The Stockman Grass Farmer

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October 27, 2011

Staff report

BURWELL, Nebraska: Many graziers have found lead steers to be useful in teaching new herds of stocker cattle where and when to go in a paddock rotation.

Sand Hills contract grazier, Thorval Hansen, has found that a rolling mineral wagon can provide this valuable “leading” service and doesn’t have to be fed in the winter.

Hansen contract grazes some 1200 yearlings on 4000 acres of sharply rolling Sand Hill range. The yearlings are divided into two herds of 600 head and each herd has its own rolling mineral wagon to lead them through their paddock rotation. He said new steers quickly bond with the wagon and will follow it anywhere including into the shipping corral. Hansen pulls the home-made wagons with the same large ATV he uses to check the cattle.

The ranch is divided into 27 paddocks and finding the gates can be difficult for both man and beast in the rolling terrain.

He said his wife was moving a herd and became lost and unknowingly started driving in a circle.

“The steers followed her around for three turns and finally just stopped and watched her go by until I came and rescued her,” Hansen said.

He now does all of the paddock shifting himself. The cattle are shifted rapidly in the spring but can be slowed to as much as a four-day rotation in hot weather.

Each paddock has its own pipeline-fed water source.

 

HIGH GAIN REPUTATION

Hansen has been practicing rotational grazing for nearly 15 years and has developed a reputation in Nebraska as a “high gain” grazier. He is very disappointed if the steers in his care don’t gain at least two pounds a day.

He produces this high gain by giving the yearlings a lot of grazing selectivity. This means leaving a high residual of grass in each paddock and watching key indicator plants.

“If there are lots of leaf plant left in a paddock, you know you haven’t been grazing the paddock too hard,” he said.

The Sand Hills region is a mixture of sand dunes covered with warm-season native grass and naturally sub-irrigated meadows which grow cool-season perennial grasses.

A major goal in his paddock subdivision has been to group these two very different terrains into separate paddocks so they can be managed differently.

He said the sub-irrigated meadows are much more resilient in hot, dry weather and so are his primary grazing resource.

The dunes are primarily grazed in the spring when the warm-season grass quality is the highest and soil moisture levels are high.

“You have to be careful to take sand dunes into winter fully haired over with grass to keep them from moving.”

He has found yearlings will eat Leafy spurge in the spring when it is young and vegetative.

“Personally, I would rather have a ranch that was all meadow or all dune so you could manage it all the same way but that’s not what I’ve got. So, you learn to manage.”

His preferred weight range is 500 to 550 and his preferred cattle source is Iowa. However, the reality is that the cattle range from 400 to 700 pounds and come largely from the South.

 

DAY RATE DETERMINED BY WEIGHT

Since heavier cattle eat more grass than lighter cattle, his day rate is determined by the incoming weight.

“I basically charge a penny per pound per day. That means 50 cents a day for a 500 pounder or 60 cents a day for a 600 pounder and so on.”

He said to produce a high average daily gain requires an understanding client.

“To produce a high average daily gain requires a flexible stocking rate. You’ve got to have the ability to decrease the stocking rate as the cattle get heavier and the grass growth slows in mid-summer.

He said he had to teach his feedlot-owner client about the seasonal nuances of grazing.

“A flexible stocking rate actually works better for the feedlot because all the cattle don’t come in at one time, but you have to educate them.”

He said he would prefer to charge on a per pound of gain basis rather than a day rate and would if he could be guaranteed the incoming cattle had not been fed grain during the winter.

“There’s just too much risk in a per pound of gain rate if you can’t control the source of the cattle,” he said.

 

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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