August 21, 2023
Practical Serengeti Part III; Early Summer

A simple definition of Regenerative Grazing

Grazing is "regenerative" (“Holistic”, “Total”, or any other eco-adjective) when it mimics the grazing dynamics of the Serengeti Ecosystem. I know this is not a perfect definition but I am afraid it is the best one available. If you disagree I am happy to discuss in the comments. Looking to the Serengeti for practical grazing wisdom has solved a lot of tricky production problems for me. At the same time, it has offered opportunities to increase biodiversity in my management.

I describe how grazing animals move around the Serengeti, and I describe how I operationalize that information on the ranch in a series of previous blog posts .  In this post I discuss how I manage cattle and grass in early summer.  The ranch is in a place that couldn’t be more different than the Serengeti, the Oregon Coast.

There are reasons we think in seasons

In these two final blog posts, I am going to deal with summer, which I divide into two parts. Early summer runs from June 15th to about August 1st and late summer runs from August 1st to September 15th. During summer the grass responds to management in a similar way, and it responds quite differently in spring (March 15 to June 15) and winter (September 15 to March 15). I’m dividing it in two because my management is very different in early summer than in late summer. I am not saying that your seasons line up with those on the Oregon Coast. Seasons on the Oregon Coast certainly don’t line up with seasons on the Serengeti. However, I can still use the Serengeti as my model. 

To Understand Summer, you have to understand spring

Last blog post (which you might want to read) I talked about how in spring, my management was dominated by the grass’ tendency to try to make a seedhead. Every season has its upside and its downside. In spring recovery time is extremely fast on the Oregon Coast, but if you stop paying attention for a second the nice lush grass becomes tall, coarse, stemmy, and full of seedheads. My whole management was focused on keeping some grass nice and vegetative. I was going to keep some grass lush and “pasture-like” and I was not going to let anything get in the way of that goal, even if that meant letting some grass completely ‘go.’ And when the grass goes on the Oregon Coast, oh man, it really goes. Last year, which was very wet in my flood-prone pastures, I had well over a hundred acres of grass that was over six feet tall by June 15th. My neighbors thought it was a wreck. But I wasn’t copying them. I was copying the Serengeti.

Summer has its own advantages and disadvantages

Now, spring on the Oregon Coast is like a beer. The advantages are all on the front end and the disadvantages only become apparent later. It can be intoxicating and you can lose track of some things in the process. In contrast, summer is like hard work and saving; it seems pretty unpalatable before you get into it and only when you are most of the way through can you learn to appreciate it. The thing that makes it difficult is how rapid the transition is between spring and summer. In my six years of managing on the Oregon Coast, I really felt like I could mark it on the calendar; paddocks that were grazed on June 15th needed at least twice as much recovery as those that were grazed on June 1st. That is the downside of summer, the growth rate is half or less that of spring. This was not because of temperature or moisture, these pastures were irrigated and summer days on the Oregon Coast rarely get above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This is exactly when the days start getting shorter instead of longer, but I don’t really know why growth slows at this time of year. 

I am not saying the quality of the feed goes down at this point, it doesn’t, or not noticeably. Also, this pattern would not be obvious if you were looking at the absolute volume of forage. On that measure, June 15th is the absolute best. It's the growth rate that changes. If you are not watching each paddock like a hawk, you might not notice until three weeks later, when you were about to go into a paddock that did not have enough recovery. At this point standing forage is at its peak, growth rates overnight have been cut in half, but demand, how much the cattle need to eat, is higher than ever.

If I was mimicking my neighbors…

So what do you do about this? There are a few ways. My set-stocked neighbors deal with this issue by selling half their cattle in early July. My dairy neighbors cut a bunch of silage in the spring and graze the regrowth in summer. Both of these actually work reasonably well. Since my customers need grass in the summer, all summer, and since my pastures flood making it difficult for me to get equipment on them in time to make high-quality silage, I did it a different way. Oh yeah, and also because I mimic the Serengeti as best I can.

Now contrast this with my eco-grazing neighbors. They pretend that nothing is happening, or don’t notice that something is happening. They keep rotating at the same speed in spring and don’t drop any pastures. They move from one pasture to the next in order. When they get to the end and start again. Since the growth rate went through the roof for a month, all their pastures got away. Then all summer, they just keep moving the cattle through all that junk at “regular” density. The cattle don’t do well and they complain, so the people keep moving them faster. As a result, the unpalatable rush and sedge increase rapidly at the expense of the good grass. Also, it looks terrible. Another result of this is that when my set-stocked neighbor and my dairy neighbor drive past at 60 miles per hour, all they say is “Well, that (eco-grazing stuff) didn’t work.” And they're right. Even from an eco-grazing perspective, the set-stocked guy and the dairy guy have pastures that more closely resemble the Serengeti than the self-proclaimed eco-grazers. 

Now of course they said a similar thing about my pasture but I think they would be the first to say that there was something different about what I was doing. I had a lot of grass that had seedheads, but if you got out of the truck and looked at it, it was very leafy, and two-thirds of my pastures looked amazing by their own standards. I had a set-stocked guy show up at my door at one point in the season and ask for a pasture tour. He said he drives past every day and my cattle were always laying down. He said, “even dairy cattle never lay down anymore.”

Together, the disadvantages of spring and the disadvantages of summer become a new advantage

I use the disadvantage of spring (more feed than I can utilize, which has become lower quality) to offset the disadvantage of summer (growth rates have slowed by half), without missing out on the advantages of either. In the Serengeti, at the beginning of the dry season (also in June/July) grass growth rates have similarly plunged. To deal with this, the wildebeest and zebra enter the mid grass plains in the central part of the ecosystem, where there has been very little grazing activity since last year, and the grass is very tall. They march through very slowly, shoulder to shoulder, not daring to get in front of the wildebeest next to them because they are afraid of the lions that are lurking in the tall grass. They don’t do this all year, only for about a month or six weeks. Coincidentally, this is about how long I keep my cattle at density.

Last year, at first, I didn’t make the mental transition fast enough. I put them in a five acre pasture and it should have been obvious to me that the grass had gotten away from me. When I came back the next day, it looked the same as it did the day before, except there were cattle trails going through the tall grass. The grass will not recover in the way I want it to if it is grazed like this. If you see this one morning when you show up to move cattle, don’t ignore it. 

Which is what I did. Right around June 15th, I flew into action. I set up all my high-density grazing infrastructure and moved them into a one-acre paddock. I stopped forgetting about all the tall grass because suddenly, it was the best grass I had. I had waited until the grass stems were brittle enough to kink over when stepped on, instead of just springing back. I try to either graze grass before the stem gets hard and leaf spacing increases, or wait until after the stems are brittle enough to bend. This usually happens around when the grass starts to tassel.  

I use high-density grazing to do a very specific job, to lay down grass that has gotten away from me, and to have areas of dense feed to bridge the gap between spring’s ultra-fast growth rates and summer's moderate growth rates. I don’t use it for anything else. 

It is not whether but how you do high density

High-density grazing can create a lot of problems. Don’t ignore the problems. Sometimes I hear people recommend on Facebook that you just shut cattle into a paddock and put earplugs in so you can’t hear them bawl. That is definitely not what I do. 

When I first put the cattle in at density, they weren’t very happy. I moved them to a new one-acre paddock, but they still weren’t happy. They didn’t bawl or anything crazy like that, they were just antsy. They would walk over to me when I showed up, I hate it when they do that and won’t tolerate it. They were milling around more than they should have. Stockmanship is being able to see this sort of stuff happen and not ignore it. 

Now, there are different things that could be happening here. Maybe the grass is really low quality so they can starve to death in knee-high grass. That is a real possibility and shouldn’t be ignored. I wasn’t worried about them dying (though it is also amazing how quickly they can start getting sick at density) but I can’t afford to have them not gain any weight for a month either. But it was early in the season and the material was actually extremely leafy underneath the seedheads and I was hardly making them eat any of it. 

I moved the cattle as soon as they had more or less laid all the grass on the ground. I did this for the cattle, sure. They are able to select what they want while still making sure that regrowth will be strong and even. But I also do it for the grass. My objective is not to get the most possible animal days from the junk. My objective is to lay the junk down as quickly as possible so that those paddocks can start growing good forage. Then as quickly as possible move on to impact to the next paddock. I only have a few months for all this material to regrow before the season is over. 

I estimate that I didn’t take more than 25% of the available above-ground biomass. I figure that if I don’t take more Animal Days from the paddocks I let get tall than I took from the paddocks that I kept short during that same period, I will be okay. But despite leaving more (I think way more) than 75% of the grass, I still got about 85 animals days to the acre. So my first guess was that my problem didn’t come down to forage quality and I wasn’t going to give up on density just yet.

People are emotional eaters, why wouldn’t cattle be?

Sometimes cattle just aren’t used to a new thing. When this happens, I don’t leave the cattle to stew in that feeling. I think that is really bad for them. But I am often not quite sure what to do. So, I took the cattle for an easy walk. Eventually, this settled them down, and importantly, it settled me down. When they are stressed it makes you stressed, whether you realize it or not, and you don’t think well as a result. After I get a walk, I always feel better and so do the cattle. I realized what should have been obvious, there just wasn’t quite enough space in each paddock. So, I gave them 2 acres at a time instead of one. If a steer found himself next to a bossy neighbor, he can get away without bumping into another bossy neighbor. As soon as I did this they all settled down and in an hour the cattle were all laying down, showing me that it had never been about being hungry. When I came back the next morning the paddock looked identical to the two previous acres, so I called it good. The objective is not to get more pounds per acre of density than your Facebook friends. The objective is to mimic the Serengeti, as best you can. 

Spring goes with summer

There is something about the rhythm of high-density grazing that can be a little addictive. When you are organized and the cattle know what to expect, yesterday’s paddock was perfect and so was the day before and I don’t want to break my streak. This is good; make it the best you can, but don’t get hypnotized by that feeling. One day I shook the stars out of my eyes and realized that not only was June over but half of July was as well. The tall grass of spring had slowed down their march from one end of the ranch to the other, like an ecological runaway truck ramp. As a grazing manager, one of your most important jobs is to make the disadvantages of spring meet the disadvantages of summer in a way where a new advantage is born. 

In Oregon, high-density grazing was one of the tools in my toolbox for this project. I wasn’t afraid to use it when I needed it, but I didn’t let my identity get mixed up in it. I pick it up when I need it and put it back down when I am done with it. 

Well if you got to the end of that very long blog post and still want more, then I am proud to call you a fellow grazing geek and a true Facebook friend. I will send out the conclusion to this next week. I promise It won’t be five months.