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Balancing cattle and land in the heat of the drought

Cassidy Woolsey Published on 29 May 2015
moving heard to new pasture

According to Henry Giacomini, a successful beef operation is founded upon the principles of balance – economics, cattle management and land health.

And like the classic three-legged stool, Giacomini says one can’t be without the others.

Giacomini, a beef producer in northern California, says, “With this analogy, it is interesting to visualize ourselves and our employees sitting on the stool. If one leg gets short, we all fall off. It is a constant balance we have to maintain.”

Depending on the year, Giacomini’s operation, Hat Creek Grown LLC, ranges anywhere from 150 to 500 stockers and grass-finished cattle, about 500 brood cows and spreads over 60,000 acres. Of those acres, 500 are irrigated, and only 200 are family-owned.

Giacomini says maintaining that balance hasn’t been an easy feat, especially in the midst of the statewide drought. So in order to keep his three-legged stool analogy from teetering, he has had to lean his management focus toward land health and productivity.

“I have realized as the drought progresses that the cattle come and go, but the land is forever,” he says. “It is important that we protect the land no matter what.”

After toying with the idea of staying on his family’s dairy operation, Giacomini and his wife, Pam, returned to the Hat Creek Valley in 1989 to take over her family’s operation. Since then, the couple has progressed through trial and error and adapted to their circumstances.

Fortunately for them, land management and holistic approaches were already a priority long before the drought – some just needed a little tweaking.

Each property has its own prescription

From November to about the middle of May, the cattle are wintered in the foothills of California, a 60-mile distance from the irrigated base property in the Hat Creek Valley. In the summer the cow herd is moved to a Forest Service allotment while the yearlings are sent back to the irrigated pastures.

Because each allotment has its own distinct conditions, Giacomini says he has to manage each as if they had their very own prescription. For example, little management is required on the winter pasture because of its green-up period during the fall and rapid growth cycle in the spring.

Essentially, this property provides a near-perfect approach to minimizing feed costs. However, it isn’t totally exempt from management, he says.

To better utilize the winter pasture’s unique growing season, Giacomini began moderating the number of cattle he wintered on the pasture. In doing so, he has not only lengthened the amount of time the cattle are able to stay, but he has also seen a substantial shift in the amount of residual dry matter left over for the cows to come back to in the fall.

Like others who value land management, he has noticed an improvement in ground cover and the addition of perennials into what had been a primarily annual location.

He says this transition in management has reduced the amount of time in the fall the cattle have to spend on the irrigated pastures, allowing him to maximize their production in other areas.

“It’s all about matching the growth of the grass to the number of cattle we have,” he says.

Pressing through the drought

When looking at his Forest Service allotment, Giacomini has incorporated something similar to a rest rotation but on a larger scale. He keeps the cattle concentrated as much as possible in one pasture and moves them throughout the season into new pastures.

If at all possible, he tries to leave one pasture ungrazed and tries to vary the time each pasture is used every year.

Because of the drought, Giacomini has also started hauling water to different points on the Forest Service allotment. He has noticed he can distribute the cattle to areas where they normally wouldn’t graze just by changing the water point.

What started out as a solution to a negative influence (combating low water conditions) has essentially turned into a positive way to maximize the use of his land. He believes hauling water to different points will remain a critical part of his management even after the drought.

Most of Giacomini’s land management is spent on the 500 acres of irrigated pastures. Because a good portion is family-owned, he is able to manage it more extensively than some of his leased properties.

Those cattle are moved to a new pasture at least every other day and are kept in bunches of 150 to 300 head. He says he has noticed huge improvements in soil health and the overall quality of feed.

“We are continually watching the grass and observing how the conditions are changing, and then we match that change to how we are managing the pasture,” he says. “It’s all about being prepared for times like these where we are caught in a drought.”

Giacomini points out they have used this type of grazing system since moving back to the operation. But over the years, it has evolved as they have continued to learn and make necessary changes to fit the environment.

Depending on how long the drought lasts, Giacomini believes these management approaches have given him a good footing to make it through. He has already eliminated his hay and custom-grazing enterprise, but he predicts he will also have to adjust his cattle herd.

Since calves are so valuable right now, in a worst-case scenario the best thing he could do is maintain the core cow herd, he says.

Giacomini hopes it won’t come to that, but he is prepared to adjust his weaning scheme and the number of cattle on certain pastures. He looks forward to the day he can focus entirely on improving his grazing management rather than getting through the drought.

“To us, they are all a balance we have to maintain. We do spend quite a lot of time managing our cattle but not on a real hands-on basis. We feel it is better to manage our cattle on a herd basis, breed them so they can calve on their own, have them genetically adapted to the environment so they don’t need extra feed or attention and so on.

Then it is their job to perform under those conditions,” he says. “But we have a lot of work to do to make sure that happens. It all has to be matched – your calving season, when you will finish cattle on grass, when you’re trying to put the most pounds on yearlings – it all has to match the environment.”

At one point, Giacomini had close to 21 landlords. He says it takes effort to make sure everyone knows what is going on and is satisfied with his management.

Ideally, Giacomini would like to own his own land one day, but for now he has to ask himself, “Are we in the land business or are we in the ranching business?”

Giacomini plans to continue his management scheme on leased lands. He says the leases provide him with the flexibility he needs to run this type of an operation. He understands that in order to be successful one part of his operation can’t be managed independently of the other.

It is all about integrating and matching the cattle to the current conditions. He attributes his 25 years of success to the holistic approaches that continually improve the land year after year.  FG

Cassidy Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Logan, Utah.

Moving the cow herd on Giacomini’s summer leased pasture.  Photo courtesy of Pam Giacomini.