Stock density

Stock density
by Terry Gompert - 2, 2010

Holistic Management is a decision-making process. "The Power of Stock Density" comes from the combination of using four tools (animal impact, grazing, technology, and rest). Proper planned use of these tools can result in moving toward your holisticgoal. This three-part holisticgoal includes: 1) what we want; 2) how we desire to accomplish what we want; and 3) vision of our landscape. The following will explain Allan Savory's observation of herd effect-animal impact-ultra high stock density and time-rest-recovery. Also included are experiences of fourteen producers who practice ultra high stock density.

Herd Effect - Animal Impact - Ultra High Stock Density
Ultra high stock density is a principle of holistic management first suggested by Allan Savory. The author considers ultra high stock density to be 300,000 pounds or more of beef per acre at any given time. With these high stock densities, animal impact and herd effect can occur.

Stock density can be expressed as high or ultra high stock density. One million pounds of beef on one acre for one hour in 2009 is a good example of ultra high stock density. The results of such practices over the years have been reported to thicken stands, increase diversity, and increase production over two-fold. The land has become more drought tolerant. Forty-thousand pounds of beef on one acre for one day may be called high stock density. The utilization has increased. Thus, stocking rate increases some. The resiliency of the land does not change.

Animal Impact is the total of the direct physical influences animals have on the land - trampling, digging, dunging, urinating, salivating, rubbing, and so on. Most commonly achieved with herding animals in high concentration. The larger the herd size, the greater the effect.

Herd effect is the impact on soils and vegetation produced by a large herd of animals in high concentration or in an excited state. Herd effect is the result of a change in animal behavior and usually has to be brought about by some actual management such as salt placement, crowding animals, ultra high stock density, etc.

One of Savory's four insights includes some tools work differently at different brittleness levels. Animal impact works in environments that tend to be brittle.

Time - Rest - Recovery
Many people confuse rest and recovery periods. Rest is only a management tool. Recovery is the time it takes a plant to recover from the last period of grazing. The roots need to be fully recovered prior to regrazing. Savory suggests that all plants be fully recovered before grazing. In general, that thought leads to long rest periods.

We overgraze plants and not pastures. If a plant is regrazed before it is fully recovered, its future growth will be reduced or the plant may die. We often see overgrazed plants in continuously grazed pastures, even when these are understocked. We can also undergraze plants. If the plants are not grazed in a brittle environment, the top material will dry and oxidize, turning it into very low quality plant material. The center of the plant dies and the outside of the plant grows spindly shoots or tillers. This plant may eventually die and the pasture will naturally thin. This is easy to see in the Sandhills of Nebraska, especially with Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). In brittle environments it takes animal impact and herd action to break soil capping, break off oxidized plant material, and cause needed seed germination. Without grazing the pasture it keeps deteriorating. Since Nebraska has moderately brittle conditions, herd effect and hoof action only help under most conditions. The experienced manager will learn to get a feel for when and where it will not work.

Using the holistic principle of managing for what you want takes a great deal of thought on the principle of time. Giving ample time overcomes many errors. For ultra high stock density grazing to work well, it appears much time needs to be allowed for recovery before regrazing. In an environment that tends to be brittle, grazing one or two times a year appears to be most successful.

Experiences Reported by Producers
Research on ultra high stock density including animal impact and herd effect is nearly non-existent. Appropriate research being complicated, complex, and expensive. The following is a summary of fourteen producers who have been using ultra high stock density. The reports come from practitioners in Nebraska (6), Missouri (2), South Dakota (2), Iowa (1), Saskatchewan (2), and Florida (1). Four of these survey results come from non-brittle environments, while the other ten come from different degrees of brittle environments.

These results represent 115 years of experience using ultra high stock density. Their range of experience was 1 to 30 years (six producers have been practicing ultra high stock density for five or more years). Herd size varied from 35 to 800 standard animal units. Their herd size preference tended to be to the highest level they had experienced. For the group, the average herd size preference was 464 standard animal units. The producers had varied experiences of grazing from single animal types to multispecies groups. Sheep, goats, buffalo, cows, cow/calf, stockers, and near all combinations were included in their experience. Regardless of species or type experience, the same results occurred. Their most common preference to graze was stockers.

Stock density experience ranged from 10,000 pounds per acre to 1,300,000 pounds per acre. They moved from 1 time per day to once per hour in the daylight. The most common moves included once or twice a day. Their stock density preference tended to go toward their highest stock density experience, but most did not want to move over 2 times per day. Their most common preference in high stock density grazing was 250,000 to 500,000 pounds per acre. Over and over they reported that with higher stock density the best results came back to the land assuming plenty of time for recovery was allowed.

Eighty-six percent felt stocking rate increased as a direct result of ultra high stock density grazing. The increase ranged from 0 to 5 fold. The most common report was a doubling in stocking rate. Animal performance did not change on the average (21% increased performance, 58% had no change, and 21% decreased performance). All producers felt the land greatly benefited from ultra high stock density grazing. Most included the following benefits: more water infiltration, increased drought tolerance, better covered land, more plant diversity and biodiversity, increased soil health and life, increased net production, and resiliency.

The greater increase in benefit to the land was noticed more in the brittle environment, more benefits to native pastures. Irrigated grass and non-brittle environments showed benefits to the land, but less than other areas.

Sixty-five percent of producers said that ultra high stock density has resulted in high profits, primarily because stocking rate has increased. The other 35% of the producers expect increased profits as a direct result of the high stock density grazing.

The following quotes help to tell the producers' stories:

"High stock density is great for the land, but there is a fine line between pushing cattle too hard, to the point of losing condition. We need to help the land as much as we can, but we still need gains." Kirk Bruns, Nebraska

"Profits have gone up because of increased production." Pat Steffen, Nebraska

"I am second guessing the high density in certain respects for the areas with timely rainfall above 30 inches. Unless I am able to move the wire forward one foot at a time I am unable to utilize the forage." Tim Kelley, Missouri

"Focus on animal performance first or you will go broke. When I was focussing on animal impact, what I wanted my ground to look like, my animal performance went in the toilet. When I focus on animal performance, I am expecting near 100% bred up, my buffalo look fantastic, as well as my land is improving." Phil Jerde, South Dakota

"I have noticed changes in biological activity. Dung beetles and earthworms are increasing. More litter and more trampled plants are in contact with the ground. Width of plant leaves increased and they seem greener after recovery." Randy Holmquist, South Dakota

"We have had success with cow/calf, stockers, and grass finishing herds. On a custom basis, we prefer stockers as they usually give us the best return per acre. The greatest potential may actually be on native pastures." Kevin Fulton, Nebraska

"Warm season grasses are showing up without being reintroduced by us. There seems to be more opportunities (environments for new plant species) to start. This thickens the stand and improves the diversity." Tom German, Iowa

"High density grazing can have a good, bad, or no impact on animal performance depending on what you do. If you force them to eat too much of the forage you can easily hurt performance. I think this type of management can have an incredible impact on the environment, animal welfare and on agriculture economically. Until government subsidy programs are reduced or eliminated, there will not be a large scale adoption of it. Too many people are too reliant on them and will not wean themselves off of the them without being forced to." Doug Peterson, Missouri

"With ultra high stock density grazing the need for fertilizer is not so much apparent." Ellis Schrunk, Nebraska

"The value to the land requires the higher density." Wayne Rasmussen, Nebraska

"High stock density has resulted in better water holding capacity, more carbon stored, healthier animals, more wildlife, and drought proofing of the land." Neil Dennis, Saskatchewan

"To have healthy land we have to graze properly. To build land we have to use higher density to create the same effect the bison herds did several 100 years ago. Once the land planning is done and the infrastructure is in place, it is very easy to do and takes very little time. It seems the higher the density the more time commitment required." Blain Hjertaas, Saskatchewan

"I have been so impressed with the growth of grass and to grow so many varieties that I have not planted. Next year should be tremendous for livestock and soil performance." Ino Velazquez, Florida

"I have used cow/calf, stockers, mixed herds, and more. I have done it with everything and that is fine, but I do prefer stocker heifers. High stock density is a low-cost way to improve the land." Chad Peterson, Nebraska

The fourteen producer surveys agree with Savory that ultra high stock density heals the land. It appears that this healing is greater in a brittle environment. This too supports Savory's insight of some tools work different in different brittle areas. The ultra high stock density has increased stocking rate and increased profits. There appears to be little affect on animal performance.

Terry Gompert is an Extension Educator at the University of Nebraska specializing in grazing education.