"Waste" a Little Grass

Leaving forage behind is the surest way to build profits in the beef business.

Jim Gerrish teaches livestock producers the importance of caring for forages and soils first, Image by Robert Waggener

Regardless of whether a livestock producer is lucky enough to have an abundance of forages or barely enough to get through the season, the concern about waste is universal. The secret may be a willingness to walk away from an area that, by many standards, is still grazeable.

“Have you ever gone into a pasture thinking you were going to move cattle but instead said, ‘Oh, there’s still plenty of grass. I’ll leave the cattle in there one more day.’?” Jim Gerrish asks. Odds are your first inclination was the right one, he notes, explaining overgrazing is a common mistake everywhere.

This renowned grazing expert travels the country teaching grass-management skills that last a lifetime. He says the first secret is that it’s important to get away from the idea that grass left in a pasture is somehow wasted. It’s just the opposite.

“Somehow, producers believe every blade of grass must be bitten off by their livestock, or they’re wasting grass,” he says. The consultant coined the term “Management-Intensive Grazing,” built on the premise that intense management of grazing areas consistently yields more forage and more profit.

“The first thing livestock producers have to accept is there is no such thing as wasting grass,” he says. “A lot of ranchers want to harvest every bit of grass on their place. But, grass feeds grass, and grass feeds soil. Then, grass feeds livestock.

“If you approach your pastures and rangelands with the viewpoint of, ‘I have to feed the cows, I have to feed the cows,’ you will run out of grass, because your focus is in the wrong place,” says Gerrish, a former University of Missouri forage and grazing-management researcher. “Take care of plants and soils first. If you do that, you will almost always have adequate feed for livestock.”

Gerrish, who oversees a portion of a ranch in central Idaho, encourages livestock producers to focus on capturing sunlight, not pounds of beef, lamb or bison. He explains it’s easiest to think of each acre as a 43,560-square-foot solar panel. Bare soil, dead plants and overgrazed vegetation won’t capture the solar energy needed to produce food for livestock. Ground covered with actively growing grasses and legumes, however, soaks up that energy.


In productive pasture systems, Gerrish says producers should be ready to start grazing animals when grasses are 12 to 15 inches tall. With an intensively managed grazing cell in a high-moisture environment, leave 4 to 8 inches of grass to capture sunlight. The recovery period could be as little as 20 days during the spring or 40 to 60 days during hot summer months. Allowing livestock to graze plants below 4 inches in height significantly slows growth rate and can increase the recovery period to 65 days or more.

Gerrish says pastures that are repeatedly overgrazed and kept short will capture only 10 to 30% of the potential solar energy. A grazing-management program that leaves more plant leaves in place, however, boosts that energy capture rate to 40 to 60%.

“This allows you to double the productivity of your land,” explains Gerrish, noting this fact holds whether a ranch is in a high-rainfall area or an arid location.


In rangeland areas, Gerrish suggests for every 10 inches of precipitation, producers graze cattle no more than once a year. Among the schools he led last year was one near Lusk, Wyoming, which averages 15 inches of precipitation annually. That’s high by Cowboy State standards. University of Wyoming Extension held the event, and Extension educator Blake Hauptman was part of the program. He stressed ranchers who are able to enhance livestock-management skills and make infrastructure improvements can create opportunities to grow more forage. That extends the growing season and reduces dependence on expensive harvested forages and supplements. In areas like this, Gerrish advocates short-duration, high-intensity grazing. A combination of portable electric and permanent fencing facilitates one- to five-day rotation programs on irrigated pastures.

“You can achieve a tremendously high grazing efficiency, up to 80 and 90%, by moving cattle in pastures every one to two days,” he explains. “Compare that to haying, which has a harvest efficiency of between 60 and 70%, because of harvest and storage losses combined with feeding costs. Good grazing management will always beat haying.”

Gerrish recommends rangeland grazing be no more than one week in duration. “Generally, I tell people they can increase carrying capacity 20 to 40% with managed grazing compared to set stocking. Our best success stories are a 400% increase in carrying capacity.”


Gerrish strongly recommends incorporating legumes into both rangelands and irrigated pastures. Because of their leaf structure, legumes dramatically boost solar energy potential. In addition, they are a low-cost way to add nitrogen to soil. They also offer more protein and energy than grasses, and typically perform better during hot periods.

“In irrigated conditions, you generally see 20 to 60 pounds of improvement in weaning weights in pastures having a good grass-legume mixture versus those only having grasses,” he says. “If you reseed a pasture and manage the grazing appropriately, that pasture will take care of you for the rest of your life.”

For More Information On Intensive Grazing

> “Grass Productivity: An Introduction to Rational Grazing,” by André Voisin

> “Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution To Restore Our Environment,” by Allan Savory

> “Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-Around Grazing” and “Management-intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming,” both by Jim Gerrish


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