Cell Grazing: Part VI. Myths, Misconceptions, and Untruths about SGM

By Dr. Jimmy T (Gunny) LaBaume, President & CEO, Land & Livestock International, Inc.

Midway-Station-NT-benefits-from-cell-grazing-249321-255x255[1]One of Einstein’s greatest sayings was, “Great ideas have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” This case is no exception. I have encountered many people who have been highly critical of this approach to ranch management. However, not one single one of them has been to Allen Savory’s school with an open mind and honestly listened to what he actually has to say. I have even known people to make such statements as “none of these ‘Savory Systems’ that I have seen have ever worked”. When challenged to be specific–e.g. tell me which ones you have seen.  Answer: “I can’t” (because the person had never seen the genuine article). Such behavior is a clear sign of mediocre minds.

In addition, piecemeal understanding, personality clashes and petty jealousy (also a sign of a mediocre mind) have contributed to the rise of a number of myths concerning this approach to ranch management. Savory himself once said that he thought it would take 50 years for a complete paradigm change to occur in the field of range management. I disagree–it will take at least a hundred. Why do I think that?

Because I first wrote this back in 1982 (already 31 years ago) and, in spite of the fact that the misconceptions, myths and outright lies have been refuted over and over, these same tired old “objections” still persist for the same tired old reasons–piecemeal understanding, personality clashes and petty jealousy.

What follows is just one more attempt to set the record straight. 

Misconception: SGM won’t work on my place because it is to rough, rocky, hot, cold, steep, swampy, etc, etc etc. “There are only two places that SGM won’t work. One is under water and the other is on a sheer cliff where even a goat couldn’t get a footing.”

Myth: The Savory Grazing Method (SGM) is a grazing “system.” In the first place, the originator of the idea, Mr. Allen Savory, objects to the use of the term “system”. This is because, in most people’s minds, the term connotes a certain rigidity or inflexibility. A close examination of the currently popular grazing “systems” clearly reveals why. Furthermore, although SGM does address the management of the natural rangeland resources, it is much more. It also is an approach to the management of the human and financial resources.

Untruth: SGM is the same thing as Short Duration Grazing. As discussed above, the so called Short Duration Systems usually involve relatively rigid grazing schedules and “forcing the livestock to eat everything” and thereby reducing the competitive advantage of unpalatable species and therefore increasing the opportunity for the desirables to increase. SGM never does either–e.g. force them to eat everything or adopt a rigid grazing schedule. Instead livestock movements and grazing periods are dictated solely by the physiology of the plant life.

Misconception: The “wagon wheel” pasture design is necessary for implementing SGM and, if you have one, then you are using a “Savory System”. This could not be further from the truth. SGM can be implemented by using any configuration of pastures. It can even be implemented without pastures (as in the case of communal or tribal lands) with the use of herding. It can even be implemented, albeit to a lesser degree, through the use of salting and/or water locations. However, it so happens that the “wagon wheel” design greatly facilitates its application. After a brief training period the livestock will essentially move themselves when using this design. Thus, labor required and stress on livestock are held to an absolute minimum.

Unfortunately, the “wagon wheel” design has come to be inseparably associated with the method. This has caused a great deal of erroneous information to be passed within the industry. For example, there are many uninformed operators that have built themselves “wagon wheels” without knowing the proper way to use them. They tell their friends and neighbors that they are running a “Savory System”. Idle passers-by observe what is going on and pass the gossip in the coffee shop–“rancher X is doing one of those “Savory Systems.” Yet, this uninformed operator continues to use a rigid grazing schedule. He refuses to use an adjustable stocking strategy. He does not inventory his forage and budget it out over the grazing year and so forth. Eventually the day of reckoning arrives. Rancher X is out of forage. The entire area is denuded and he is in real trouble. So what is the common conclusion? – “I knew all along that stupid ‘Savory System’ wouldn’t work.” This, in my opinion, is the most tragic thing that has happened in natural resource management in the entire history of the art.

Untruth: When you start you can automatically double the number of livestock you are currently running. This misconception is mostly due to semantics. Actually, the rule of thumb says: A good place start is by doubling the number of livestock that the Natural Resource Conversation Service (NRCS) would recommend for range currently in this condition.

Note a few of the key words. First of all this is a “rule of thumb” and that is all it is. Secondly, it is only a starting point. It should be noted that the doubling is usually conservative—most of the time it turns out to be a tripling or even a quadrupling in the long run. Finally, it is not a doubling of the number of animals that are currently being ran on the area. Instead, it is a doubling of what the NRCS would recommend under present condition. In fact, I knew a rancher in Arizona that did not initially increase his herd by one single animal–he already had double what the NRCS would have recommended.

How is it possible to initially double and eventually triple or quadruple the beginning recommended stocking rate? In the first place, we are not hung-up on the conventional range manager’s “take half and leave half” rule of thumb. We recognize that complete defoliation of a dormant perennial grass plant does it no harm. This fact alone allows for the initial doubling in stocking rate.

In fact, this complete defoliation during dormancy will probably help the plant by getting rid of the buildup of old senescent material. (Isn’t this the way a cool, well-behaved fire invigorates grass?) Therefore, at the beginning of subsequent growing seasons when this plant breaks dormancy, it will likely do so with increased vigor and a larger leaf area index. This increase in photosynthetic material means that more sunlight will be harvested and converted to chemical energy–e.g. overall productivity of the range has been increased due to an increase in the efficiency of energy flow through the system. This is accompanied by an increased rate of nutrient cycling and is what accounts for subsequent increases in stocking rates.

It is simply beyond me as to how some mediocre minds are so critical of this approach. What is wrong with the idea of using the domestic grazing animal as a tool to manipulate the range much like one would use a lawn mower and pruning shears to manipulate the landscape around his home. I’ll bet most of those mediocre minds have lawn mowers and pruning shears.

Myth: Livestock will loiter in the cell center since it contains the only source of water in the cell. This misconception is likely a holdover from the early stages of development of the center cell design. Through trial and error experimentation, it was discovered that a simple design change would solve the problem. This involves construction of the center in the form of two concentric circles rather than just one. The alley way between them is just wide enough to drive a pickup through. With this layout, the livestock come in, water, and leave.

Myth: All the movement will cause calves to be left behind and orphaned. With the center cell design this problem can be overcome in two ways. First, when it comes time to move, leave the gate to the paddock you are moving out of open long enough to allow the cows with newborn calves to return to them. Even if this takes a few days it is of no consequence. The bulk of the livestock will go on into the new paddock. In fact, they don’t want to go back into the old area because they know that they are headed for “fresh grass”. Secondly, the problem can be mitigated by proper design of the electric fence between the paddocks. This involves using two strands of slick wire placed about six inches apart and 30 or so inches above ground level. The bottom wire is the ground wire and the top one is hot. This allows small calves to pass freely under the fence but prevents the cows from doing so.

Myth: SGM is detrimental to wildlife. This argument is made from two standpoints. First, the fences inhibit wildlife movements. This is not necessarily so, provided the fences are constructed as described above. Most wild animals will go under vs. over if given a choice. If you really want to do some damage to wildlife, build yourself some net fences. The second argument centers on the fact that all outlying waters are closed off with the cell center being the sole source of water. This problem has been solved by the development of wildlife waters in the outlying areas. This involves construction of a small concrete basin which is fed by drip. This catchment is so small that a cow cannot water satisfactorily–one gulp and it is all gone. Yet, they are large enough for antelope, deer, quail, etc.

Misconception: The trampling caused by such high livestock density causes soil compaction. Some soils compact more readily than others. For example, soils high in clay may compact rather easily while pure sands resist compaction totally. However, it really doesn’t matter what kind of soil you have, the key is, again, timing and flexibility. Savory gets the idea across this way: Suppose you live on the hill and the well (your only water source) is in the valley below. You only have one container and it will only hold one day’s supply of water. Now, if you made one trip along the same route every day, year round, what would likely happen? Well, you would probably see a well-worn and compacted trail. However, what if you make 365 trips in one day what will you see at the end of the year? Likely you would find no evidence of your trips or at worst you might find a faint trace of your activity.

Once again at the risk of being repetitive–flexibility and timing is the answer. If you are on a soil that is particularly prone to compaction, shorten your grazed periods. If you have one paddock that is prone to compaction during certain times (like right after a rain) simply stay out of that paddock right after rains. It’s really very simple.

In fact, when used properly this trampling (very much a part of what Savory calls the “herd effect”) may be beneficial. From the standpoint of hydrology, you do not ranch on the amount of precipitation you get. Instead, you ranch on the amount of precipitation you keep. Trampling may improve the water balance by breaking the cap or crust that forms on the top of all but the structureless soils. At the same time it creates small micro-watersheds thereby increasing infiltration. Furthermore, it breaks down old senescent plant material and thoroughly mixes it, along with the dung and urine, with the soil. This speeds the nutrient cycling process while planting seed. In fact, using livestock to accomplish this very same task after broadcast re-seeding has been fairly common among the more conventional thinking range managers. It is hard to understand why they are so reluctant to accept it in this form.

In Savory’s words, “The key to range management is the management of the top two centimeters of the soil.” This would seem to be consistent with Smith’s (1979) suggestion for a range condition rating system based primarily on soil characteristics relative to potential stability of the site.

Misconception: Livestock condition and performance will suffer. When taken strictly at face value, this statement is somewhat true. However, there are several facts that those who make it either don’t realize or choose to ignore. It is true that livestock performance will likely suffer especially during the first year after implementation. This is because of the buildup of senescent plant material that is low in nutritive value—especially protein. However, after the “platter has been cleaned”–e.g. the old senescent material either grazed off or trampled down—this becomes less of a problem. Even during the first year, the problem can be mitigated with the use of free choice urea and molasses as described above.

However, the most important fact that is overlooked is due to a common misconception that is widely held across the industry. Livestock producers have been indoctrinated into believing that individual livestock performance measures are ends in themselves. For example, even college level courses in livestock production erroneously leave the impression that maximization of individual livestock performance measures such as average daily gains, calf-crops, weaning weights, etc. should be our primary production goals.

However, think about it this way. Would you like to achieve a 100% calf crop with a 500 pound weaning weight? Most people will instantly, without thinking, say “of course!”. Well, what if you only had one animal? Could you make the mortgage payment? Of course not! Furthermore, although it may be technically possible to reach a certain production goal, it may not be economically desirable. For example, we probably could wean 100% calf crops on western ranges, but what would it cost? Probably much more than we could get in return.

The bottom line is this. Even if individual livestock performance does suffer under SGM, two-250 pound calves will be worth more than one-450 pound calf any day of the week at anybody’s market!

Misconception: SGM is expensive to install. In the first place and as pointed out above, SGM can be implemented without construction of any type of facilities. However, the most efficient center cell set up can be had for less than $10 and as low as $5 per acre. The expensive part is the cell center comprising about 60% of the total cost. It is also permanent. Therefore, this is why it is imperative that the center be properly located from the beginning. By contrast, the paddock fences are relatively inexpensive and easily moved should you not get it right the first time. (Note: these are 1982 numbers but in “real” [inflation adjusted] terms, it is probably even less today due to the great stides that have been made in fencing technology since then.)

Untruth: SGM increases the labor and managerial input requirement. It is easy to see how this misconception could have come about. It would seem to require intense managerial input because of its seeming complexity. However, it is really very simple. All it requires is a basic understanding of plant physiology, the ability to organize one’s work and the application of common sense.

Also, many are under the impression that because livestock numbers are “doubled (or tripled, or quadrupled)” and the livestock are moved so frequently, then the labor requirement doubles (or triples or quadruples). This is simply not so. As pointed out above, after a brief indoctrination period, the animals will essentially move themselves. All a man has to do is open the gate, give the signal (siren or whistle but not a pickup horn), and get the hell out-of-the-way before he gets trampled—they know they are going to fresh grass and like the idea. In other words, with a good center cell layout, one man can handle twice, (or three, or four times) as many livestock as he could handle with conventional fencing. Therefore, per animal labor cost is cut in half (or to a third or to a fourth).

Source: Transcript of a Tape Recorded Session Made at Alan Savory and Stan Parson’s Rancher School. Albuquerque, NM. Spring 1982.

Dr Jimmy T (Gunny) LaBaume [send him mail] is President and CEO of Land & Livestock International, Inc

Copyright © 2013 by Land & Livestock International, Inc. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.

About Land & Livestock Interntional, Inc.

Land and Livestock International, Inc. is a leading agribusiness management firm providing a complete line of services to the range livestock industry. We believe that private property is the foundation of America. Private property and free markets go hand in hand—without property there is no freedom. We also believe that free markets, not government intervention, hold the key to natural resource conservation and environmental preservation. No government bureaucrat can (or will) understand and treat the land with as much respect as its owner. The bureaucrat simply does not have the same motives as does the owner of a capital interest in the property. Our specialty is the working livestock ranch simply because there are so many very good reasons for owning such a property. We provide educational, management and consulting services with a focus on ecologically and financially sustainable land management that will enhance natural processes (water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics) while enhancing profits and steadily building wealth.
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7 Responses to Cell Grazing: Part VI. Myths, Misconceptions, and Untruths about SGM

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