Ups and downs

Ranching sure has its ups and downs.

Yesterday I got the phone call no cattle man wants to get. 

“Your cows are out in [the neighbor’s] soybeans.”

Good golly.  I had just moved them into a new pasture earlier that day. What could possibly cause them to get out. A broken gate, that’s what.   I had driven through that gate three times the day before and it was fine then. The broken gate was the result of summer lovin’, bovine style.  Looks like they bunched in a corner fighting flies, while the bulls we’re trying to put the moves on hot cows. It’s less than romantic. And rather hard on wire gates, and subsequently soybean fields.  What’s worse, the only time our cows seem to get out is when they are next to this guy’s fields. I’d rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than have to call him again to tell him my cows stomped on his crops.  The only positive thing I could glean from the incident was being thankful it was soybeans and not seven foot tall corn. 

But ranching also has its ups.  Like tonight. Tonight I ate a home-raised steak for supper. That’s all.   Just a steak.  And some toast I guess. It was that good.   I didn’t want to ruin it with any other food. I have had the good fortune to eat a $85 filet Mignon (and not have to pay for it).  This steak was not quite worth $85, but neither was the filet.  No food is worth 85 bucks. But this steak I grilled tonight,  it was amazing. I was going to take a picture of it’s perfect gradient of caramelized outer decadence turning to 155-degree juicy medium-doneness in the middle (it was 145 when I took it off the grill) flanked by two pieces of diagonally-sliced buttered toast and a big, cold glass of milk… but I ate it. All of it.  It was not just a meal, it was an experience.  And I got to share it with my wife and kids. I feel bad for them,  because some day we will be at the supper table and I’ll be telling them, “kids, this would be an $85 meal in town so you better enjoy it. And no you can NOT have ketchup on your steak!”

A Grazing Experiment

One very important aspect of running a ranch is knowing how much forage you have available to your animals and how much they will need.  I devised an Excel spreadsheet that uses these two things along with how big a pasture is to give an estimate on how long the cattle can stay in a pasture without overgrazing it. 

This came in really handy when we decided to do a little more intensive grazing with the heifers.  They got moved into a set of pastures that wasn’t grazed at all last year so there was an abundance of food available to them.  The goal was to try to get them to utilize more of the standing forage and trample the rest which would speed up the nutrient cycle and make more nutrients available to the plants next year. 

We wanted the heifers to stay in each small paddock for approximately three days.  I measured how much grass was available to the heifers by using a grazing stick.  It looks like a yard stick and it is used to measure the height of the grasses.  Then you take into account how much the grass weights per inch based on the type of grasses that are in the pasture, and how efficiently the cows will use this grass to come up with a number that tells how much grass will be available in the pasture. 

The next step is to take the number of cows that will be in the pasture and figure out how much they will eat in one day based on their weight.  Lastly, I knew that we wanted to keep the cows in a small paddock for three days, so using how much they would eat in three days and how much was available to them I was able to determine how many acres of pasture they would need.  It turned out that the heifers needed about 3 ½ acres for three days of grazing. 

We first moved the heifers to this pasture on July 3rd.  We wanted to make a paddock large enough to hold them for six days because we did not want to have to move them over the holiday weekend.  I built the temporary fence while Luke brought them over in the trailer.  We gave them range cake (pictured below) which is a large pellet-like treat for the cows.  If they get used to getting this treat you can use it as a tool to move them from place to place.  The goal is to get them familiar with the sound of the cake rattling in a bucket and then they will follow the person with the bucket because they know they will get a treat.  The first day we didn’t need to get them to follow, but we gave them cake to get them used to the taste.

On July 8th the cows needed to be moved.  I set up another temporary fence to create the south boundary of the second paddock, and the first fence that I put up would be the north boundary.  After that I had to herd the heifers into the penned in area by the water tank so I could put up a little lane that they would use to get back to the water tank and which would keep them out of the areas that they had grazed already.  Well, they weren’t yet as used to the cake as I would have liked, because they did not follow me.  In fact, they went the complete opposite direction.  I remembered that Luke told me once that cows will move better if they think it’s their idea to move.  So I let them go where they wanted because they would find a fence in about 500 feet or so.  So they wandered to that fence which was the farthest they could go in the wrong direction.  When they found out they couldn’t go any farther they slowly turned as a herd and went the other direction.  I then walked behind them and slowly but surely we made it back to the water tank and I was able to give them some cake and lock them in by the water so I could finish building my fence.  The whole process of moving them probably took me 45 minutes.  I’m sure it would have taken Luke 10. 

The picture below is of the first grazed paddock on the left and an ungrazed pasture on the right.


This is the first grazed paddock on the left and the second ungrazed paddock on the right.

These are the same two paddocks, just on the opposite sides.

I fenced the second paddock to allow for three days of grazing.  On the third day Luke and I went out to check the heifers and we realized they still had enough grass to graze one more day.  The next day I came to build the third fence, extend the lane, and take down the first fence.  I built the third fence which was now the south boundary for the third paddock.  I shortened the east and west sides by 25 feet in the hopes that it would cut the grazing time back down to three days rather than four.  The plan was to move the cows into the third paddock by unhooking one side of the temporary fence and then herding them to that corner where they would easily walk through the gap.  Not surprisingly, they did not want to go where I wanted them to.  So I let them go where they wanted like the last time hoping that they would get to the far side and then turn around.  About half way across the pasture they decided they wanted to go through the fence that was up.  The fence was not energized because I was working on it, so they did not get shocked when they went through it.  Another failed move. 

This is the second grazed paddock and the third ungrazed paddock.

This is a closeup of the trampled and eaten grass in the second paddock.  You can see that there is a lot of dead brown stuff, which is what we call litter from the plants last year.  This litter was not able to break down as well as it would have if there had been cows grazing it last year.  By stepping on it and adding natural fertilizer from the cows, it increases the speed at which it breaks down by getting it closer to the soil which contains all of the beneficial microorganisms that break down organic matter.

Finally on the third move I got it right.  By this time they were used to getting cake.  Several in the herd would eat it out of my hands, so I would lure those few in the direction I wanted them to go using the cake as a reward when they came my way.  Soon the rest of the herd was left behind, and being a herd animal, they didn’t want to be separated from the rest.  So eventually they all followed me to where I wanted them to go.  When we got everyone into the next paddock I gave them all cake as a reward. 

This is the third and final grazed pasture next to the ungrazed rest of the pasture on the left.

The pasture was big enough to make several more small paddocks, but Luke was going to be out-of-state for a week, and I was going to be gone for two weekends and for a Monitoring Workshop.  So we decided to turn them into the rest of the pasture, and then next year Luke could look at the differences in regrowth between the small paddocks the rest of the pasture.  

This is a view of the second paddock in the foreground, the third paddock in the midground, and the last ungrazed piece of pasture in the background. 

The next picture is a closeup of the area where a temporary fence was.  The cattle wouldn't graze under it because they could get a shock if they got too close.


Weed Training

I have honorarily earned the title of “Teacher” this summer.  My so-called students are a herd of 50 yearling heifers and I am trying to get them to eat Canada Thistle. 


The teaching started by placing short black barrels in their pasture, approximately one for every three cows to create competition.  These barrels are supposed to pique their curiosity because they cannot see what is in them.  So what does a curious heifer do?  They stick their heads in the barrels. 

Once they know there is something tasty in the barrels they are more likely to keep coming back.  For five days each morning I fed them a different tasty treat in these barrels to condition them to the fact that unfamiliar foods can be good.  On the sixth day I mixed thistles in with a food that they have previously tried and liked.  Initially the heifers crowded around the barrels to see what was new, and when they stuck their heads in and encountered a pokey food they did not seem so excited.  Gradually they stuck their heads back in and started gobbling up the feed that was mixed with the thistles.  This was good because even if they weren’t trying to eat the thistles they were bound to put them in their mouths at some point if they were licking around the barrels.  Also, the other cows that couldn’t fit their heads in the barrels got curious and pushed their way to the barrels so they could try too.  Eventually I caught a few cows with thistles hanging out of their mouths. 

Luke went back to check out the barrels later in the afternoon and they were all licked clean!  Because of this great success we decided to give them only thistles the seventh day instead of mixing them with feed again.  Once again, when the cows felt something pokey they weren’t so excited.  Very few were eating them when I left to go do other chores.  But Luke checked the barrels again that evening and saw that they were pretty well cleaned up, so we called it a success.

The same group of heifers were moved to a new pasture that had a high buckbrush, or western snowberry, population so Luke decided we needed to try to get them to eat that as well since the training was so fresh in their minds. 

On the first day I took the barrels out and put corn in them just to get them used to the idea of coming to the barrels again.  However, they didn’t come to greet me when I took the barrels in, so I was a little worried they wouldn’t find them.  But the next day the corn had been partially eaten so I put their first serving of buckbrush in the barrels with a little bit of some different feed.  Once again they didn’t come see what was in the barrels right away, so after a little while I left.  The second say I saw that there was most of the buckbrush cleaned up, but some was still in the barrels.  So I emptied the barrels and put more weeds and a little less feed in them.  That day I cut weeds right next to the barrels in the pasture they were in.  I figured it might get them to come and see what was in the barrels. 

The last morning the weeds were mostly cleaned up again so I decided to cut more weeds near the barrels because the cows weren’t anywhere nearby.  Turns out that partway through cutting I looked up to see the whole herd moving my way.  Most of them checked out the barrels, and when they realized nothing was in them they came and looked at me while I was cutting.  They walked right into the patch of buckbrush that I was cutting in and started eating the grass that was growing between the shrubs.  I was excited the day before when I saw that there had been some trampling in the buckbrush patches, but then I realized that they were probably eating the grass and not the buckbrush.  Eventually they lost interest in me and the herd moved on to a greener part of the pasture.  When I finished I put the weeds in the barrels and hoped they would come back.  Turns out they did come back, but more was left in the barrels than we would have liked to see.  Maybe the buckbrush was not a success. 

A few weeks ago we moved the heifers into a new pasture that has plenty of maturing thistles in it, but they are not eating them.  It might be because it has been a while since the training, or maybe because these thistles are older and bigger than the ones I harvested for them when I trained them.  So the barrels have been moved yet again to see if we can reintroduce them to the pokey Canadian Thistle.