By Tania Foster

It takes a little ingenuity and a lot of troubleshooting, but implementing a rotational grazing system can give a virtual face-lift to otherwise unproductive rangeland.

Pittsburg, OK, rancher Joe Chappell says rotational grazing has enhanced his land's resources, increased stocking rates and improved his bottom line.

But he will be the first to tell you it didn't happen overnight.

When he and his wife, Judy, bought their southeast Oklahoma ranch eight years ago, the operation maintained 200 mother cows on land covered predominately in brush and blackberry bushes. Today, Chappell runs between 600 and 800 head of cattle, harvests hay from rejuvenated meadows and has increased the wildlife population.

"These improvements aren't a result of any single effort. It is a matter of forming a balance between your business and the environment that supports your business. We had to do something in order for this ranch to pay for itself," Chappell says.

"I have been ranching my whole life, but had never done any work with rotational grazing. We started with it the year after we bought the ranch. The value of the land has increased so much; the money we have put in has done a good job for us. But it is an on-going process," he says.

Chappell first sought help from the Noble Foundation, in Ardmore, OK. As an agricultural research center, the Noble Foundation works with producers, like Chappell, to improve their ranching conditions.

Originally, the operation was divided into four pastures. After clearing over 1,000 acres of brush, building 35 stock ponds and putting up 18 miles of electric fence, the ranch is now broken up into 36 pastures covering 5,000 acres. Each pasture size varies according to its terrain, forage productivity and water availability.

In the beginning, Chappell says his biggest expense was fencing--used in combination with the operation's permanent fencelines.

"Electric fence is effective and it is virtually maintenance-free. It probably takes you longer to clear where you want to put it than it takes to put it in," he says. "Every two to three years, we will spray along all the fencelines to kill the brush. I want to be able to see my fences and get to them if anything needs to be fixed."

Chappell also burns at least one-third of his ranch every year, and uses his cattle to trample the remaining problem areas.

"We like to burn. I think that is the most cost effective way we can control brush. Plus, with rotational grazing, you can control where your cattle roam, and that helps with brush control too," he adds.

Before fall calving begins, the cows are separated into two herds of spring and fall calvers, in order to give more attention to the nursing mothers through the winter. After the spring calves are worked, the herd is combined into one group for the spring and summer months.

In the spring, the cattle are moved everyday, to "top" the new grasses. It takes at least 30 days before the herd is back in the same pasture again. As the growing season slows down, the rotation is slowed, so the cattle stay in a pasture two days, with the entire rotation cut down to two weeks. This way, the cattle can get ahead of the grass before winter sets in, and next year's growth can come on strong.

According to Chappell, the amount of labor it takes to run a rotational grazing system is two-fold. The initial work load is increased, while time is spent setting up a pasture rotation. It takes time for a herd to become accustomed to changing pastures. Feed troughs and mineral feeders also have to be continually moved. But Chappell says after he established a functional system, the amount of time he spends checking his cattle has been significantly reduced, and he still sees his herd everyday.

"I'm the type of person that likes control, and I like things to stay where I put them. Rotational grazing fit into what I needed," he says. "I don't have to ride all over the country looking for my cattle. In 10 to 15 minutes, every one of them walks by me when we are changing pastures. Once they get into the rotating system, they love to change. They want to get on that new, fresh grass.

"In the winter, we will have 450 to 500 mama cows and around 200 large calves with them. We also keep 250 replacement heifers and over 30 head of bulls. But before noon, two of us will have all those cattle taken care of," he says.

Chappell has found that for his operation, pregnancy checking is not cost effective. He sees his cattle often enough that within his 75-day calving window, the culls can be easily picked out. Anything that has not had a calf within the fall or spring calving seasons is sold.

Controlling where and how long cattle roam in one area has substantially improved the operation's grass conditions. Cattle get a good mix of native grasses, including fescue and rye grass in the spring, and bluestem and switchgrass in the summer. Native lespedeza and bermuda grass also are common to the ranch. Chappell continuously monitors the changes and characteristics of the different grasses.

"Bluestem does well under a rotational grazing system. It comes back fast, but it kills out easy too. Switchgrass is a high protein grass that is really coming back. The bermuda grass is expanding too. In the spring, the cattle really go to the fescue, when it is packing a lot of protein," Chappell says.

"If cattle are let to go where they want, they will overgraze your better grasses and not touch the courser grasses. What I have noticed with rotational grazing is that your better grasses seem to come back faster and be more dominant, if they have a chance," he adds.

Chappell recalls a year when the lespedeza was so abundant that bloat became a problem. He attributes it to the cattle not eating a balance of the available forage.

"As long as they get a mix of grasses, there is no problem. But that lespedeza will bloat them, if they don't get enough of everything else. I put a bloat block out and everything was fine after that. We only had the problem one year, but it took a while to figure out what was causing it," he says.

The operation doesn't have a lot of fescue, so Chappell is quick to utilize what there is. Each year, he will take a few pastures with more fescue out of the rotation and bale it in the fall. Not only does this provide good winter feed, but it cuts out the cost of having to feed cake, while still supplying the necessary protein.

He does some overseeding of different grasses and clovers in the meadows, but has found, for the most part, overseeding is ineffective, because the grasses occur naturally. It is fertilizer that has had the greatest impact on the ranch's forage rejuvenation program.

"We have made improvements by overseeding, but fertilizing has made the biggest difference. And we are getting the hay put up in the right kind of shape," Chappell says.

"Improving our meadows has really improved our hay quality and reduced costs. When I came here, a five-by-six roll was about all we were getting per acre. On one meadow where we used to get 38 rolls, we got 260 last year by taking care of it."

Drought conditions are tough on any operation, and Chappell's ranch is no exception. Over the last two years, he has had to cut back his herd by 50 head. He says that is nothing compared to what it could have been had he not been rotating his cattle.

"During the drought, we sure used the pastures up. But the cattle still did pretty good. A lot of people had to get rid of their cows. I would have had to do the same thing, or start haying them, if I didn't have this ranch set up like it is," he says.

On average, the ranch will support a cow on six acres. Some replacement heifers are kept back each year and all the steer calves are marketed off the cow at weaning age. Chappell retains ownership on a few head of steers through the Noble Foundation, which tracks cattle performance all the way through the slaughterhouse.

"We get information from the foundation that cow-calf producers like us really need. It is paying off in our stockers we sell, because we have developed a history on our cattle. We buy all performance-tested Angus bulls and cross them on a crossbred cow. But I don't send the best calves to be tested. I pick them out from the middle on down. If those cattle are doing a good job, then I don't worry about the top end," Chappell says.

Rotational grazing has had a significant impact on reducing Chappell's production costs well over 50%. For perspective, in 1992, it cost him $60 per year to keep a cow. As of 1997, the number had dropped to $22.50.

He uses the rotational grazing program in combination with an effective, yet cost efficient, mineral and health program to realize the greatest cost benefits. Chappell is particular about not using synthetic drugs or chemicals on his cattle. Mineral is bought by the semi-load, and he has found a unique solution to fly, tick and parasite control, in the form of diatomaceous earth.

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is fossil shells, mostly of marine life, which is mined in Nevada and Arizona. Chappell feeds it free-choice and mixed in the mineral.

"These cattle are completely drug and chemical free, and our program does a good job for us. We get our mineral cheaper buying it by the semi-load. The DE kills larvae in manure and it is totally non-toxic. We take fecal samples and it is doing its job. We use it for our horses too. And when the cattle are rotated, flies and parasites are left behind. That also makes a big difference," Chappell says.

To get the production cost cuts he is operating at now took some time. But once there, the numbers have given Chappell's operation a powerful boost. While there are as many ways to do rotational grazing as there are ranchers doing it, a producer must find what fits his or her particular situation.

As far as Chappell is concerned, he takes comfort in knowing that establishing a rotational grazing program has added to his bottom line.

"We can pin point exactly what our costs are in each phase of the operation, because everything is broken down for each year we have owned the ranch, since 1992. One thing alone has not made this ranch move from 250 to 800 head. It has been a combined effort," Chappell says.

"You have to keep growing or get rid of it. I never have been able to leave things the way they are. If you are not motivated by what you are doing, especially in this business, you have to do something else."

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