Boom-bust cycles are supposed to be a bad thing, but not for Ray Banister.
After 40 years’ experience with rotational grazing on his 7,200-acre Montana ranch, he now uses intense periods of grazing followed by two growing seasons of rest. Banister calls it “boom-bust” management. This strategy forces his Hereford cattle to eat not just the most palatable plants that they prefer, but also the less palatable ones they previously ignored.
Instead of just looking at the grass, he monitors the least-palatable species such as sagebrush and snowberry for clues of when the animals should be moved to a new pasture. Only after they have eaten the junk are they allowed to move on.
“You know you’re going to get hit. You know you’re going to have droughts and grasshoppers. You want a system that can take the hit and keep on going. We want tough people, tough cattle and tough land,” said Banister, who appears in a DVD produced by Utah State University professor Fred Provenza.
Banister believes that stress and recovery from stress strengthens both his pastures and his cow herd. By grazing every plant species hard, then allowing extended rest periods, diversity is improved because no single species is given a competitive advantage.
The transition was not without trauma. During the first three years, weaning weights of his calves plunged from 500 pounds on average to just 350, but then bounced back to over 500 pounds after the young calves learned from their mothers that eating a mix of all the plants available is the key to thriving under the new management system.
Now, even in an extended drought, no part of the ranch lacks abundant cover.
Just as dairy cattle confined to barns over generations can “forget” that grass is food, Banister “modified” his cattle through management practices to get them to eat trees, snowberry and brush, as well as their favourite plants.
Over time, he has noticed that individual animals in his herd have developed specific niches that they exploit.
“Some cows will eat sagebrush, some don’t want to touch it. You got some cows that eat the old dead stuff, while others want the regrowth. But when you put them all together, you get an efficient harvesting machine,” he said. [email protected]