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Rethinking Our Livestock Focus

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! The following excerpt is from Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture (Chelsea Green Publishing July 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

For several years after the disaster years, I continued to focus on animal performance in the management of our cattle herd. But as the years went by, I started to realized that some of my livestock management practices could be made more holistic, too. Because I had been focusing on animal performance, the mature size of our cows had grown ridiculously large. By 2007, they averaged over 1,400 pounds! It was costing way too much money to feed those animals. I noticed that the few small mature cows we had left were always in good condition and they always bred back. Observing this led me to an important change in my thinking (which, as I’ve already pointed out, is more important than the “doing”): The size of our cows no longer matched the environment. They were too big! For twenty-six years I had been raising and selling registered bulls. I touted numbers—weaning weights, yearling weights, or EPDs. I came to the realization that those numbers were basically meaningless when it came to determining profitability. What mattered was having cows that could convert forages to meat on my operation. The focus of the production model I was using—on continually increasing pounds— had led us down the wrong path. We needed to focus on profit per acre, not pounds of animal produced.

We began to select bulls and replacement heifers born from smaller cows that had been in the herd for at least four years. We started breeding this herd to bulls with smaller frame scores. This helped us bring the frame size down and move our herd toward the type of cattle that could graze longer throughout the year and required less “groceries” to keep them going. Reading Walt Davis’s book How to Not Go Broke Ranching and Chip Hines’s book How Did We Get It So Wrong taught me a lot about the fallacies of the traditional beef production model. I just wish I had read their books early in my ranching career.

Along with the downsizing of mature cow size came other changes in management. I have never butchered a beef animal and found a gizzard inside. So I asked myself, Why am I feeding these animals grain? That is not how ruminants evolved. We were already raising some grass-finished beef for our own consumption, due to the health benefits of eating grass-fed meat, so why feed the remainder of our herd grain? This realization led to a major change in our business. Our February 2009 bull sale was our last. Our customers were puzzled when we informed them that we were getting out of the bull business. They did not understand that it did not meet our holistic goals, one of which was farming and ranching in nature’s image.

We also decided to stop using wormers, fly-tags, and the long list of vaccines. These products were Band-aids treating symptoms. They were not solving the real problem, which was a dysfunctional ecosystem. That summer we waited until July to turn out the bulls with the cows, so that the cows would calve in April instead of the extremely cold weather of February and March. Instead of maintaining six separate herds, we reduced to three (each with multiple bulls), and we shortened the breeding season to sixty days. We also started moving the herds more frequently, thanks to our newly built grazing system. This allowed us to run higher stock densities while allowing longer recovery periods.

We began to select bulls and replacement heifers born from smaller cows that had been in the herd for at least four years.

In 2010, we pushed our breeding season back even further; we waited until the first week of August to turn out the bulls. The cows were exposed to the bulls for only forty-five days. We combined all the animals into one herd, which allowed us to address our resource concerns even further.

When the 2011 calving season arrived, I knew we were finally in sync with nature. We were calving during the time of year when the deer were having their fawns. By changing our calving date, we no longer had to worry about blizzards, mud, ice, sick calves, dirty udders, frozen ears, confinement, stressed cattle, stressed people, bedding corrals, babysitting first-calf heifers, and bragging about how hard we work. The cows calved in a nice, clean environment on a high level of nutrition and the calves were very healthy. Making these changes were some of the best management decisions we have ever made on our ranch.

A More Natural Way of Weaning

One important point about our management is that we do not wean our calves in the fall. The heifer calves need to learn how to become cows that can thrive in our environment. As the calves graze alongside their mothers all winter, they learn which plants to eat and which to avoid. They also learn from their mothers how to tell if a storm is approaching and how to trail back to the farmyard for protection. They learn how to use snow as their water source. (We do allow them to access water from a winter water supply in the farmyard, but most of our cows will not travel for water as long as snow is available.)

In early April, we fence-line wean the calves. This is a simple process of splitting the calves away from their mothers and keeping them apart with an electric fence separating them. The calves can see the cows, they can even touch noses, but the fence prevents them from nursing. The calf is content, the cow is content, life is good. We set up this arrangement in a way that requires the cows to walk a distance away from the fence in order to graze. After one or two trips back to check their calf, they get tired of walking and just stay out grazing. Four or five days later, we move the calves out to a paddock where we stockpiled forage during the previous growing season. The calves are used to grazing this type of forage, and they take right off. We find that the calves stay healthy using this strategy. Weaned calves, the easy way!

The calves graze on perennial pastures and are moved once a day until early August. At that time, we separate the steers from the heifers, and the heifers are exposed to bulls for thirty days. After thirty days, the bulls are pulled, and the steers are put back with the heifers. This allows us to graze at higher stock density and also lessens the workload. People often ask why we don’t run all of the cattle— cows, calves, and yearlings—together. From an ecological perspective it would be better to do so, but due to the fact that our land is not contiguous, it would be too time consuming and laborious to load them all up into trailers and move them several times during the growing season.

In early December we determine if the heifers are pregnant through ultrasound. Those that are pregnant are grouped with the mature cows. Those that are not go on to be grass-finished. We do not check the mature cows for pregnancy. What advantage would it serve? Even if some cows were not pregnant, we would not choose to cull them at that time, because then we would have to take care of the weaned calves. Extra work like that is not what we are looking for. Instead, we run all the cows, open or not, with their calves on them throughout the winter. After weaning time, the cows graze on fresh new grass growth. They flesh up well, and any open cows really get fat. In late June we set up some portable panels in the pasture and pull any cow that does not have a calf nursing on her. She was open or she lost a calf at birth, but either way, it’s a sign that we should not keep her in the herd. Those cows are hog fat, and when is the hamburger market booming? Right around the Fourth of July, of course! We save the expense of pregnancy testing, and we have excellent hamburger meat to market at a more lucrative time of the year instead of selling open cows in December when prices are low.

We never give open animals a second chance. They are sold, period. We select for animals that can perform in our environment, which helps to ensure profitability.

We like to keep our cowherd constant at around three hundred head. Yearlings are the variable. I like to think of them as our drought insurance policy. We run more yearlings in good forage years and fewer in years of lower forage production, ensuring that we keep our grasslands healthy. We are also able to maintain our cowherd in years of lower forage production. Because of this, yearling numbers vary between two hundred and four hundred head. In addition, we grassfinish between one hundred fifty and three hundred head per year.

About the Author:

Gabe Brown is a pioneer of the soil-health movement and has been named one of the twenty-five most influential agricultural leaders in the United States. Brown, his wife, Shelly, and son, Paul, own Brown’s Ranch, a holistic, diversified 5,000-acre farm and ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota. The Browns integrate their grazing and no-till cropping systems, which include cash crops and multi-species cover crops along with all-natural, grass-finished beef and lamb, pastured pork, and laying hens. The Brown family has received a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year Award.