Bench Ranch utilizes grazing strategies to improve production
Tom Heyneman has been using intensive grazing to improve grass production on the Bench Ranch near Fishtail, Mont., which his parents bought in the 1950s. They had sheep and dairy cows, and the family raised registered Red Angus cattle.
“They did this for many years, and then in the early 1980s they attended one of Allan Savory’s seminars,” says Tom. “By the mid-1980s, my parents were utilizing some holistic management principles and Wayne Burleson, a certified holistic management educator, began helping them do a lot of cross-fencing.”
“This was such a new concept in the 1980s and 1990s, and many people thought these were radical ideas. There was a lot of skepticism among other ranchers,” Tom explains, sharing the nickname for holistic management was Ranching Made Difficult.
Originally, Tom’s parents ran 150 cow/calf pairs. Later, with cross-fencing and intensive grazing, they increased their grass production and cattle numbers. In the late 1980s, they dispersed the registered cattle and just had a commercial herd with a Red Angus base.
Tom and his wife Karen came back to the ranch in 2010 and started doing custom grazing. This was easier to operate without having to winter any cattle or feed hay.
“Custom grazing has worked out very well. We can decide what class of animals we want and make decisions on how long they graze,” he explains. “From a grazing standpoint, for what the pastures need, this has been very helpful.”
Throughout the past decade, the Heynemans have utilized fast rotations through most of the pastures.
“There are larger pastures, about 400 acres in size, we don’t divide,” says Tom. “The cattle stay in those pastures a little longer, which give us a break from moving them. Instead of moving two or three times a week, the cattle can go a week or 10 days in the pastures without being moved.”
Change over time
Tom has greatly appreciated the help Wayne Burleson has given his family’s ranch over the years.
“He’s given tours and pasture walks here as well as hosting classes and workshops,” says Tom. “These pastures have been monitored for a long time, and the photos taken early on by Wayne are a great way to compare what the land looked like when we started to what the pastures look like today and document the progress in grass production.”
“There is an obvious contrast,” he states. “It’s easy to forget what it looked like earlier because the changes are slow and subtle, but in looking at photos from 20 years ago or longer, I can see a big difference.”
Over 20 years ago, the Heyneman’s fed big round bales on some dry benchland during the winter so the cows would stomp out the sagebrush, which had become very dense on the high, dry area.
“The cows broke the electric fence and got into all the round bales which had been put up there,” says Burleson. “They trampled all the hay into the soil and deposited lots of manure and urine on one area, which created a sheet of compost.”
Today, one can still see where the cows created the natural compost – the grass is about three times higher than in the areas they didn’t stomp it in.
“The amazing thing is 20 years later, there is a lot more tall grass, especially green needlegrass, still growing on the trampled area and the sagebrush is less,” Burleson continues. “The area next to this spot, which didn’t have the cattle impact, has almost no grass except a few tufts of Idaho fescue and a lot of big, healthy sagebrush.”
Burleson says the changes in the soil are significant on the Bench Ranch in certain locations.
“One such area is in a corner of a pasture where cattle had to come for water from an irrigation ditch,” he says. “They concentrated in this one flat area for three days or so and trampled all the tall grass into the soil while adding their manure and urine. This action created a layer of sheet compost.”
He continues, “The area used to be short grass but has now become tall grass.”
Tom and Karen work together on managing the ranch and cattle. Custom grazing makes life easier, only having to move cattle from pasture to pasture during summer. There are no winter chores, no cattle to feed and no hay to put up for winter feeding.
“We can choose when we want to have cattle here,” Tom says.
“Some years we buy some bred heifers to calve out or yearlings,” he explains. “One year we bought short-term cows and calved them out. Other years we just custom graze for someone else.”
He continues, “We have flexibility, so we can do a variety of things depending on what the cattle market is doing. If there is an opportunity we know will make some money then we buy cattle, and other years we don’t have to. We just custom graze for someone else.”
Their cattle program is not at the mercy of the markets, and they can pick and choose what they want to do. In a drought, they can destock if necessary.
“Karen writes the terms of our custom grazing contracts, and this includes a statement stating we can destock if we see fit. So far, we’ve never had to, but we always have the option in the grazing contracts,” Tom explains.
Soil health, as well as grass production, has improved on most pastures during the past 35 years.
“We still battle a few weeds, and we haven’t done any soil monitoring so I don’t know the carbon levels or how much organic matter we’ve added,” says Tom.
It’s been a progression of learning experiences from the beginning. In the early days, Tom notes, the Bench Ranch was just a small farm with sheep, pigs, dairy cows and the purebred Red Angus herd.
“When Karen and I came on board, we focused more on the grass and custom grazing,” says Tom. “We call ourselves grass ranchers rather than cattle ranchers. Grass is what we grow and everything else depends on it.”
The lifestyle is very satisfying, according to Tom. One of the things he and Karen enjoy most is riding their mules.
“We use them for moving livestock,” says Tom. “We often use a combination of moving cattle with our mules and/or a side-by-side.”
The cattle are easy to move because they are always eager to go to the next pasture, he adds. Tom and Karen practice low-stress cattle handling, which also makes everything easier.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.