Grazing, raising: thinking man’s games
It would be nice to have hard-and-fast rules a management-intensive grazer could follow day after day, season after season. After more than 25 years of being a grass farmer, though, Bob Salmon will tell you it just doesn’t work that way.
“A grazing system is a living, fluid thing,” the Appleton City cattle and sheep rancher says. “You have goals for the livestock, goals for the pasture, economic goals and goals for specific times of the year. Decisions are made on a daily basis, and while you can learn from your experience, you can’t base those decisions on what you did last year — every day is a brand-new scenario.”
The decision driver, he says, is what’s going on in the pasture. The challenge is to balance the forage situation, animal performance needs and the economic goals of the operation.
Just as you can’t pin Salmon down on the rules of grass management, you can’t say he’s a cow-calf man or a stocker operator — or a heifer developer or a custom grazer. At one time or another, he’s all of those things.
Flexibility is the key
“We try to keep the management style extremely flexible,” he explains. “I don’t think you can be profitable with the same class of livestock or the same numbers year after year. I’m not a cow man, I’m not a backgrounder. I’m a grass man, and I try to use the whole arsenal to optimize grass productivity, grass health and grass profitability.”
Salmon, who operates the ranch with his wife, Susan, would prefer to run stockers, because cows mean tying up his financial investment. Cows, however, have an important role in the grazing system, because dry cows can use lower-quality forage. “With stockers, you want performance, and that means allowing them to be more selective in their grazing, letting them consume the high-quality grass and moving them quickly through the paddocks. A dry cow is a tremendous tool to follow those stockers and clean up residual grass.”
Dry cows are also used for what Salmon calls “landscape mode.” “Dry cows at a high stocking density are a tremendous tool to graze the ‘leftovers,’ and to tromp dry forage and manure into the soil,” he says. “That’s great for future productivity, because it really sets the pasture up for good, high-quality growth and feeds the soil.”
Stocking density as a tool
Salmon is not, however, a believer in ultra-high stocking rates on a regular basis. His stocking density ranges from 20,000 to 100,000 pounds per acre, depending on goals, time of year and class of cattle. “I use higher densities at different times with different classes of cattle, being careful not to hurt performance.”
The Salmon system is based on once-a-day moves — but once again, he’s flexible. He may move cattle twice a day in rapid growth periods or he may adjust the size of his paddocks. “Moving cattle once a day solves a lot of problems, though,” he explains. “Even when the fescue is growing rapidly early in the season, if you move once a day the grass starts slowly stockpiling as you approach the slower summer growth period. This creates a good feed supply for mid- to late summer. That works very well if it fits the type of cattle you’re running.”
Since 1987, Salmon has been tweaking his grazing system. He likes 10-acre paddocks and sometimes subdivides them with poly wire, especially when rationing out stockpiled fescue. Fescue is the target forage for management but he’s happy to use legumes, foxtail and crabgrass when available. No fertilizer is applied, but Salmon limes regularly to enhance soil health. Because of the way the pastures are managed, broadcast herbicide applications are seldom necessary; he does spot-spray with a four-wheeler, however. “If you get the stocking density right,” he says, “weeds are seldom an economic problem.”
Feeding harvested forage is kept at an absolute minimum. Haying is hard on grass and soil health, he believes, and careful planning with stockpiled forages makes hay bales an infrequent sight on the farm. As with everything else, though, Salmon stays flexible. “Last year, the grass got off to a slow start, so we pulled cattle off for a week or so and fed hay to allow it to grow. Every season is different — that’s why hard-and-fast rules don’t work with management-intensive grazing.”
Sheep boost forage use
Increasingly, Salmon is using his flock of North Country Cheviots to complement cattle grazing and boost forage use. The sheep, which are marketed as heavy feeders, are an excellent tool for cleaning up pastures, he says. A border collie enthusiast and field-trialer, Salmon uses dogs in his low-stress livestock handling approach. “I use the dogs every day,” he says. “They can put the cattle anywhere I want and they’re a valuable part of the operation.”
Currently, his cattle focus is on developing bred heifers in partnership with his sons Josh and Zeb. That, in all likelihood, will change, though. As the farm economy changes and the pasture situation evolves, Salmon will change with it and will use all tools at his disposal to manage his grass.
“Nothing pays off better than managing grass,” Salmon concludes. “You have virtually no investment besides thinking. That’s the challenge. A friend of mine says management-intensive grazing isn’t rocket science — it’s harder.”
Parker writes from Parsons, Kan.
CROWD CONTROL: Border collies like Scott (above) play an important part in the daily cattle moves on the Bob Salmon ranch.
SECURITY GUARD: Guard dogs grow up and bond with Bob Salmon’s North Country Cheviots to provide protection from predators. Increasingly, the Appleton City grazer is using the sheep for complementary grazing.
This article published in the February, 2012 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.