Nebraska grazier finds free grass not nearly as attractive once you’ve been paid to graze
NEWPORT, Nebraska: Nebraska grazier, Chad Peterson, believes the highest and best use of ruminant animals today is to create attractive landscapes with fee-paid controlled grazing.
While this is considered a radical idea by most, Peterson, who is still in his early 30s, has been a pioneer in new pasture-based ideas his whole life.
For example, his family was one of the first in the country to get into the buffalo business. “We were grass fed before grass fed was cool,” he said.
Young Peterson rode the buffalo boom to the top, cashed in, and switched to cattle when cattle were cheap.
He rode cattle prices up, cashed in, and switched to contract grazing.
He was the first in his area to get into meat goats, and now is pioneering fee-paid grazing for vegetation control and wildlife habitat management.
Did I mention that along the way he accumulated 9000 deeded acres in the Nebraska Sandhills?
Also, not a bad move.
Still with all of this success, Peterson is as nervous as a caffeined cat.
He said making money in ranching is easy when you buy cheap and sell high. It is not so easy to figure out what to do next when you know you are at the top of the market.
“I have never been able to find another time in history when cattle, sheep, hogs, dairy cattle, and goats are all simultaneously at record high prices.”
He has been on a steep learning curve since the severe drought six years ago, which caused him to completely rethink and discard some long cherished beliefs.
“My base belief was that the highest and best use of the Nebraska Sandhills was for buffalo grazing but I have changed my mind.
“I now believe that cattle are the best use. Coming to this realization was psychologically very painful for me.”
And, an interesting story. One that starts with grass.
WET MEADOW GRAZING
The Nebraska Sandhills region is made up of two primary forage groups.
One group are the warm-season native grasses that grow on the hillsides and the second group are the cool-season marsh grasses that grow on the wet meadows that lie in the valleys between the hills.
Traditionally, the wet meadows are cut for hay and the hillsides are grazed during the green season. However, Peterson totally reversed this management paradigm.
He now concentrates on grazing the wet meadows in the green season and only uses the hills for winter grazing when the grasses are dormant. This switch has allowed him to stop feeding hay except in dire emergencies.
“During the drought I started experimenting with strip grazing the marshes because I didn’t have an alternative. I was out of grass,” he said.
“During the worst of the drought I found that with high stock density grazing and frequent shifts I could actually take my cows all summer just on the wet meadows and never touch the hills.”
Peterson divides his wet meadows into long narrow strips with permanent electric fence and then further divides with temporary twine down to one acre or less sized paddocks. “My goal is to have at least one million pounds of beef to the acre stock density,” he said.
To do this he moves the cattle seven times a day. “I call it my ‘scorched earth’ grazing method. I force the cows to take it all and then give the grass a year to recover. Although I may return in the dormant season, I only graze once in the growing season.
“The quality and composition of the wet meadows greatly improved from year to year.”
Now the meadows are full of mostly clovers of all kinds. This has greatly increased the carrying capacity of these meadows on some of his very best meadow. In 2005 it only took three acres per day for 900 pair.
While this may sound labor intensive, Peterson said that in 2004 he and one helper could manage the strip grazing in just four hours work a day.
“When our neighbors were making hay we were jet-skiing on the lake.”
Prior to the 2000 - 2003 drought, Peterson had been contract grazing 1000 buffalo and 1000 cows.
While the beef cows readily took to the high stock density grazing, the buffalo absolutely refused to be crowded.
“I realized then that I could use cattle to improve my ranch but I couldn’t with buffalo.”
THE PARADIGM SHIFT
With the buffalo price collapse in 2000, paying clients quickly became scarce and Peterson stepped in and bought a large group of buffalo heifers for $175. Similar heifers had been worth $5000 a few months before and this seemed a reasonable bet.
It wasn’t. Peterson wound up selling them for a loss after having grazed them for three years. He now has doubts that buffalo will ever become a major meat industry.
“The only people making money with them are the direct meat marketers who own their own customers,” he said.
He still keeps a small herd of buffalo and direct markets about 30 head of grass fed bulls a year. Another 20 to 25 bulls are sold to hunters.
Another ranch improvement idea was to add a herd of meat goats to eat the broad leaf plants that the cattle and buffalo left behind. Two thousand goats were brought in from Texas and quickly made short work of the ranch’s weeds.
“The problem with goats is that they do too good of a job. They soon ate themselves out of their forage resource.”
This led him to fee-paid grazing, which I will cover in a moment.
He said he thought he could improve his ranch forage resources to the point where he could switch to stocker cattle but found he just can’t get the gain they require to be profitable on the sandy soils.
“This is not good stocker country but I don’t have any trouble keeping cows fat. Beef cows are my ranch’s centerpiece.”
Green season contract grazing rates in Nebraska have followed cattle prices upwards and now are around $1.15 to $1.25 per head per day.
Many Nebraska corn farmers maintain cowherds to utilize their stalks after harvest but do not have any permanent pastures for them in the green season. This keeps demand for summer grass high. Unfortunately for Peterson most of these herds are relatively small. “I am still committed to the idea of dealing with one client but clients with 2000 beef cows are pretty hard to find.
“As a result, I have been having to buy cows to eat my grass. I’ve got 890 now but I need nearly twice that many to completely stock the grass I have available right now.
“I’m like everyone else and wondering how much longer these high cattle prices can last.”
He is also known as the Goat Guy for his 2800-head goat herd, which is being grazed on a 4000-acre ranch owned by an irrigation and power district to remove weeds and brush on the Platte River in southern Nebraska.
Irrigation districts and hydro companies who use the public’s water are now having to provide waterfowl habitats as a mitigation fee. Peterson gets the grazing rights in exchange for wildlife management and weed control.
“They have been trying to use fire and herbicides and have created a real environmental mess with both.”
In the forested areas of the ranch the goats have been eating thistle very well, but in the open areas the goats barely touch them. This was difficult to understand until Peterson learned that in the forest they have never used herbicides, whereas in the open it was common practice. Apparently there is some herbicide residue in the plants and the animals don’t care for it.
The government wildlife biologists administrators have been very helpful and open to new ideas. Most experts have advised them to spray or burn. The more they do of each the worse the problem has gotten.
“Hopefully we are on the road to recovery, but it will take time to undo 100-years of management.”
© by The Stockman Grass Farmer
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