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Breakthrough! A grazing shorthand – RG,2,45K

Woody Lane, Ph.D. for Progressive Forage Published on 01 June 2017
Cattle grazing

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines “breakthrough” as “a sudden advance, especially in knowledge or technique.” Here’s one that just happened in the world of grazing: RG,2,45K. Let’s talk.

Early this year at a forage conference, I attended a session on something called “mob grazing.” That’s all the rage in grazing circles these days – large, high-stocking-density groups of sheep or cattle moving from grazing cell to grazing cell – intense, short-period grazing sessions followed by long rest periods, reminiscent of the vast herds of bison moving majestically across the Plains.

Some popular magazines are filled with lots of excited claims and glowing testimonials about mob grazing, but include little real science.

But the speaker at this forage conference was Dennis Hancock, extension forage specialist for the University of Georgia. Hancock is no-nonsense about science, and he was doing a commendable job of reviewing these claims and comparing them to other systems like management intensive grazing.

Then he put something on the screen that stopped me cold. It was just a couple of numbers and letters: “RG,2” but those numbers and letters spoke worlds and broke through the tangle of confusing terms and concepts. As Hancock explained, “RG,2” simply meant “rotational grazing system where the animals were moved every two days.”

A simple code, but it concisely summarized a management system that would normally require a wordy description of three or four sentences. As Hancock continued his presentation, I scrawled a few notes on my yellow pad. I thought his coding system was superb, but something was missing; there was still a lot of ambiguity in that coding. Something more was needed to complete the description in an unambiguous way.

Then I got it. Afterwards, in the hallway, the two of us talked about this code and possible improvements. In addition to the speed of animal movement, we needed something to describe how much pressure the animals put on the pasture.

Basically, this shorthand code should answer two questions: How often were the animals moved and how did their grazing affect the forage? So I added my suggestion: Include the stocking density as part of the code. Bingo.

So now we have it complete: “RG,2,45K” – a shorthand that describes the basic framework of a grazing system. (Notice there are no spaces after the commas. This keeps the shorthand exquisitely short.) Our example RG,2,45K describes a rotational grazing system (RG) in which livestock are moved every two days (2) with a stocking density of 45,000 pounds per acre (45K).

There is no need to add lots of zeros after 45 since stocking density is generally rounded to thousands. Also, in today’s computer and internet world, most folks readily understand “K” means thousands (and, in this case, not potassium).

“Stocking density?” A hugely important concept. And this terminology is becoming quite common in the grazing world, although folks sometimes call it “grazing pressure.” Either way, it can be strictly defined. Stocking density (SD) is the number of pounds of livestock per acre at any given point in time.

Essentially, it’s a snapshot of a field grazed at a single instant. SD is not limited to any single species of livestock or how long they remain in that field. It’s just a snapshot of the weight of livestock in a field on a per-acre basis. The pounds of livestock could be any grazing species: beef cattle, sheep, goats, dairy cattle, bison, horses, elk, impala or wildebeest.

One strength of SD is: It permits easy comparisons between operations that raise different livestock species. It also allows easy comparisons from month to month or year to year on the same property as the management and pasture conditions change.

Stocking density is easy to calculate. Just add up all the animal weights and divide by the number of acres. Here’s an example: a group of 24 feeder steers grazing a 2-acre field. If the steers average 600 pounds, the total herd weight is 14,400 pounds. Divide by the number of acres (2), and we get a stocking density of 7,200 pounds per acre.

If we confine all the animals in 1 acre, the SD rises to 14,400 pounds per acre. If the cattle are fenced into only a half-acre parcel, the SD becomes 28,800 pounds per acre. You get the picture. We can obtain the same SD of 28,800, of course, with other combinations of animals and acres – for example, 180 ewes (160 pounds each) on 1 acre. (You can do the math.) Or ... 18 elephants each weighing 6,400 pounds on 4 acres. But let’s not go there.

Let’s also not confuse stocking density with “stocking rate,” which is the number of “animal units” an acreage can carry for a growing season. (An animal unit is usually defined as a 1,000-pound cow with a calf by her side, although there are some variations of this.)

Government agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management use stocking rate to manage grazing allotments on public land. They charge a standard monthly fee per animal unit to ranchers who graze their livestock on those lands.

Stocking rate relates to the “carrying capacity” of a property. While stocking rate is an essential concept for public land management in range and mountain country, it’s a concept that kind of falls apart with improved pastures where we can apply fertilizer, plant high-yielding forages, feed supplements and hay, and change livestock numbers frequently by buying and selling.

Back to our grazing shorthand, which is something we can definitely use with improved pastures. In the opening paragraph, I used the example of “RG,2,45K.” How has this shorthand been received in the field? Well, here in Oregon, I facilitate some rancher forage study groups.

In our monthly meetings, I routinely share post-conference information with them. During two forage group meetings last month, I described this grazing shorthand in some detail and wrote the codes on a whiteboard. Whoa. The ensuing discussions became electric.

Immediately, the ranchers began describing their own operations: RG,1,10K and RG,5,2K and RG,7,5K, etc. With this shorthand code, finally, they could describe their operations quickly and accurately. An example: One rancher explained that he ran 1,000 ewes on some acreage and moved them every day. We asked: How many acres? Oh, approximately 12 acres in each grazing cell.

This was a typical long description, so we broke it down: 1,000 ewes at 175 pounds each equals 175,000 pounds over 12 acres equals 14,583 pounds per acre – or translated into our grazing shorthand: RG,1,15K. Another example: A ranch that practices a style of mob grazing with a large flock of sheep coded its operation as RG,0.5,300K.

Translation: A very large number of sheep were moved twice each day, with a stocking density of 300,000 pounds per acre, which definitely qualifies for the term “mob grazing.” Now everyone in the room could instantly appreciate those numbers and their relation to other grazing operations.

Why is this grazing shorthand so important? Because it is simple, straightforward and easily understandable. With only a few letters and numbers, we can accurately summarize the basic framework of a grazing system. The “RG” tells us the operation follows some form of livestock rotation.

The “2” tells us the number of days between animal movements. And the “45K” gives us a clear visual picture of the livestock density on the pasture, which in turn provides insights into spatial concepts like forage utilization and manure distribution.

Sure, there are some things this shorthand does not cover – things like the actual species of livestock (cattle, sheep or wildebeest), the species of forage and its maturity, the time of year, the physical aspects of the pasture like drainage and slope, the actual soil fertility of the fields, the use of feed supplementation on the pasture, etc.

The shorthand also does not assume anything about the availability of water and minerals in the grazing cell – i.e., are these available inside the grazing cell or do animals walk back to the barn every day like in a dairy operation?

But in practice, these extra details can be described in the subsequent discussion. Because once we write this shorthand on the board, there will be subsequent discussion. We now have a clear starting point.

Too many times, when farmers and ranchers meet, grazing discussions quickly get bogged down in extensive descriptions of their operations and the controversies about defining various terms. Jargon gets in the way, long descriptions get in the way, and discussions veer off into verbal tangents.

This grazing shorthand is a true breakthrough. It eliminates verbose descriptions and cuts through the jargon. Terms like intensive grazing, rotational grazing, mob grazing, trash grazing, forward grazing, whatever grazing – they all basically boil down to the act of moving animals from field to field.

The shorthand code immediately tells us the critical aspects of stock movement. And graziers are very cognizant about stocking density. They can easily visualize differences among 2,000 pounds and 20,000 pounds and 90,000 pounds (2K, 20K, 90K, respectively).

Since everyone can understand the grazing framework and visualize the pasture, the conversation can then build on these numbers and quickly move into important details and meaningful comparisons. At that point, the real sharing and understanding begins.  end mark

PHOTO: A new grazing code has been developed that will facilitate discussions and assessments among graziers. Photo by David Cooper.

Woody Lane is a certified forage and grassland professional with AFGC and teaches forage/grazing courses in Oregon, with an affiliate appointment with the crop and soil science department at Oregon State.

His book, From The Feed Trough: Essays and Insights on Livestock Nutrition in a Complex World, is available through Woody Lane.

Woody Lane, Ph.D.
  • Woody Lane, Ph.D.

  • Certified Forage and Grassland Professional
  • American Forage and Grassland Council