Grazing For Soil Health

( Sara Brown )

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Few ranchers would envy Michael Williams. His Diamond W Cattle Co. operates under some of the harshest environmental conditions at the outskirts of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. That combination of challenges makes Williams’ grazing strategies crucial.

But, grazing management, regardless of environment, is critical to the success of any ranch.    

“Grazing is often the most overlooked aspect of ranching,” says Ken Tate, professor and rangeland watershed specialist at the University of California, Davis.        

“Every ranch should have a grazing management plan that works for them,” he says. “If you’re not doing that, it doesn’t matter how good your cattle genetics are or how good your health program is. If you’re not sufficiently harvesting forage and maximizing livestock’s capacities to use what that land is equipped to grow, those other investments are not going to be optimized.”

Williams’ Diamond W consists of 12,000 acres in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles. With elevations ranging from 3,000' to 5,000', the rangeland typically only receives 10" to 15" of rainfall each year. 

Mike Williams (Photo by Kat Merrick)
“For a long time I was spoiled because I was on a pretty good ranch with good grass that helped during the drought. But the Thomas fire burned me out,” Williams says of the December 2017 blaze in California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Since then he has consolidated his ranch to the mountains in Los Angeles county with an emphasis on
managed grazing.

“I’m improving my stockmanship skills and training my cattle to stay together as a single herd. Depending on the resources and the time of year, I may split them into a couple of herds, but the idea is to keep them together and let them graze as a group rather than letting them spread across the ranch as they would normally do,” he says.

The objective is to implement rotational grazing without cross fences so cattle graze
the range more evenly and allow the grass to have rest periods. Williams says he rides horseback for three hours every three days moving the cattle in a low-stress manner. 

“You can rekindle the herding instinct in the cattle that’s natural where they’ll stay together as a herd as long as they have water and feed. As you gain their trust and confidence you can exercise increasing control where they’ll stay in an area until the resources are exhausted,” he says. “That way I can manipulate their impact on my pastures.”

Williams is currently evaluating the time he is devoting to such a grazing system, but says he thinks it’s favorable to the alternative.

“If my cows are spread out over a few thousand acres, I can spend nearly all day driving around in a pickup checking on them,” he says. “But I’m learning that with my system of moving cattle horseback, I can see every animal, and as I get more familiar with the system and the cows get more familiar, that flips over to where it’s less time intensive and less resource intensive.”

Diamond W Cattle Co. is an example of the image beef industry leaders hope to impress on consumers — that ranchers are good stewards of the land and the animals. Beef production has come under scrutiny for its environmental impact, though that impact is often erroneously reported. 

Grazing lands occupy nearly half of the Earth’s land area, provide the livelihood for millions and reduce the effects of climate change by storing massive amounts of carbon. Tate says maintaining and restoring the soil health on ranches is essential for the future of livestock production. 

“Proper grazing helps every phase of the operation,” he says. “If you’re good at grazing management you’ll improve total forage production and the efficiency of harvesting that forage. That will lead to improved animal performance and greater returns.” 

By definition, that’s what industry leaders, retailers and food service companies want to show consumers about beef’s sustainability. 

“In California we’re going to work on the aspects of sustainability that bring value to the ranch, things like grazing, soil health and plant community health” Tate says. 

California ranchers have seen firsthand how grazing practices are able to provide benefits during extreme weather events. Healthier soils hold more water and are resilient to drought.

“We might be able to stay green a little longer on well-managed pastures with less water,” Tate says. “Ranchers are interested in that idea.”

Similarly, over-stocked ranges and pastures tend to suffer financially as cattle performance suffers.

“Ranches that are consistently over-stocked are just creating their own drought every year,” Tate says.

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