Good land management and stewardship are critical in raising good animals and creating a healthy ecosystem for everyone. We predominately raise our cattle on two settings: irrigated pasture and high desert rangeland. On our irrigated pasture we use management intensive grazing practices and on the high desert we use the basic rotation that the BLM has enforced.
We are very blessed to have some irrigated pasture land (also called meadows). What this means is that we are able to water our fields throughout the summer through a system of canals, channels and ditches. This is only possible because of a reservoir that was built in the 1970’s, prior to the reservoir people irrigated out of the creek, but once it dried up (usually May or June) there was no more water to grow the pasture with anymore. The reservoir collects water from Succor Creek during the winter and spring months when the runoff of water is at it’s highest. We typically turn on the flow of water into our ditches starting in April and we’ll keep the water running until the reservoir gets to a certain level and then it is shut off.
On a average rainfall year we keep the reservoir on until July but during drought years it can be shut off as early as June. Several other ranches get their water out of the same reservoir for irrigating their meadows as well. Through ditches and canals we are able to direct water onto certain fields at certain times. Dams or tubes are placed in the water to flood the fields and get them saturated with water. Once a field is fully saturated the water is directed elsewhere for other uses.
Traditionally near the middle of June our grass is ready to harvest and we used to get the swathers and bailers out to start cutting hay, but in the last few years we have done less and less of haying and instead we bring our cows home from the range and management intensive graze our pastures. This means that when the grass is almost fully mature we bring in cattle and section off pieces with electric fence everyday for them to graze. They are let in to graze off the tops of the grass and then quickly moved to a new piece the next day. The cattle leave behind manure, urine and trample the grass which invigorates growth during the warm summer months. Within a couple months the pasture will be lush and ready for winter grazing.
Management Intensive Grazing:
Irrigated pasture is a great place to practice management intensive grazing (MIG). This is where cattle are gathered in a herd and given appropriate sized pieces of acreage to graze everyday (some people move them several times a day). It is a quick movement and meant to replicate the movements of large sized animals like in Africa and the Great Plains with bison. Once the cattle have moved off that piece of ground they are not allowed to return to it until it has had a full chance to regrow. We have seen great results since implementing this practice a few years ago. MIG builds soil, helps soil retain moisture, puts natural fertilizers into the soil, boosts microbial life and allows for more plant growth. It has also been shown that well managed land puts and stores carbon in the ground, lowering our carbon footprint!
Besides saving time, energy, fuel and equipment costs (since we don’t have to hay) we have it pretty easy here during the winter. Most ranches still spend all summer putting up hay and then spend all winter feeding that hay to their cows. When we bring our cows home for the winter we just set up the electric fences again and start giving the cattle small pieces of land. Cattle can be picky during the winter and choose what’s best and leave the rest, but with MIG they are encouraged to eat (or trample) all that is in the section they are given for the day. This winter we will had green grass tucked under the dry matter on top, giving a boost to our cows, which would typically have to supplemented with alfalfa hay.
High Desert Rangeland:
The high desert is a rugged beautiful land that very few people truly know or appreciate. Most of the high desert is owned by the federal government and managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). We have a grazing permit on this land for certain times of the year to run cattle. These native rangelands are a wonderful place to run cattle and with good management practices we can improve the quality of rangeland health and ecosystems. Due to the land being managed by a government agency we have very little say or ability to make changes in the pre-established guidelines for grazing practices. The rangeland is overflowing with a variety of plants and animals that make up the entire ecosystem.
There are several species of grasses that cover the landscape and different brushes all are essential to the survival of all different species. Pronghorn antelope, mule deer and the occasional elk passing through are apart of the large animal population and sage-grouse, chukar, quail and large predatory birds call this landscape home as well. Cattle play an integral roll in supporting and maintaining the landscape in this ecosystem. Since large animals are not prevalent anymore (huge herds of deer, antelope or elk) there is not enough animal impact on the grasses and soils. Without cattle the soil creates a hard pan that does not allow the little moisture we get to penetrate down to the roots of the plants. The biggest problem we face when cattle are removed or limited is the build up of flammable material.
Fires have always been apart of the high desert landscape, but not on the scale we are experiencing today. Since the high desert does not receive more than 10 inches of rain a year there is not enough moisture to help plant decompose properly. High desert plants need large animals to graze the plant in order to remove old dead growth and regenerate the plant. If the plant does not get grazed, over time the plant will slowly die out due to no new growth being able to break through the dead growth. This can be revitalized by a grazing animal or by fire. However, when there is such a build up of dead plants it causes extremely hot and dangerous fires that not only take everything in it’s pathway, but makes a breeding ground for invasive weeds and difficult for native plants to restore themselves. For instance sage-grouse need sage brush and cover to live. Fires are the biggest threat to sage-grouse, because not only do they usually get caught in the fire and get killed but all their habitat gets burned and they cannot return to an area that does not have sage brush anymore or they will surely be picked off by predators.
Cattle play an important role in keeping the grass grazed and regenerating plants. However, overgrazing is not an acceptable practice, which is where ranching has acquired a poor reputation in the past. By bunching cattle in large herds and moving them frequently and paying attention to the grass and what is needed at that particular time, cattle can do amazing healing things on the rangeland. The most important factor is realizing that every year is not the same and conditions change, so our management practices need to change on a yearly basis to meet the needs of the range.