Enjoy this section reproduced from the 256-page workbook which accompanies The Salatin Semester.
Cattle ─ Pushing Succession on the Range
What is the minimum number of cows needed for a herd to achieve the “mob” mentality?
Daniel: We’d say a hundred head. Anything less than a hundred and you can’t get that activity, the primal instincts, and the movement density to have the benefits of a mob. It really has to be hundred-plus.
So a small herd doesn’t “mob” despite small paddocks and high densities?
Daniel: It just doesn’t generate the primal instincts of the cow. They don’t get aggressive, they don’t walk fast, they don’t move fast and eat with reckless abandon. There’s not enough inertia.
When you have a hundred-plus—Ian Michael-Innes, for example, grazes three thousand to five thousand at a time—they graze with reckless abandon like wild animals will, and that really moves succession forward. They’ll eat whatever is in their path, because if they don’t, someone else will.
When you have fifty or twenty cows, even if you make the paddock super small, they just don’t generate that excitement and inertia you need to get them to graze hard.
Can cows be put into forests?
Joel: That is a tough one. I’m not ready to say that cows through the forest are definitely a negative, a disaster, but I think you have to be really careful, partly because their hooves are so heavy. Timing is very important. If you run them through in a spring thaw or when it’s wet, they can do a lot of damage that literally takes years to remediate. But if you pick a very dry time in the middle of summer to run them through, they can be extremely beneficial.
Forest ecosystems in brittle environments are generally much more conducive to running cattle through simply because they’re much more sparse. Part of the reason is that the canopy is much less dense. Because it’s less opaque and more sunshine gets through, there’s more vegetation on the forest floor.
Where we are here in Virginia, the climax forest often has such a dense tree canopy that not a lot of light makes it to the forest floor. In the hardwood forests around here, you can drive a four-wheeler through forest for miles since there’s so little vegetation on the surface. I know now that this was abnormal five hundred years ago when the Native Americans regularly lit fires to open space up and allow light through—the savannah idea.
How do you keep minerals dry and available for daily moves?
Daniel: The Agri-Dynamics folks have a black tub with a floppy lid that works well. For our salt and Nutri-Balancer kelp mix, it doesn’t matter if it gets wet, so we just use a twenty-by-twenty-inch wood box, ten inches deep, made out of oak two-by-tens. We screw plywood to the bottom and fill it so it doesn’t leak. We toss it on the back of the four-wheeler when we move paddocks.
What factors push your herd into the barn?
Daniel: Our cows go to the barn when we run out of grass. By having fewer cows or more property, you can keep grazing. You can keep grazing by growing more annuals in the summer so more ground is at rest for the winter. As long as we have grass, we keep grazing.
The biggest thing for us, the humid climate and weather gets cold and then warms up with lots of rain, which leaches a lot of nutrients out of the grasses. In North Dakota, where it gets cold and stays cold, grass freeze-dries on the stalk and then it stays good all through the winter because it’s frozen, and it doesn’t leach because it’s dry. We’re not warm enough to grow year-round, but we’re not cold enough for it to freeze, so we’re kind of in a no-man’s land there.
Can cows dig through snow to forage?
Daniel: Yes, as long as it’s not iced over and the grass is long enough underneath to warrant them going down to get it, cows will dig through twelve, eighteen, even twenty-four inches of snow. If it’s in there and in good shape, cows will graze through a lot of snow to get to that grass.
Is it a good idea to graze a stockpiled stand of corn in the winter?
Daniel: There’s a toxin after frost hits grain, particularly corn. I’m not sure if it’s just during the frost period and then it’s okay when it’s dry, or if it’s permanent. For example, if there’s frost on the clover, cows can get bloat, but if it’s done and dried off, they can eat it.
Recognize that annuals don’t retain a lot of energy and proteins in their dry matter. They grow quickly, die off, and are quick to shed nutrients and proteins out of cell walls because they’re thin and fast growing. Perennials hold it a lot longer. Certainly there are nutrients in the corn heads and all that.
I would recommend trying to graze it before the frost when it’s green and vegetative. Keep perennials for winter grazing.
How would you start a herd from scratch?
Daniel: Go very, very local within your county or community, or certainly within your state or territory, so you can get something that is selected to your bioregion.
Is it going to be grain influenced, with some row cropping and pasture cropping to help them do well? Or are you just going to have them out on pasture all the time? That’s going to have a huge impact on what you’re going to do when you start out from scratch.
And if you’re doing grassfed, find an operation that does very little to zero grain. You can take a cruddy looking calf or cow and feed it all the grain it wants to eat, and they’re going to look great. I’ve bought plenty of those. You can’t see any sign of them being fed grain, you take them home and realize, oh man, these guys were getting fed grain at five, six, even seven pounds per day. They get on your grass system and you push them a little bit, and they just fall apart.
Why not black cattle?
Nathan wrote that there’s a strong demand for Black Angus, it gets ten cents more per pound at auctions, and it tastes delicious.
Daniel: That’s correct, if you sell at auctions. If you don’t sell at auctions, it doesn’t matter.
We have higher temperatures, and plenty of days in the summer it’s above 90°F (32°C) for weeks on end, with high humidity. The cattle get very, very hot. They’ve measured hide temperatures on black cows at 140°F (60°C) right next to red and white cows at 110°F (43°C). Shade-mobiles, trees for savannah, all that is great, but if you don’t have shade for every single paddock, then you need an animal that does well in the heat.
The fact is that the Angus breeders have done a very good job at branding and marketing. If you want to do a case study on an organization that has marketed itself well, look at Black Angus. Pick your breed, if you talk to any breed consultant anywhere, they’re going to say theirs tastes the best, period.
More important than the breed itself is to find a breed that works for you and your system, one that is productive and finishes well—fat and marbled and good quality—on your system and in your climate. If you’re up north and it’s colder, Black Angus might do excellently for you. I’m not against Black Angus specifically; I’m against them for me.
For me, I do a complete to-retail product. I got into Red Angus, Herefords, Red Crosses a little bit, and some Longhorn influence for the coloring, because if I’m buying cattle on the commodity market, I can save that 10 cents per pound and turn around and sell it at a retail amount and be more competitive because I’m not paying that extra 10- to 20-cent premium for Black Angus cattle. In the end, if I sell high-quality beef, whether it was black, purple, pink, or red, most customers don’t care.
Have you considered miniature cattle, like Lowline Angus, Mini Herefords, or Dexters?
Daniel: If you’re doing more edu-tainment and have lots of people out to the farm and you want smaller animals, or if you’re selling portion stuff to the restaurant and they want really small ribeyes, go for it.
But we want a cow that weighs 900–1,000 pounds at maturity, or a steer in prime condition at 900–1,100 pounds. In our climate, that’s very doable.
The Lowlines are good to an extent, but I’m going to draw the line at the Minis.
What can be done about bellowing cows?
Danielle wrote, “Our cows had shade from overhanging trees. There were mixed grasses and weeds—orchardgrass, alfalfa, fescue, timothy, yarrow, a few thistles, and some other broadleaf weeds. When we opened a new paddock, they would run in as if starving, and immediately settle and start grazing.
“The problem began midsummer as drought set in and they knew the routine. They’d start bawling toward the house and when I walked out they would run to the gate and bawl while waiting for me to open it. I’d open the gate, they’d go in, settle, and start grazing until the next afternoon, but the old paddock would sometimes have undisturbed, ungrazed sections.
“Perhaps the paddocks were a bit too large, and when the ice cream ran out, they wanted the new ice cream?”
Daniel: There are a lot of factors there. Depending on grass quality, they might actually be hungry.
Sometimes cows can become the boss really quickly and begin pushing you around as the farmer. They can become pretty dominant pretty quickly. Typically when that happens your pounds of animal per acre are not high enough; that is, your paddocks are too big.
You can move them on faster and keep them happy, but in the end you might get a mosaic grazing situation with stuff that’s left behind and stuff that’s totally grazed. Either move them in smaller paddocks more often, even two to three times per day in much smaller paddocks, or tighten up paddocks and just move them once per day.
I think the paddocks are probably a bit too large, and the cows are probably pushing Danielle around a bit.
How would you deal with pushy cows?
Daniel: For some, it’s just breaking the cycle. We took over some old momma cows recently who had been in a continuous grazing system their whole lives. It took them two or three months. Every time you would walk out of the house they would start bawling. They weren’t hungry at all, they were knee deep in grass, they just knew that if they bawled hard enough the old farmer we took them over from would come out and feed them something. Some of it is just ignoring them.
We also have that problem with cows that we move into a pasture that’s older or browner or has more weeds or is less palatable. They’ll complain for a day or two, then they realize, this is what I’m getting, I better deal with it or go hungry!
Keeping animals content is partly routine and partly matching their needs.
In response to Danielle’s problem with bellowing cows, Molly wrote, “My sheep would do this when I’d first put them out on grass after giving them alfalfa all winter. They would just bleat their hearts out. Eventually they realized that they’d be on the pasture until getting moved the next day. It usually takes a couple of weeks.”
Lydia commented, “Drought can have a very negative impact on pasture quantity and quality. Alfalfa usually does okay. Finishing programs, including those in Argentina, will use supplemental feed hay during droughts to maintain average daily gain.” But she agreed with the prevailing theory. “Yes, the paddocks might be too big, so there’s not enough competition among the cows.”
There’s no such thing as a mini mob.
Getting stocking densities high is one thing, Daniel said, but a mob is another. A minimum of a hundred head generates a genuine “mob” mentality, complete with its ravenous, primal, vegetation-chomping rush to eat anything and everything. But some people held out hope that a “mini mob” of fewer animals was somehow possible.
Lydia wrote, “‘Mini mob’ is an oxymoron. High density and mob are different. A mob only acts like a mob when it’s a mob. You can have high density with a few animals, but you can’t create mob mentality with only a few animals, even if you have them in a small space.
“The mob idea is really something that comes from management-intensive grazing in ranching where there are lots of animals involved, particularly where multiple herds are brought together to form one large herd. A mob will act differently than just a few animals. Think of thousands of bison moving across the prairie. In fact, once you have a mob, I’m told you may find some animals will not be able to compete and may fall out of the program.”
Lydia had recently attended a workshop with Jim Gerrish, a rancher in Missouri and author of Management-Intensive Grazing. “They move the cattle mob every two hours at a very high stocking density. That’s a true mob.”
Jerel asked, “Is it still beneficial to do daily moves with a small herd even though you can’t get the mob mentality going? The best grass I’ve ever seen around here would graze one cow per acre per year (365 cow-day grass).”
Lydia replied, “Even if you can’t ‘mob’ the animals, grazing at high density is still very important. We do not have what I would consider a mob on our farm, but we do use high densities and daily moves and see great results. It is important to understand why this type of grazing benefits the land, the plants, and the soil. A small number of animals just left to pick at what they want in large areas for long periods of time can do real damage.
“Don’t get caught up in what is considered to be mob grazing versus other forms of management-intensive grazing.”
Regardless of herd size, Lydia recommended works by Jim Gerrish, Allan Savory, Greg Judy, Allan Nation, Mark Bader, and articles in the Stockman Grass Farmer to learn more about holistic management and management-intensive grazing practices.
Intensive rotational grazing still works when the days get short and snow starts to fly.
In November, a participant with a new acreage in northwest Georgia wondered if it was too late to start grazing.
Paul wrote, “Your goal as a grazer is to reduce or eliminate hay feeding. Hay should only be a supplement, not a substitute feed, or it gets expensive very quickly. In Georgia you should have ryegrass coming out now. Mine in North Texas is about three to four inches tall, and I will start rotating the herd though that in a couple weeks. I should have green grazing through December, and hopefully have some stockpiled forage left for early January. Late January, the clovers start coming back, followed by the ryegrass again.
“Check with your local USDA NRCS office for tips on winter cover crops to graze. You may be a bit late to seed in your area, but it doesn’t hurt to check. I am going to spread some more clover out this week and may drill in some oats in February if we get some good rains this winter. I think I could even slip a cereal rye crop in this week and have some grazing from it.”
An NRCS soil scientist and urban homesteader with a menagerie, Chuck wrote, “In the Georgia climate, grazing year-round is possible. There may be some nitrogen volatilization from the manure, but overall it would negligible compared to other benefits. Your grass may go dormant, but your soil microbiology is not as slow moving as further north.”
If you are going to feed hay, Paul added, “I do all my hay feeding in the fields. This increases organic matter and fertilization of the fields with the least labor. Also, if my customers came and saw me feeding hay in a confinement barn they would not be happy. It’s a feedlot model with grass instead of grain, and not something they would support.”
Marianne wrote, “We always feed hay to our cows when they are on pasture—they self-serve to regulate their rumen function. On a fresh-grass-only diet, their manure can get really loose. We watch the cow pies to determine whether they need more roughage. In early spring, we will lock them in, make them eat some hay first, and then turn them out on the grass.”
Lydia wrote, “We experience a deep freeze in Manitoba. Our grasses lignify in September and October. Now, in November, we still have our animals in rotation and will graze until a decent snowfall. We are feeding a bit of hay now—we finish animals with high-quality alfalfa—but most of our animals have not had hay yet. We also have stockpiled grazing for early spring.
“This is another important reason for us to focus on diversity in our pastures, with both warm and cool season grasses. We bale graze out on the pastures, and find that if we leave enough stockpile to graze, animals will not only eat the bales, but will pick the tops of the grasses and dig through snow to the vegetation. We see pasture improvements where we bale graze.”
Cory S. has grazed a small number of cattle on Canada’s wet west coast from April through December. “With more space, I could be grazing longer, but I am limited by available pasture. Also, cows will definitely be harder on the land in the wet months.”
Lydia agreed, warning that in wet weather cows can cause “pugging,” that characteristic muddy hoof muck that damages pastures. “Mud and wet are really hard on animals. One of the most challenging times of year for livestock here in Manitoba is when we have a chance of rain while temperatures hover around freezing. We cross our fingers that we will have a quick transition into minus temps and dry snow.”
Certain breeds and breeding programs are better for grassfed systems.
Cory T. wrote, “I am raising Herefords, but my goal is to switch to a better grassfed breed. I’m sure there are better grassfed breeds, but I also think any breed can have good grassfed gains bred back into it. I want cattle that get good gains on grass, are docile, and are smaller-framed.”
Lydia recommended Gearld Fry’s cattle genetics work on the Bovine Engineering site. After taking a workshop with him, she reported:
- You need cows that produce a high percentage of butterfat to get the gain and development you need in calves.
- For optimal growth, do not wean calves until ten months of age.
- Start keeping your own bulls.
- The herd can only be improved through selective breeding, not culling—culling removes from the bottom, it doesn’t add to the top.
Lydia wrote, “I would say Herefords are a good foundational breed for grass. They are typically smaller framed, and there are good Hereford grass-based bulls out there. The Lakota Bull Test runs Hereford bulls as part of their grass bull test. If you are breeding a large-framed Hereford, then perhaps you need to find some grass-based Hereford bulls and breed them down in size.”
Estimate the weight of cuts you’ll get, and get your own animals back from the abattoir.
Paul wrote, “I usually get a 60 percent hanging weight on my thousand-pound English breed beeves, but I plan using 50–55 percent. From a 600-pound hanging weight carcass I get around 400–410 pounds of retail packaged beef, so roughly 40 percent of live weight is in standard retail cuts.
“You can probably expect another ten pounds or so of organ meats, ten to thirty pounds of soup bones, ten to twenty pounds of fat for tallow, a tongue, and so on. I get most of these but don’t factor them in to my pricing because they are slow sellers and we end up using them ourselves or giving them as extras.”
Lee-Anne had a difficult story. “A few years ago we had a lovely heifer, but the carcass we got back from the processor was a smaller animal. Unfortunately, no one would help us, not the meat inspection department or anyone else. The owner of the abattoir was difficult to reach, and when we did he insisted he’d done nothing wrong and claimed the butcher must have switched it. We had no recourse.”
Lydia wrote, “We have heard of this happening to others and we do concern ourselves with it. On our end, we keep track of all of our animals with a double tagging system and then ask the processor to use a corresponding letter to the tag. We weigh our animals going out and compare it to the hanging weights and the weight of cuts coming back.
“We use a smaller facility with only a few staff, so we hope that they have everything in place to keep all of the animals in order.
“I sometimes feel frustrated with the limited processing options. In the coming years it might be our bottleneck. I hate to work so hard to create a premium product only to leave the animal under the management of a group of people who may not understand our market or what we have worked so hard to achieve.”
Lee-Anne wrote, “The laws in British Columbia say that even if I get my animals done at licensed, inspected facilities, the minute I pick the meat up, transport, and store it, I am forbidden to sell it because I am not a licensed transport or storage facility. If I want to buy food from the grocery store and prepare and sell it, however, it’s no problem because I have my government Food Safe course and certificate. It seems this province is particularly anti-small-farmer-making-a-living.”
Paul wrote, “I have to pay $200-plus each year to Texas to be a licensed food manufacturer, but that allows me to sell meat with my name on it, and to warehouse my food on my licensed property. It’s just a cost of doing business that needs to be figured into your prices.”
This excerpt is just a few pages of the 256-page guidebook which accompanies The Salatin Semester. We hope that reading the above selection on cattle illustrates the depth of practical information passed along by Joel, Daniel and the questioners themselves.