Move the cattle through small paddocks fast, and then give the grass a good rest. That’s the theory behind a high stock density grazing system, and Brian Harper says it’s paid off.
“High stock density is a management system where you have a high number of cattle in a small area for a short time. It improves the forage quality, quantity and diversity and allows for maximum rest of the pastures, increasing production and increasing profit per acre,” Harper told a Feb. 23 grazing workshop at the Brandon Research Station.
Harper began exploring rotational grazing when the pressures of BSE made him look for ways to cut costs and remain profitable. He began rotational grazing in 2003 and moved into high stock density grazing in 2014.
“As much as we didn’t like BSE, I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It changed how I looked at my operation and took me from a production paradigm to a profit paradigm,” Harper said.
He said high stock density grazing has created a number of benefits including doubling his carrying capacity, cutting wintering costs, reducing labour and maximizing productivity per acre.
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“Our stocking rate has increased by 26,300 pounds or 63 per cent over 2013 and we’ve doubled our carrying capacity. We have grown more grass by letting the grass rest and at the same time sequestered more carbon and we are still in the early years of this project.”
When Harper began the transition to high stock density grazing he talked to Michael Thiele, Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association grazing club co-ordinator and Neil Dennis, a longtime cattle producer from Wawota, Saskatchewan.
“We had expected outcomes from this project, including increased carbon sequestration, increase in soil organic matter, improved soil biology, increased pasture productivity and drought-proofing, increased stock density, decreased paddock size, decreased grazing period, increased resting period and increased pounds of beef per acre,” Thiele told the seminar.
“We are not so concerned with daily gain or the size of the calf in the fall. We are more focused on the maximum sustained profit per acre.”
Highly populated, small paddocks
Harper is currently running 47 pairs on one-acre paddocks, moving them daily and leaving the grazed paddocks to rest and regrow for approximately 80 days. He recommends long and narrow as opposed to square paddocks.
“The little bit of management it takes to break up these paddocks is worth it,” Thiele said. “Your soil is getting better, you are growing more grass, growing more beef and you are going to make more money. It all starts to work together and that is what we are trying to show at Brian’s.”
Getting a grip on the best time to move the cattle from paddock to paddock can take some time to learn. Harper recommends experimenting with timing when just starting out.
“It can take awhile to get an eye for knowing when to move them. Ideally you want every piece of grass disturbed in some way,” he said.
He recommends waiting until every piece of grass in the paddock has either been nipped, trampled or has manure contact before moving cattle to a new space.
Thiele says the species of forage you grow isn’t particularly important but be sure to grow a diverse mix.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter what combination of species or how many. Generally, the more species the better,” Thiele said.
Harper typically seeds right after grazing, with a zero-till seeder to plant into growing pastures and adds that interested producers should check with their conservation districts as they may have a zero-till seeder available for loan.
Keeping the cattle on the land
Harper prefers to bale graze through the winter and says as long as the cattle stay on the land you will see benefits.
“We haven’t spent winter in pens for over 10 years. In the wintertime we have swath grazed, bale grazed, we have tried it all and keeping the cattle on the land and the nutrients on the land is what is important,” he said.
“I like bale grazing the best. It does take awhile to get across the fields but we are seeing the biggest benefit on the grass the next year — double or triple the production.”
Throughout Harper’s operation he places significant importance on working with nature and says embracing nature has cut his costs.
“When we woke up to the fact of working in sync with nature, everything got better. The health of the cattle got better and costs went down,” said Harper.
With his working-with-nature philosophy, Harper chooses to calve in May and says it has dramatically decreased his winter management costs.
“We used to calve February, March and we were hitting the third trimester at the worst part of the year,” said Harper. “I know that a lot of people want the calf in the fall for the bigger cheque but I think a dollar saved is worth more.”
Producers considering converting cultivated land to hay or pasture land may be able to take advantage of the Ducks Unlimited Forage Program.
Available in all three Prairie provinces, it offers producers $50 for every new forage acre seeded and can cover 40 to 50 per cent of the seed investment.
“If you are thinking of planting grass, talk to one of the Ducks Unlimited representatives or myself and we will see if you are in the target area,” Thiele said.