Grazing for Good

By Jill J. Dunkel


A holistic planned grazing system utilized by two Texas ranchers improves the land and profit opportunities.

It’s a busy time of year at Birdwell and Clark Ranch. A few times a day, Emry Birdwell, his wife, Deborah Clark, and their crew ease out amongst close to 5,000 head of cattle and move the herd from one grazing cell to another. It’s a process that has taken place hundreds of times since the cattle arrived at the ranch last fall. Simply put, the ranch practices rotational grazing, but for Birdwell and Clark, it’s much more than that.

Holistic planned grazing, as the couple refers to it, consists of 140 paddocks on the 14,200-acre ranch, ranging in size from 40 to 120 acres. Some of those paddocks are subdivided two and three times, depending on the forage quality and quantity. The cattle, a single herd that averages year-to-year about 5,000 head, graze in a paddock for a few hours before moving to the next one. That paddock then goes into a resting phase while the forage recovers and grows again. At the heart of the couple’s system is flexibility – adapting a plan based on available forage and environmental conditions.

Traditional rotational grazing often is reduced to regular animal shifts from one grazing cell to another based on a strict time schedule, rather than a response to the environmental conditions, remaining forage, growth and other factors. This is where the Birdwell and Clark Ranch takes things a few steps further.

The Plan

Learning from the teachings of individuals like range science expert Allan Savory, co-founder of Holistic Management International and later the Savory Institute, who redefined and further developed the idea of holistically planned grazing, the Birdwell and Clark Ranch grazing plan is always a work in progress, adapting to the rainfall, the growing season and other factors.

Emry began a planned grazing strategy in the early 1980s on another ranch. When he and Deborah purchased the current ranch eight miles east of Henrietta, Texas, he knew it could be a good place to continue the planned grazing concept.

They spent considerable time tearing out the dilapidated permanent fencing and replacing it with 150 miles of electric wire. Additional paddocks were then created with polywire and step-in posts. One 32 joule energizer that’s rated for 250 miles powers all of the electric fencing. It’s stationary and is capable of operating the whole ranch. The couple also has a 3 joule solar energizer that is used for “spot duty.”

Initially they divided the ranch into thirds, and grazed small paddocks in each section with three herds of cattle. But the drought of 2011 forced Emry to rethink his plan as water for the cattle dried up. On the advice of Savory, he combined the cattle into one large herd and focused getting water to a central area rather than three separate locations on the ranch. Emry laid water lines from water sources to areas that were lacking. He developed a mobile water trough that could be connected to the water line in any given grazing paddock to water the entire herd.

Those necessary changes turned out to be the best decision for the rangeland. By concentrating the entire herd in one area, the impact to the active grazing cell was greater (more grazing, tromping and natural fertilizer). Plus a grazed cell had more time to rest, recover and grow.

“Moving to a single, large herd allowed us to increase the recovery period across the ranch. It worked so well, we never looked back,” Deborah said. Pictures show the results. Satellite imagery available via software like Google Maps show the ranch in 2012. Bare spots once void of forage are now covered in grass. In fact, they use Google Maps as a teaching tool when groups tour the ranch.

“Emry will have them pull up Google Maps and zoom in on a bare spot,” Deborah explained, “and then will tell them that’s exactly where they are standing now, knee deep in grass and forage. The couple estimates that 95 percent of bare areas in 2012 are now covered in forage, thanks to the impact of the massive herd.

A 7-foot long PVC pipe with grooves cut in the end raises the electric fence wire, allowing the cattle to easily move to the next grazing cell without having to drive the cattle to a gate.

The Herd

The couple spends September through early December acquiring approximately 5,000 head of 500-pound stocker cattle. Once the herd is healthy, they begin their trek across the 14,200-acre ranch, grazing small paddocks for a few hours at a time. Depending on environmental factors, the cattle can be moved as often as every three hours during the day.

In the fall, cattle are moved via horseback while they learn the system. Once the herd is trained, they can be moved from paddock to paddock with vocal cues. Instead of relying on a network of gates between each paddock, Emry unhooks several insulators from the steel post and slides the insulators down the electric wire out of the way. He then uses a 7-foot PVC pipe ‘riser’ with grooves cut in one end to raise the electric wire. With the electric fence elevated well above the cattle, they walk in an orderly fashion to the next grazing cell. The riser elevates the wire for approximately 100 feet for the cattle to pass under, which is plenty of room for the herd. The entire process takes about 20 minutes.

“The riser allows me to move the cattle based on where they are at. You don’t have to call them down to the gate,” Emry explained. “Plus, if it gets wet and all 5,000 head are coming through the gate, that area can get really bogged down. With the pipe riser, you go to the cattle.”

The herd grazes from fall until early July. In the winter, each grazing paddock is only used once, but during the peak growing season from mid-March until mid-June or early July, paddocks are allowed 55 to 60 days of recovery before the cattle graze it again. Toward the end of the grazing season, the herd migrates through paddocks near the shipping pens. In July, the cattle are shipped in approximately five days or roughly 1,000 head per day.

The cattle gain around 300 pounds during their stay on the ranch. “Our per-head gain may not be as great as someone else’s. Someone that’s using conventional grazing will gain more per head than we will,” Emry said. “But we are gaining more pounds per acre with the same overhead. We could graze 1,000 head or 5,000 head with the same overhead. The only thing that will go up is the direct cost of the cattle.”

His advice: learn about the system before you jump in with both feet. “Everybody reads about this and thinks they can throw their cattle together, start rotating and double their cattle. The first mistake they make is trying to double it too fast,” he said. “You’ve got to understand how fast your grass will grow or not grow. This is a 60-day area, but you go 70 miles west and it’s a 70-day area. East of here, it’s less.”

There are a variety of seminars available, and Emry and Deborah strongly encourage them. “There are a plethora of resources out there, but it doesn’t mean every one will fit you,” Deborah said. “However, you can start to look at things in a way to produce more benefits than traditional grazing.”

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