A Growing Culture

May16th

by Erica Romkema and Mae Rose Petrehn

The Peterson Ranch, owned by Chad and Jenny Peterson, extends across 4600 acres of the Nebraska Sandhills. In this landscape of wide skies and mixed grass prairie, the ranch is among the first ranches in the U.S. to practice what has become known as mob grazing. Mob grazing is a method of intense rotational grazing, putting a large amount of livestock in a relatively small paddock and moving them every few hours, in order to closely manage grass recovery time and plant utilization.  

On this particular ranch, Scottish Highland cattle, commercial Angus cows and Dorper sheep graze together. It’s estimated that there are around 200 species of plants in these pastures, most of them native. The Nebraska Sandhills compose a unique geographical region resistant to the sort of tractor-and-plow farming that extends through my home states of Iowa and Minnesota. The hills are, in fact, extremely sandy, and only the most well-adapted species can survive here. These species rooted themselves into the landscape during wet periods when the water table is high, and with their long roots they keep themselves, and the sands, in place. The dunes of sand have become stabilized by plants. Though if you reach down to take a handful of sand in your palm, it’s as loose and soft as if you were at the beach.

The Petersons currently maintain a herd of about 600 Scottish Highland cows and 250 calves. The sheep, which are 7/8 Dorper and 1/8th Rambouillet, number close to 300. The ranch has miles and miles of primarily solar-powered electric fencing, up to seven wires high, and a portable water tank with a pump to follow the animals through the land. In the winter, when I was able to make my visit, the herds were somewhat separated, roamed larger pastures to access shelter, and were fed ground hay from round bales. In the true grazing season everything changes, as the animals are mixed and rotated through a series of paddocks, with the intention of rationing the use of available forage and contributing to soil health.

I stopped by the ranch to visit my friend Mae Rose Petrehn, who is working there as an intern and assistant ranch manager. Mae Rose has a Master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture, and is trained as a Holistic Management educator. She connected with Chad through holistic management classes, and upon graduation aimed to build her knowledge of animal agriculture by practicing it herself. Mae Rose took some time to answer a series of questions for me to share with A Growing Culture readers and others interested in alternative grazing practices.

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ER: How would you personally define or describe mob grazing?
MRP: Any discussion on mob grazing should go back to Allan Savory’s principles. It’s a way of getting ultra-high stock density. Some people say this high stock density can range from 100,000 lbs of live weight to 1 million lbs per acre; from my experience you’re not really getting benefits until you’re at about a million pounds/acre.

At the Peterson Ranch, we’re not achieving quite as much anymore because we’ve switched to more of a cow/calf operation. The main goal or purpose for mob grazing is working with young animals [to be raised for slaughter]. The practice builds in a really long recovery period for the land, and that’s what we’re shooting for. It’s a break from animal impact, which involves more than simply grazing – we’re talking about trampling vegetation, manure, etc.

With mob grazing, you’re utilizing more of each acre that you’re on – you may  not be getting every pound of biomass through the animal but if you’re not the animal is trampling it. Ultimately you’re dramatically changing the structure of the grassland canopy. Depending on the time of year, there are different benefits for different plants. In theory it’s a way to achieve high level of diversity. Different plants can dominate and thrive at different times of year.

ER: Tell me a little about how Peterson Ranch got started with mob grazing.
MRP: Chad had experimented with about every different grazing strategy out there – from continuous grazing, to a few rotations, watching the neighbors to see what they were doing, just dabbled. He sought advice and examples, and then he got turned onto Allan Savory’s stuff and took it to heart. If you look closely at what Savory describes as animal impact and a way of maximizing productivity of your grass, it’s having animals that at a very high stock density. Yet the emphasis is on time and not numbers; how long animals are in an area at any given season. You’re growing as much grass as possible. Animal performance is a different issue. Chad discovered quickly that [using this approach] he could make a lot more vegetation grow. He held fast to that strategy and started seeing what the outcomes were. Then he started getting attention for it – curiosity and support maybe helped keep him the ball rolling. It’s never exactly the same every year.

For Chad – somebody who is at heart a bison man and interested in preserving the land and creating a very healthy ecosystem – this is ultimately what meets those goals. We’re not a ranch that produces a lot of fat animals and sells them that way – for us that’s not the goal, or even what this kind of land is capable of, at least not without substantial amounts of inputs. It’s important to have animals that can tolerate this kind of grazing system, hence the reason we have the Highlanders.

We’re not saying we’re the best. It’s still a big experiment. The ideas are there. There’s a lot of history to this ranch. It had several hundred bison on it from the 1940s up to a few years ago. It was continuous grazing mainly with bison. Bison behave differently from cattle, and it’s difficult to find a fencing system that works well. The reason Chad got rid of them is because bison love to make wallows and in the Sandhills that creates blowouts. Chad doesn’t want those. Some plant species do okay with that, but they take a long time to re-vegetate. The bison market is pretty unreal right now – he does still have some bison cows somewhere else. But that’s the platform and part of why he thinks differently about ranching.

ER: Scottish Highland cattle have been experiencing revived interest in recent years. What are some of the benefits of this breed? What are some of the challenges of working with this breed?
MRP: I mean, I think this is still being discovered on a commercial scale. One clear benefit is calving ease, provided that you breed them to the right bulls. We never have to pull calves. And they’re excellent mothers. When you move them a fair distance they tend to keep track of their calves. Also they have thick hair that’s pretty impervious to this rough climate, the wind and the winters. They’ve basically got an undercoat and a topcoat. Obviously they come from highlands of Scotland. Winter here in Nebraska is harder and longer, but similar. They’re just hardy animals. Chad built up the herd pretty rapidly.

They’re also much more feed efficient. We feed oh, maybe a third of what a comparable animal – say, a commercial Angus cow – might require to maintain a similar body condition. Same thing is true for bison. They are more efficient users. They’re not diluted down. They’re not designed to be on small farms or feedlots getting corn. Health wise, they’re not very susceptible to disease. We haven’t had issues with foot rot. If you have the mindset of keeping inputs low, that’s what you want to go for.

As for challenges, well, they are slow maturing. Two- year-old heifers still can’t have calves this year, so you have to wait a little longer for a calf. That calf, to get to slaughter weight, takes longer. It’s a smaller animal in general, frame wise, though you seem to find that efficient cattle. They develop slower but have greater longevity. It’s definitely a challenge for a for-profit business, especially if you’re dabbling in the grass-fed/grass-finishing world. Grass-finishing takes more time. With prices the way they are it’s a hard thing to justify. No one else that I know of is trying this with this breed at such a commercial scale. What I’m saying is based on our experience.

ER: You also graze sheep, a mix of 7/8 Dorper and 1/8 Rambouillet. What can you tell us about this breed? What advice would you have for folks wanting to incorporate sheep into their operation?
MR: We chose Dorpers because they are pretty versatile. Hair sheep are gaining traction, especially for smaller scale folks. Unless you have a niche or a way to utilize wool it isn’t worth it to have to deal with shearing. By no means are sheep the central focus of the operation here, so we’re really not interested in needing to shear them. Some of them will need to be shorn since they have that Rambeleigh in them and can get shaggier. They’re bred to be parasite resistant. We got them because they’re the only hair sheep available in commercial quantities. You don’t see people raising Katahdins in a big giant group, that I know of. Dorpers have made their way specifically in the Texas scene, which is where we got them from.

If you’re not working with facilities and equipment specific to raising sheep and handling them—without the right tools and the right expertise—you may have to accept more death/loss in the beginning. Predation prevention is key. We didn’t really know how big a population of coyotes we had near us and how quickly they would come on to the system. For us, I think, we were willing to accept a certain amount of death loss, but right now it’s been too much, mainly due to predation. Everybody will always joke around that sheep will find a way to die. One stuck its head in the hay feeder and suffocated. They’ll crowd around a water tank and one falls in and drowns. Death is something that you definitely have to come to terms with and deal with.

ER: Talk about the logistics, benefits, and challenges of grazing sheep and cattle together.
MR: It was a joy to see how well the sheep incorporated themselves in with the Highlanders. We just kind of let them in with the cattle. They were calm about it, though pretty alert. They really had no reason to be afraid. The cows weren’t aggressive towards them. Within a few weeks the sheep were more than comfortable being around the cattle. Someone in Sheep Magazine wrote a letter to the editor about Highland cows and sheep, and they were concerned that the horns would poke the sheep’s eyes or they would gouge each other, but we never had a problem. The sheep would kind of filter in and fill in the gaps as the cows moved forward. Once the space filled up a little bit the sheep would move to the back and would eat things the cows tromped on or munched and left behind. Sheep graze a different trophic level of grassland, in a sense. They have different diets and different sized mouths. They each have their own little niche.

Sheep are easier to herd into small areas, so Chad’s thought was to use them as a way to heal bare ground by crowding them onto an area for a short amount of time with ample hay or grass residual – the manure/urine sort of creates a fertile mat to heal bare ground. There are lots of examples of that from Allan Savory’s work in Africa as well as his son Roger’s work. We haven’t seen anyone out here doing that in earnest. The goal is definitely to have profit from the enterprise, but in regards to the sheep it’s almost more about using them as a tool. Their feed requirement is so low. Aside from disease, occasional parasite issues, and predation they are a pretty low-maintenance animal. They’re built to survive on pretty low-quality forage for most of the year.

ER: Talk about your perspectives on scale in regards to animal agriculture.
MR: I don’t think there’s a limitation to what scale is or is not profitable. The dividing line is your resources and your goals. Someone who’s really good at spinning wool and making cheese can make profit on 30 acres. If you have access to a market like that, that could make a ton of money. At the same time, if you aren’t interested or don’t have the time for a specialty market, you’ve got to scale up.

What I see a lot in the “New Agrarian” movement or whatever you want to call it is people just expect things to work at a small scale because there is a market and they have the interest. You can’t cash flow a piece of property quickly that way—you have to make a lot of investment and have a lot of hope. People put a lot of stock into the grassfed market as being a sitting duck. There are plenty of examples of people making that work. But for people like me, potentially wanting to buy a large amount of land and/or livestock or leasing land, I have to prove to a banker that I can turn money in a fairly short amount of time. It’s the entitlement thing, maybe a generational attitude, I’m saying for my generation – especially with the urban agriculture thing. People expect to show up at a farmer’s market and make money just because people are there and they have this ideology. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work, because I’ve seen it work and it’s cool! But it’s too easy to be duped into the idea that this is an easy business. It’s fundamentally a really different kind of work and a really different lifestyle and it’s not cool all the time.

I feel like I’m seeing people totally create and accept this martyrdom of poverty. We’re farming and these are our values. Good for you! I want to make money. I just need to know how to be a good manager. That’s not easy. But if you understand the beef business you can print money. I really believe this is a good business to get into and that’s why I’m here. I’m passionate about prairies, wildlife, good food – but I’m also passionate about making a good living. That’s the scale issue. I feel like I’m being such a critic right now, but that’s that entitlement issue. You want to have a couple animals around that potentially create a high-value product and if you can do that again I think it’s awesome – but people also treat those animals like pets and they have this attitude towards their livestock that they’re kind of like people. I find that sometimes they treat them a little fluffy. I think: they’re livestock. They’re working for you. Respect them, create a low-stress environment for them. That’s why we have the corral system we do—it’s about keeping stress to a minimum. Healthy livestock is profitable livestock. But remember they need to be working for you, not the other way around.

ER: Is there anything else you feel that is important for readers, and particularly graziers, to know?
MR: The big thing that I’m hoping to build on in the future and that is kind of my lifelong soapbox is that, you know, eventually people are going to figure out that programs like CRP, taking land out of production for “conservation” is a total waste of money. You can manage and incentivize a production system that is still a working landscape—people are still working grasslands, creating ecosystem goods and services, like soil conservation—those are all things that are totally proven outcomes of a well-managed grazing system with adequate recovery periods. Unfortunately, a lot of grasslands around the world have been very degraded and overgrazed. A lot of people’s perception of people who have cattle is that they totally destroy the landscape, and it’s because sometimes that is true. It totally can happen. A lot of the wildlife biologists that I talked to in Iowa would make jokes about golf course grazing. In the corn belt, that’s how it looks. And that’s not going to do much of anything for ecological health. You could argue that it does nothing for animal health, either. The message I’m excited about getting out there is that there’s another way to do conservation. It’s been happening and it’s going to grow, but the government’s involvement in it is very tangled. It’s atrocious the amount of money that we are spending as a country on grass that is bad habitat and that needs to be contributing to the local economy as grazing pasture, hay ground, whatever. But then you go down the rabbit hole of who’s going to manage it. Less people are raising animals, farming. And grazing, well, takes more people.

That’s a challenge in the U.S. Not so much in a lot of the poor economies in Africa – for example, a recent article in Beef Magazine had rancher Ian Mitchell in it; he’s this grazing guru who does workshops with Greg Judy. He can hire herders for pennies on the dollar. He’s in South Africa. People need any kind of a job. He doesn’t need to do payroll, doesn’t need to call them interns. But who’s going to be able to do that here?

With this type of grazing management, you always have to be making judgments. It’s a never-ending process of reading the land. You’re continually learning from the ecosystem. It’s always changing, especially out here where we have so many different plant species. They’re all telling you something, it’s just a matter of you knowing how to read what they’re saying.

For more information on Holistic Management, visit: www.holisticmanagement.com or the Savory Institute: www.SavoryInstitute.com.

To see more writing by Erica Romkema, visit: www.kindsofhoney.wordpress.com.
To contact Mae Rose Petrehn, email: treadearthintometaphor@gmail.com.

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