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Rotational Grazing Proves Successful

Missouri's Conservation Showcase




Rotational Grazing System Proves Successful for Fencer Installer

Three decades ago, a livestock fence installer from central Missouri met with some farmers from New Zealand.  Ideas were exchanged and now the fencer is a full-time rancher with 27 miles of fence dividing his Braunvieh cattle into paddocks for a successful rotational grazing system. 

"We started our operation in April of 1982 with 150 yearling cattle in 36 paddocks on 60 acres of land in Boone County," Ron McBee, owner of McBee Cattle Company said.  "By July, the cattle had eaten the pastures clean.  We learned the hard way that it was necessary to move the cows into different pastures before they picked the one they were in down to the dirt.  By doing this, we've been able to give the grass time to grow and the roots time to develop."

McBee relocated his seedstock and commercial cattle operation to Fayette in 2002 and in 2003 he made his first visit to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Howard County. 

Ron McBee checks on one of his paddocks."Ron has been great to work with," Resource Conservationist Tim Viertel said.  "He's done everything according to the standards and has near-perfect fencing around his land."

Utilizing the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) McBee now has 400 cattle divided between 74 pastures on 1,303 acres.   He splits pastures in half, sometimes into quarters and during the grazing season, rotates cattle based on the speed at which the grass is growing.

"When the grass is growing fast, we move our cattle fast.  When the grass slows down in mid-June, we slow our cattle rotation down.  It's necessary to make sure that our pastures have the appropriate amount of moisture, sunshine and rest to remain viable.  We can't control the moisture and sunshine, but we can control the rest, so we do what we can to keep the cattle moving while giving the grass time to grow and develop a strong root structure."

McBee says that there are three rules to a successful rotational grazing system. He recommends doubling the stocking rate, having a minimum of eight paddocks and not leaving cattle in any pasture for more than four days.

"If you rotate your cattle around in something less than eight paddocks, you're probably not giving your grass the time it needs to recover," McBee said.  "If you graze grass below the basal bud, on most grass plants that's four inches, it will take those plants 11 days to recover before starting to grow again.  The more you do that, the shorter your grazing season will be and the more hay you will have to feed." 

Over the years, NRCS has provided technical and financial assistance through EQIP to assist with fencing off all of Ron's streams, ponds and 53 acres of forest and has helped with the installation of seven miles of waterline and livestock watering facilities constructed out of used heavy equipment tires.

"Ron had a pretty good idea of what he wanted when he first came into our office," Viertel said.  "But, he had never completed a project of such large scope.  So, we sketched it out and worked together to develop an effective plan that would help him accomplish the rotational grazing system that works best on his property."

McBee allows his fescue-covered fields to grow naturally with nothing put into the land other than the high tensile fencing that divides his pasture into 10-to-20 acre paddocks.    

Cattle graze in a paddock on Ron McBee's land."This system has really helped our bottom line," McBee said.  "When we started our first controlled grazing operation in 1982, we took soil samples on a 60 acre grazing cell.  Four years after beginning the rotational grazing system, the PH levels had improved and the organic matter had gone up.  Now, instead of feeding five bales of hay per cow during the winter, we're grazing it on stockpiled fescue and maybe using one bale of hay per cow during the winter months."

The Fayette rancher develops and sells nearly 120 bulls a year.  His Braunvieh-Angus hybrid, the McBeef Hybrid, is a hot commodity and has been sold to ranches in eight states.

"Ron provides a great example to other farmers interested in a rotational grazing system," Viertel said.  "He has a successful cattle operation and he does things in a way that helps conserve and protect the land."

In addition to McBee's EQIP contract, he has also enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).  McBee has retrofit 51 watering facilities for wildlife escape, monitors key grazing areas to improve grazing management and uses non-chemical pest control for his livestock, among other conservation-minded activities offered through CSP.

"I've been able to combine two things that I like, fencing and cattle, and develop a job that I enjoy going to each day," McBee said.  "It's been interesting to look back and see how our operation has developed over the years."

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