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Measuring Your Cattle Operation’s Productivity With ADAs

“If you’re working against nature, I’ll tell you what, you’re going to lose. That’s all there is to it. And the number one thing you’re going to lose is money.”

– Terry Gompert

Cow Longevity Is Everything

Forget everything else, says Terry Gompert, because cow longevity is the most important factor in ranching. “You’ll start to notice the functional cow on her 10th calf on your place, under your management,” he said. “She will have had a calf every year with no special care.”

That’s even more important here in Canada, he added, because depreciation of a cow here is more extreme, and salvage value is much lower.

For consistent profitability, cow longevity and fertility outweigh all other factors. Out of 100 head, there might be only three or four that fit the bill.

“Weaning and yearling weights and carcass data have little to do with profitability. That’s mostly about product,” he said. “My suggestion is that you save every female and male from these found-out matron cows. These animals cannot be purchased.”

On purebred farms, he noted, the older cows are sold off long before they get a chance to prove their worth over time.

Smart ranchers, on the other hand, are paying attention to longevity and fertility in order to produce their own herd sires that are naturally adapted to the unique conditions found on their farms.

Bunch ’em up, and keep ’em moving. That, in a nutshell was Terry Gompert’s message to the Western Canadian Holistic Management conference here last week.

Gompert, who ranches near Centre, Nebraska, favours ultrahigh stock density, also known as mob grazing, where many animals are grazed together in small paddocks and then moved to fresh grass on a daily or even hourly basis. He says the strategy is paying dividends.

“Every year that I have used it, I have had increased production regardless of rainfall,” said Gompert, who is an extension educator from the University of Nebraska and a certified holistic management teacher.

First, it heals the land. Grazing mobs of cattle trample the grass stems that they don’t eat, creating surface litter. This eventually breaks down via microbial action into nutrients that feed new growth. Without hoof action, or “deep massage,” much of the grass would never have contact with the soil – it simply dries up, oxidizes and literally blows away.

Second, mob grazing heals the pocketbook. More soil organic matter means more retained moisture, and more litter on top creates shade to keep it from drying out.

That means more grass for more cattle – and more money for the rancher.

Since he started mob grazing in 2005, Gompert has averaged 74 Animal Days per Acre (ADA), or 2.85 ADA per inch of rain, nearly three times the area average under continuous grazing, which is just one ADA per inch of rainfall.

One animal day equates to 26 pounds of dry matter in the gut of a 1,000-pound cow.

His pastures have improved steadily under mob grazing, Gompert added. In 2008, he got 85 ADA, even though only 20 inches of rain fell (his average is 25), giving him 4.25 ADA per inch of rain, a fourfold increase over the average.

In his area of Nebraska, one ADA is worth $74 per year in pasture rent. That means anything he can do to increase productivity puts more money in his pocket.

That, plus gains on buying, selling and raising cattle, comes out to about $125 profit for every extra ADA per grazing season that he can squeeze out of his pastures.

“So, knowing my ADAs, and knowing my efficiency, becomes critical to my profitability,” Gompert said.

YOU’RE GOING TO LOSE

In his job at the university, he’s often asked how to get rid of leafy spurge. It isn’t intentional, but he admits that he tends to annoy the people who ask such questions. That’s because he insists on asking them, “Why do you want to get rid of it?”

Gompert’s aim is to encourage people to figure out what they really want. That means going beyond band-aid chemical solutions and embracing holistic thinking, which means looking at their entire operation as a whole, not just individual parts.

“If you’re working against nature, I’ll tell you what, you’re going to lose. That’s all there is to it. And the number one thing you’re going to lose is money.”

Working with nature could mean obvious strategies, such as May-June calving, which is more in sync with nature.

“That’s a ‘duh!’ isn’t it,” he said, with a laugh.

Gompert, who described himself as a “recovering” registered purebred breeder, has traded artificial insemination on his ranch for multi-sire breeding.

“There is strength in complexity. (Holistic management founder) Allan Savory says that we are losing complexity and diversity on our Earth and having desertification as a result,” he said.

“If we want to be profitable, we need to save the Earth. We need complex, diverse systems, not monocultures. We need to have adapted animals that know our forage, our land, and our operation. You do not get an animal that knows your land by using A. I.”

STARTS WITH THE SOIL

Gompert said his favourite sport these days is learning about the soil food web. From the myriad microscopic creatures that dwell in between grains of sand, to the dung beetles that break up cow patties, all are critical to a rancher’s success because they work together to cycle nutrients to feed the grass.

“The old rule of thumb is that there are more pounds of life under the soil surface than there are pounds of life above it,” he said. “We don’t even think about that when we use fly tags, because we’re killing the dung beetles that actually solve the problem of flies.”[email protected]

SURVIVAL: Terry Gompert, a certified holistic management educator and extension agent with the University of Nebraska, presents his views on how to survive in the cattle business at the Western Canadian Holistic Management conference in Russell last week.

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