another product (eggs) to sell. They are housed in mobile chicken coops and moved every 2 days,” he explains.

“We’re doing this organically, and have been able to do it on a large scale and make it work. We occasionally rotate crops after mob grazing. We planted organic wheat after 3 or 4 years of intensive mob grazing, and 2 years ago got 100 bushel to the acre when our neighbors were getting 50. We’ve increased the fertility of our ground just with mob grazing and no added inputs except the seed – no purchased fertilizer, and we didn’t haul out any manure,” says Fulton.

“There are some real benefits to mob grazing if you want to use it in conjunction with crop rotation. Some people don’t think we can farm sustainably or feed the world with organic farming, but we can – if we alternate livestock with crops. On our farm, we produce as much beef (grass fed) on one of our irrigated acres of pasture as we could if we had a corn/soybean rotation and harvested that grain and fed it to animals in a feedlot and produced the beef that way. We’ve cut out many steps in the middle and a lot of costs. We’re not hauling the manure back out on the pasture or hauling the grain to the feedlot,” he says.

“Letting animals harvest their own feed saves all those steps and also avoids some of the environmental and animal welfare issues if you can leave the animal on grass its whole life,” he explains. Producers need to go back to some of these methods, without depending on so much fuel, machinery and the other inputs that cost so much.

“Since we didn’t use any chemicals in producing our wheat, when we had a big rain soon after we harvested that crop, we had a huge flush of regrowth of wild grasses. We later went in and grazed that field and figured we had about $100 worth of grazing value per acre after harvesting our wheat. Our two neighbors across the fence got half as much wheat when they harvested theirs, and nothing else came up because their fields were sterile. All they had was wheat stubble until they planted a different crop the next year. By contrast we double cropped our fields; the livestock are the key to sustainable farming,” says Fulton.

“I used to farm conventionally, raising crops without livestock. About 10 years ago I started to get back into livestock more heavily and moved toward grass-based farming and eventually organic and grass-finished beef.” The environmental groups who are preaching that livestock are harmful to the environment need to take another look at the beneficial potential. We need livestock for sustainable farming. They are absolutely critical, according to Fulton.

“Mob grazing works to advantage in several different ways. One, the plants get more rest and recovery, which is crucial. Secondly, you are increasing organic matter because the cattle are eating a certain percentage of the crop and trampling the rest of it, which is incorporated into the soil. Every 1% increase in organic matter is equal to about 40 pounds of commercial nitrogen. This along with the legumes planted in our pastures allows us to do the mob grazing and never add any other fertilizer to the pastures. All we add is water on our irrigated pastures,” he says.

“It takes just as much water to maximize the growth of a grass crop as it does a corn crop, but I irrigate about half as much as my neighbors who are raising corn. The reason is that we capture almost every drop of rain that falls on our pasture. It’s absorbed into this huge sponge of litter and plant mass. None of it runs off. If we get our normal 20 inches of precipitation per year, we keep nearly all of that. But our neighbors may keep only about half of their precipitation. Even with no-till practices, the soil can only hold so much because it doesn’t have the litter,” he explains.

“Once the water gets into our soil it stays there and doesn’t evaporate, because we have the litter and ground cover. The moisture is sealed in, so the ground stays moist. We increase our growing season dramatically because we have grass that starts growing in March. With corn, by contrast, it’s planted in late April or early May, and by the time the corn canopy gets full utilization of the sunlight, it’s late May. By that time we have grass that’s already several feet tall,” he says.

“By winter, when we get a killing frost, the corn and soybeans are essentially done, but we’ll still have grass growth. We’ll still be irrigating and growing grass until Thanksgiving, some years. If you can increase your growing season by 20 to 50%, this is a huge increase in utilization of the land,” says Fulton.

The mob grazing enabled him to get away from the high input costs. “And by not using the chemical inputs, even though it’s hard to quantify, we have soil that’s incredibly more healthy. The micro-organisms can work for us, instead of us trying to fight them and kill them off and then having to use fertilizer to aid fertility superficially, to get the production back. We don’t need to do that anymore.”

People often have to rethink the way they’ve been doing things. “When we look toward the future, we need to think about post-oil agriculture. I have children who hopefully can take over the farm someday, and how can they make it work if they don’t have petroleum-based fuel and fertilizer? We’re already doing this – using a small fraction of the fuel we used when we were farming conventionally, and we haven’t bought any fertilizer or chemicals for 8 years,” he says.

“Another advantage to this system is that we are using perennial plants rather than a monoculture. We’ve gotten away from annuals (that must be planted each year) to multiple species of perennials. This diversity is key, for the land and animals (including wildlife), and the living organisms in the soil,” explains Fulton.

“One of the things we try to do on irrigated pasture is have our stock density consistently (throughout the grazing season) up to 100,000 pounds of animals per acre. I know you can go a lot higher than that, but if we get 100,000 pounds per acre for months on end, we see excellent results,” he says.

“It’s hard to do that on our native rangeland; we are limited on where our water sources are, so we are not nearly at that level. But we have done daily and every-other-day moves on native pastures with good results. We’ve had neighbors ask us what we are spraying on our pastures to make them look so good. They thought we were adding fertilizer!”

He has photos showing the fenceline, where on one side the neighbors put cattle on their native pasture in May and take them out in October – and on his side showing a dramatic difference in the grass. It’s the same type of ground, just different management. The native pastures need an adequate rest period because they are generally more fragile than irrigated tame pastures.

“People sometimes ask what happens when you get a lot of rain and cattle trample the grass into the mud and tear up the pasture. Those pieces just take extra rest, but they do come back. You may have to skip over them in the next rotation, but within a year you won’t be able to tell where that spot is, and it’s some of the best grass. It comes back better than ever,” says Fulton.

“Another thing about mob grazing is that we’ve been able to let cattle eradicate leafy spurge in certain spots. These weren’t huge patches, and maybe the spurge wasn’t that well established, but the cattle tromped and eradicated the spurge – and we didn’t have to use our sheep and goats to do it. The cattle eliminated the leafy spurge and thistles. Many people say cattle won’t touch leafy spurge, but we’ve seen them eat about every plant that we have, as long as it’s in a palatable stage. If it gets too mature they won’t eat some things, but if it’s still young they go right after mares-tail, pigweed, etc. When you turn them into some of our irrigated pastures where there’s a lot of lush grass, they may ignore the grass and go to sunflowers or some other plant – even if it’s 4 or 5 feet tall – and mow that down,” he says.

“You learn a lot more about your herd, animal behavior, and your land. There are many advantages, but the biggest disadvantage is that it takes some time and commitment if you are moving cattle twice a day or more. There is some work involved, putting in step-in posts and stringing poly-wire,” he says.

“This is probably the factor that holds a lot of people back – the work involved. But I prefer to do this, as opposed to sitting on a tractor, and we also have some interns who come out here and work for us. They like to do this sort of thing, so it works well for us,” explains Fulton.