Cell grazing provides spin-off benefits

The grazing system was designed to reduce wolf predation but also improves pasture, cattle health

LUNDBRECK, Alta. — When a ranch is 65,000 acres in size, it can’t be managed at the cellular level.

But managing part of it in grazing cells is another matter.

On the Waldron Ranch, cell grazing was born out of necessity to limit wolf predation of the cattle herd. Ranch manager Mike Roberts said the system met that expectation but has also increased grassland health and cattle productivity.

It began about six years ago, when wolves in this deep southwestern part of the province started killing about 15 head of young cattle each year and running the rest of the herd ragged in the process.

Roberts decided to move the yearlings to an open grassland area into a system of grazing cells of about 90 acres each.

“We soon found that we were actually getting 190 percent of the carrying capacity” than before, said Roberts. “We seem to be able to get one and a half, 1.55 pounds of gain a day on the cell grazing.”

Moving 840 yearling heifers to a new cell every four days, on average, resulted in the ranch getting one Animal Unit Month (AUM) on every .93 of an acre, over the 1,900 acres involved in the cell-grazing program.

“That’s pretty much double the rest of the ranch,” Roberts told a tour group Sept. 8.

“We’re fortunate here that we have economy of scale and we have lots of cattle that we can jostle with. We didn’t add any AUMs to the ranch. We just moved AUMs.”

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Waldron Ranch grazes about 13,000 head of cattle every year, which belong to members of the Waldron Ranch Grazing Co-operative.

Its 262 sq. kilometres include mountains, foothills and timberland, so only part of it is suitable for cell grazing.

Where that occurs, Roberts has fenced the cells with single-strand, high-tensile wire mounted on posts made out of recycled sucker rod from Alberta’s oilfields. It’s a system developed by Jack and Gerald Vandervalk, who are members of the grazing co-op.

The fibreglass posts won’t rot or burn, and once the single wire is electrified and the cattle get acquainted with it, the fence contains them.

“The cost of putting in this fence, this single strand, is $700 a mile ($420 per km). To put in a three-wire fence is four times that, and that’s not counting the labour,” said Roberts.

“My biggest expense in my budget is wages and my biggest draw on wages is fence, 500 miles (800 km) of fence. A lot of it is getting pretty old and it’s really hard to keep up with.”

Roberts said electric fencing is a generally underused as a grazing management tool, but the latest fencers with solar power and remote control have been a boon to operations at the Waldron.

“I just love them,” he said, noting he has 21 cells on 1,900 acres of pasture, which he runs with one electric fencer.

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“I’ve just got so I hate barbed wire. Too much time, too much repair.

“Once the cattle are trained within the first two or three cells, we have no problem with them after that whatsoever. None. They don’t bother the barbed-wire fence, they don’t bother the electric fence.”

Gates in the single-strand fence are formed using two pieces of drill stem, also recycled from the oil patch, with the wire run upward and over top the gate entrance. Roberts said this prevents grounding out or shorts on the fencer.

“When I think the grass is where I want it to be, I show up with a quad and they know that’s the signal, ‘we’re going to new grass’, ” said Roberts, and the move usually goes quickly.

Water is managed through a system of springs and dugouts. A herd of 840 drinks about 9,000 gallons of water a day, so good water sources and reliable delivery are vital to the cell grazing system.

Roberts said he is pleased with both cattle productivity and health.

“One thing that I learned about this cell grazing and moving cattle all the time is the health is incredibly good on the cattle. I would have thought the opposite.

“I would have thought the more congregated you have the cattle, the more health problems you would have, and it seems to be exactly the opposite because we leave the bacteria behind.

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“Every three or four days we’re on the move. (The cattle) never get in the water, they’ve got fresh salt and mineral. They’ve got fresh grass, and they just thrive on it. We have gone 70 days without treating an animal. That is our record — 840 head of heifers and 70 days without treating one.”