Mob grazing Montana rancher offers insight on high intensity grazing
The term mob grazing is often used to describe short-duration high-intensity grazing – many cattle on a small area of pasture, moved at least once a day to new pasture. Chad Peterson, a Montana rancher who earlier had a ranch in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska, was one of the first stockman in the U.S. to try this method.
He began on a small scale in 2001, feeling his way by trial and error, when his cattle were short of feed.
“I wasn’t happy with the results of my rotation system because we were in a drought and unable to get a long enough recovery period. As an experiment, I kept making the paddocks smaller and smaller to try to extend the recovery period for my pastures. It produced fantastic results so I just kept doing it,” he explains.
By the second year, he was happy with what he was seeing but still not very confident.
“At that time, I met Allan Savory, who was speaking at a meeting. I had a chance to talk with him, read his book and realized that what I was doing was what he called ultra-high stock density. There were stockmen in Africa doing something similar,” says Peterson.
“Terry Gompert, a former Extension agent with University of Nebraska, and Neil Dennis, a Canadian rancher, came to my place to put on a tour in 2007,” Peterson says. “Someone at the tour started calling this mob grazing, and the name stuck.”
While Peterson started the strategy out of necessity, he says the practice has increased the stocking capacity on his land and has helped restore pastures that had been overgrazed many years before.
“Our species diversity in those pastures increased tremendously. We kept finding new plants every year,” says Peterson, noting they have also multiplied pasture productivity.
Some ranchers mob graze a pasture multiple times per year.
“I use a much longer recovery period – a year or longer in some cases and continue to get more diversity in plant species. My pastures needed a long rest because I’m in a more brittle environment,” he says.
“My pastures grew more total forage now than they did before. I greatly increased my stocking rate, but I’d still have enough forage for my cattle even if it didn’t rain for a year,” he explains.
Originally his ranch ran 300-400 cows, but by 2012, he could can run double that and also bring in 700 stockers to graze for six months.
“We are mimicking nature,” Peterson explains, noting his background in livestock actually started in raising buffalo.
He was always interested in trying to understanding the herd dynamics of buffalo, thinking about how they would have behaved 1,000 years ago when they were not confined.
“They traveled in herds and moved a lot, eating out one place and then moving on – the same thing Savory observed in Africa with wild herbivores. This is what I do, trying to keep my animals bunched and moving them as often as I can,” he says.
His advice to anyone thinking about doing mob grazing is pay attention to stockmanship.
“Knowing when to move cattle is both science and art,” he says, noting managers must have a feel for when to move livestock and for the animal-plant interactions. “We are constantly adjusting to our mistakes.”
Peterson says they always adjust for if they move cattle too soon or too late, noting that mob grazing is a constant balancing act, requiring adjusting and fine-tuning.
On ranches that have a few hay meadows balanced by dryland native pasture, Peterson says ranchers can use a combination strategy.
“Ranchers can put cattle in a small piece of more productive pasture and do a good job of intensive grazing and use the other pastures as needed,” he says. “For a few years, I had 600 acres I mob grazed, and it changed my whole ranch. It totally took the pressure off the rest of it, giving it a longer recovery period, so it became healthier and produced better.”
Traditionally, wet meadows or places that can be irrigated are cut for hay and the hillsides and mountain pastures grazed during growing season. Peterson started doing the opposite – mob grazing green meadows and using the hills for winter grazing when grasses on those fragile soils are dormant.
He divided the meadows into long, narrow strips and further divided them with temporary electric fence into paddocks less than an acre in size, moving cattle five or more times each day.
He only grazes each small piece once during the growing season and then gives it a year to recover.
By 2005, it only took three acres per day to feed 900 pairs on his best meadows. These sites were where the previous rancher had fed hay, in calving areas, which increased soil nutrients by adding more litter and manure.
“The first year I tried mob grazing, we were going along at about 15 acres per day, and when we hit that old feed ground, the cattle were satisfied on three acres,” Peterson explains. “It wasn’t creating that much more tonnage, but the nutrient content of the forage was higher. It was more nutritious.”
“If pastures don’t have enough diversity and are grazed too often, we’re managing for only cool season grasses, and it’s like a lawn,” Peterson explains. “In spring, when it’s rapidly growing, we can keep mowing it. But by July and August, without water, it stops growing and turns brown.”
Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.