I’m always on the lookout for great examples of how the same farming and ranching practices that help producers adapt to the extreme weather events that climate change is exacerbating can also help their bottom lines. Too many times folks assume that the actions needed to help address environmental challenges will result in reduced profits for anyone who tries to implement them on their land when the exact opposite is often the case. Today I have a great example of how different management practices on pasture and rangeland can help make a rancher more money while at the same time building drought resiliency and reducing wildfire risk and it comes courtesy of the fine folks at Oklahoma State University (OSU).
On May 13th, 2022 OSU hosted the “Burnin’ and Browsin’ field day at their Range Research Station in Stillwater Oklahoma. I have to say that it was honestly one of the best field days I’ve ever attended. The purpose of this event was to highlight the research that the University has been doing using goats and cattle in a multi-species grazing system, in conjunction with patch burning, to help control woody invasive species, adapt to a more extreme climate, reduce wildfire fuel load and increase overall profitability.
Part of an overall collaboration between research, teaching, and extension faculty from Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and the University of Nebraska called the ‘prairie project’, the OSU research highlighted how a rancher can increase their profitability by using patch burn grazing to improve range conditions while increasing income by incorporating goats in with cows. The goats, as browsers, work in conjunction with the grazers (cows), eating the woody plant species that the cattle find unpalatable. Through this work, OSU has shown that you can run roughly two goats for every cow in most range conditions and not change overall stocking rates. This means more income from the incorporation of goats while maintaining and potentially increasing your revenue stream from cattle since the cattle will preform better as range conditions improve.
Through the utilization of patch burning grazing, the cows and goats have access to higher quality new growth forage. Research has shown that forage quality is highest for the first 150 days following a burn. By using patch burning more than once a year, cow-calf operations can provide high quality forage for a great proportion of the year. When July or August burns were conducted as part of this research, the team found that they were able to delay winter protein supplementation from Nov. 1st until January 1st, with no reduction in cow or calf performance, because of the high -quality forage available on the burned areas.
With stockers, an 11-year study in western Oklahoma compared performance in patch burned pastures versus traditionally managed pastures. Researchers found that from 1999-2001 there was no statistical difference in stocker weight gains in the traditionally versus patch burned pastures. Then in 2002, the stockers in the patch burn pastures started gaining more weight and continued to gain more weight through the end of the study in 2009.
When it comes to drought resiliency, patch burn grazing helps stabilize livestock weight gains during dry years since cattle have access to areas with forage growth from both the current year as well as previous years. After a patch burn, cattle go to the regrowth on recently burned areas, allowing other areas to rest while stockpiling forage for use during drought or for future burns. This approach has allowed OSU to almost eliminate the need for supplemental hay while “hardening” their grazing operation to the point that during the record drought of 2011-2015 they only had to reduce their overall numbers by less than one percent.
All this improvement in range conditions also happened in conjunction with wildfire fuel reduction and increased income from the incorporation of goats. In fact, in just the first year of the project, the team was able to recoup 89% of the initial costs of the introduction of the goats—that’s the cost of the does, bucks, and guard dogs.
It’s pretty impressive when you look at the numbers. 80% of the does were first time mothers. They each had 1.5 kids during the year. It took 100 days to get the kids to weaning weight where they brought $2.99 a pound at the sale barn or were sold as replacement does for an average of $240 a head.
That’s a pretty good return on investment while also better preparing your operation for drought and wildfire.
If you want more information on all this you can check out the podcast we did with the OSU Prairie Project team and the video we shot with Laura Goodman, Assistant Professor and Rangeland Extension Ecology Specialist. You can also check out the Prairie Project website at https://www.theprairieproject.org/.
Addressing climate change and profitability CAN go hand in hand. The prairie project is another example that shows that.