Improving Soil Health for Maximum Long-Term Profitability in Beef Farming

Greenbio > Blog > Improving Soil Health for Maximum Long-Term Profitability in Beef Farming

When it comes to breeding cattle and management – everything revolves around body condition. All of the breeding and management decisions will affect body condition and vice versa.

Any natural food production system, where nutritional natural food is produced relies on soil health. It therefore goes without saying that a beef farm is not exempt from building up their soil, if they want to stay or become profitable, and especially if they want to increase profits while building the soil health.

In beef farming, as with so many farming operations such as vegetables, cash crops, and other animal operations – the input costs, chemical usage, and use of antibiotics must be reduced. This improves profitability, but it must also be done before the consumer demands it.

What are the profit drivers for beef farming?

  • Stocking rate
  • Fertility
  • Growth
  • Carcass quality

If Carcass quality has a score of 1, then the other drivers have the following scores:

  • Stocking rate – 8
  • Fertility – 4
  • Growth – 2
  • Carcass quality – 1

Having a natural resource that regrows even if the conditions are sometimes sub-optimal, and not using this resource fully is a waste. We must start using our natural resources to their full potential. Grasslands are probably the most under-utilised resource in animal production, and we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we can improve a production system, that has evolved over centuries, where a ruminate makes protein from dry lignified poor-quality grass.

A healthy grassland, be it prairie or savanna, is arguably the largest living system that can sequestrate carbon into the soil. It can hold more water than all the river systems combined and supports a diversity of life that we have destroyed through the finite thinking of man, who believes in understocking and overgrazing our grasslands for beef and sheep production.

How can we correct beef production so that we create healthy, living and diverse grasslands, that not only supports ruminant animal production, but also improves the whole food web? There is an unstoppable movement where farmers are using non-selective grazing – through Ultra High-Density Grazing (UHDG) methods. The production animals are confined to a small area, where the area depends on the amount of feed available and the number of moves the farmer does per day.

What is crucial regarding UHDG is the rest period that the grassland has to recover, and this rest period is normally longer than any conventional grazing method. With the conventional grazing method, the animals are in the camp for so long that they start eating the regrowth again, and this causes the overgrazing. Your resultant utilisation of the veld is poor.

Why in cattle ranching have we become accustomed to measuring our profit per animal?

This has resulted in the following:

  • Bragging rights – heaviest calf weaned
    • What was the input cost to achieve the heaviest weight?
    • What was the mothers ICP before and after weaning the heaviest calves?
  • Calving out of sync with nature
  • You must feed to breed

What is the ability of a beef cow to produce a calf every year from the age of 24 months off the veld with minimal input costs? Probably a weaning weight of between 40 – 50% of the mother’s weight at 7-month weaning.

To wean the heaviest calf we have also adapted our grazing management accordingly, that the breeding herd can always graze selectively. This has resulted in a situation where the veld is understocked but overgrazed

The quality of the veld has diminished, the poorer quality grasses dominate, and the diversity of the veld is also negatively affected. Our input costs are rising, and beef farming is not as profitable as it can be.

We are underutilising the resources that we get for free.

The fact that we must feed to breed has necessitated that extra feed is produced for the beef herd.

Hay is cut baled and stored, or silage is made so that we can feed the animals during the periods where the natural veld cannot sustain the mother animal and her calf. We are however not utilising the veld effectively, or we are reading nature wrong and calving during periods where no wildlife has got baby animals.

What effect has the above-mentioned grazing management had on the soil?

  • Poor water penetration
  • Poor water retention
  • Poor soil microbiology
  • Compaction
  • Poor plant diversity – favours the less palatable grasses and poorer grass types.
  • Poor insect diversity.
  • Increases chemical parasite control, both internal and external.
  • Poor animal condition, the soil does not contribute to animal production.

What Must Change?

Beef farmers must have a fundamental mind shift and start calculating profit per hectare and not profit per animal.

It is often said the fertility has low heritability. How can a trait that has to do with the survival of a species be low heritable?

Fertility

  • Determined by hormonal balance and body condition
  • Body condition is determined by nutrition and genetics (Relative Intake/Inherent body condition)
  • Body condition (fertility) can be increased by feeding or breeding (or a combination of both)
  • Nutrition (Body condition) can also be increased cheaply by calving and weaning on or close to the period of green grass.
  • The components of fertility (hormones and inherent body condition) are highly heritable – therefore, fertility is highly heritable.
  • There are super fertile individuals in most herds. They must be identified.
  • The most fertile heifers are identified by early mating. Those that reconceive and exhibit a short corrected ICP are the most fertile.
  • Bulls from the most fertile cows and those with a fast 12-month maturity rate are multi-sired at an early age. Those producing the most calves are the most fertile.
  • Accelerate this process of natural selection for fertility with AI
  • Exploit the fact that there are fertile heifers in most herds. Buying young heifers, breed them early (with appropriate bulls) and keep the small percentage that are pregnant.
  • Use common sense, heifers that don’t breed young can be retained for herd expansion. The important thing is to identify the most fertile for bull breeding and herd improvement

Source: Johan Zietsman

Stocking Rate

Overgrazing is a factor of time, not animal numbers.

With current practices where the veld is so underutilised most beef herds can be doubled immediately without any detrimental effect on the veld. The most important management requirement with any grazing system is the amount of time the grazed grass must recover. The lower the rainfall, the longer the recovery period.

Here, once again, all farms differ, and every farmer must determine his own recovery period.

There are farmers that have doubled their stocking rate over the last 6 years, in a period when we have probably gone through the worst drought in 100 years, and they have improved the quality of their grazing while doing so. The neighbours have decreased their stocking rate, and by doing so are aggravating their problem, both financially and in terms of veld condition.

Remember that the stocking rate has the biggest influence on profitability.

Time-Controlled High Animal Impact and Non-Selective grazing or Ultra High-Density grazing.

What are we trying to achieve by using the above-mentioned grazing practices? The primary goal is improved grass utilisation: using all the grass by either having it eaten or it must be trampled so that it is flat on the ground so that it can create soil cover and a seed bed and finally food for the various bacteria in the soil.

When done correctly the grass quantity and quality improves and this again improves the carbon sequestration from the air. This increases the carbon quantity in the soil, which ultimately improves soil health.

The cattle must graze non-selectively, or the herding effect must be so great that they trample the unpalatable grasses. The camp must also be small enough so that the soiling of the grass is minimised, the dung and urine distribution must be evenly distributed over the paddock. This again has a benefit for the soil microbiology and the diversity of life.

With the better veld utilisation, our grazing days also increase, there are farmers that at any given time have 180 – 240 grazing days left with triple the stocking rate compared to their neighbours.

What will improve through UHDG:

  • Improved water penetration
  • Improved water retention
  • Improved root stimulation
  • Improved soil biology
  • Improved grass brix values.
  • Improved grass and legume diversity
  • Improved insect diversity
  • Improved soil mineral cycles
  • Increased grazing days
  • Improved drought resistance.

What is very interesting when doing UHDG is that the growing season of the grass extends because of the improved soil biology and improved water retention in the soil.

We must create a herding effect of the animals; the management practice must mimic the predator. Controlling the herd so that they graze in small areas is achieved by using a single strand poly wire with an effective energiser (a single strand works for cows, sheep need more).  The energisers can also be charged with solar panels, making this grazing practice very easy to achieve.

Farmers that have done it for years already will always say that the more moves a day there are, the more beneficial. Having smaller areas grazed more quickly has the most positive effect on the soil and the veld. There are farmers that do up to 10 moves a day, with between 650 – 850 animals in a herd.

The mind shift to moving the cattle daily from either weekly, monthly or even yearly out of a camp is huge, and is probably the biggest stumbling block for a beef farmer.

The biggest challenge is that nobody can give you a recipe and tell you how to do it. The farmer must manage it, and the farmer must make it work on his farm and in their environment.

The biggest challenge when changing over to UHDG is the conception drop in the first season. It is also probably the biggest reason why farmers have started with the UHDG and then say it does not work.

The genetics of the animal must be adapted so that the mother animals give you a calf at the age of 2 years and then reconceive again, to give you a calf at 3 years, and every year after that. To achieve this the individual animal is more important than the breed.

There are farmers that have done this without changing their breed, using Bonsmara cattle or Drankensberger stud animals. Other farmers have used cross breeds, where they have used African genetics to improve the fertility of their animals, and the inherent body condition of the animals.

To change your genetics takes time, but the wait is worth it. We must adapt our animals so that we don’t feed to breed. Feeding is a management tool; it must not be a crutch that we cannot do without.

We must produce veld adapted animals that can breed you a calf off the veld at two and three years, with minimal input costs.

When starting with UHDG you will have to supplement the feed of your animals. The competition for feed is raised and you are now grazing non-selectively. The animals will lose condition if they are not adapted to this management style. It is not the animal’s fault – we have used the wrong criteria for the mother animal where she had to produce a heavy weaner.

The interaction between genotype and environment is always at play. Therefore, a certain genetic size (frame/weight) is, phenotype wise, larger in a better nutritional environment (higher energy, protein and minerals). The better nutrition is usually allied to lower rainfall and higher soil pH. A better nutritional environment will allow a larger (frame) genotype to be “productive “(growth, reproduction) in other words better nutrition is forgiving in terms of frame size. Regardless of nutritional status, higher productive efficiency (profit/hectare) is positively related to a smaller frame size (higher relative intake, inherent body condition, practical fertility). Select for productive efficiency which will result in the optimum frame size for your environment. The smaller and heavier the better.

Source: Johan Zietsman

The advantages of UHDG in relation to soil health, cannot be disputed.

Jay Fuhrer a soil health specialist says – “If you take more carbon out of the soil than what you add, your children will not farm your land”

With UHDG there are movements already that are talking about carbon negative cows. Through this grazing management, more Carbon is added to the soil through photosynthesis (this is the only way carbon is added to the soil) than what is lost.

“I applied high-density grazing (not UHDG) with some of my sheep and cattle this year (3 days to 2 weeks in a paddock) this was caused by probably one of the most severe droughts in history. To say I’m happy with the result is an understatement. I would not have made it with the available grass and continues grazing.

I only did it with ewes with lambs. At the end, there were almost 6000 sheep in one paddock.

Two things happened that amazed me.

I have three breeding seasons per year. Breeding young ewes at 12 months and then lambing every 8 months till my normal season which is October.

Last year I only bred the mature ewes to lamb from 1 November (as advised by Johan Zietsman) to lamb on green grass. In the past I tried to breed these ewes 45 days after lambing, without success.

Predator loss was high this year, so I decided to put 1,5% rams with the ewes to service the ewes without lambs.

84% of the ewes conceived within 21 days.

I credit it to 4 factors.

  • Feeding was more consistent due to high-density grazing
  • Grass was more nutritious due to drought
  • Selecting rams primarily on condition for many years.
  • Most importantly – the condition of the ewes when lambing

I have shifted my calving season with 50 days – to calve closer on green grass and my lambing season for 30 days.

The financial benefit in the first year have been massive already.”

Source: Pikkie Uys

“Our goal is max sustainable profit per hectare.

You achieve that by:

  • Breeding an early maturing, inherently fat animal with a high relative grass intake.
  • You manage them under UHDG to graze non-selectively with enough recovery time, improving your soil, microbes, species composition and overall plant health and production.

Second to stocking rate, the biggest contributor to our goal is fertility. Fertility is a function of hormonal balance and BCS.

And this is the reason why you have a breeding season, so that you calve on green grass and match your peak natural grazing with the cows peak nutritional needs”

Source: DF Fyfer

CONCLUSION

Using UHDG to improve your soil biology and all the advantages that this brings will become a necessity. Climate change, and it is happening, will outperform any of the current conventional agricultural system that relies on chemical input costs. The Input cost will skyrocket, and the soil will be left bare.

We must start changing our farming practices so that we farm with nature and not against her. We must use management practices that build carbon in the soil that is directly proportional to soil health.

UHDG is one of the tools that can be used to build soil health.

The reality is we don’t have to change – But we will have to compete with those who do – Gerrit van Zyl

I would like to thank the Profitable Ranching group of Johan Zietsman for all their inputs, and observations in regards to Regenerative Beef production.

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