S.M.I. Overall Grazing Recap 2021

The 2021 grazing season was marked once again by plague and drought and other non-disclosed horseman of the apocalypse however, the work the team has done over the previous year set us up to make the situation as manageable as possible given the context. The work we have done on infrastructure and relationships in the past allowed us to be flexible once again in the face of very adverse ecological conditions. The defining feature of our last two years and especially this year is the drought. On average our ranches received 65% of normal rainfall last year and 35% of normal rainfall this year and that reality shaped the fabric of most events of the season.

We were planning last fall that we would be receiving about 14ish semi loads of cattle over the entire season with different entry dates. We ended up with more like 12 loads on the season. Additionally, they came a month later than normal and left a month early. The impact was a about a 25% reduction in total planned grazing impact which was significant to our partners. However, the collection of suppliers and partners we have with the cattle have allowed us to maintain flexibility in the face of adversity and the value of solid relationships cannot be overstated. 

We knew it was going to be an exceptionally challenging season because many of the ponds that we have always relied on on different properties were completely dried up or at their lowest levels by anyone’s account. After the first more significant rain events of the season in November and December the creeks that reliably get going, just didn’t run with any consistency or strength. It felt like we were waiting the whole season for the ponds to fill and the creeks to run, but it just never materialized. We palpably felt the impact of last year’s drought in 2020 as it felt like the hydrological cycle was truly damaged. 

With the ponds low and the streams barely running at a trickle in most places springs that serviced water troughs and storage tanks started running weaker and weaker by the month. The team was constantly measuring spring flows to ensure that the water was sufficient for drinking for cattle. It is hard to express the stress level encountered when, water starts drying up around the ranches. It happens incrementally and it happens day-by-day, and you do not get a text message when it starts becoming insufficient for drinking. 

Needless to say, we probably spent a lot of our time monitoring water points and water troughs. While it is very stressful to constantly be monitoring everything, it did bring us into deep connection with the land in what was going on because we were all paying close attention.  This was the second year that we maintained a weekly Zoom meeting where we reviewed, everything that was to be done that week but also reviewed pictures that we were taking weekly of grass and water points. 

While obviously being in a drought was the gorilla in the room, we were still able to adjust our grazing prescription and management pretty effectively. By paying close attention and monitoring every ranch very closely, we were able to talk about patterns we were seeing overall in between ranches. Having ranches in different locations, with different microclimates and geology, topography etc. gives us the opportunity to learn more.

Given the constraints of the drought, our ability to adjust our stocking rate and grazing pressure, allowed us to do a fairly good job of managing the annual vegetation in order to keep competition up from a broader diversity of species. Essentially, we were still able to stay on top of plants like avena barbeta and foxtail while not pulling too much cover off of the landscape.  Due to the fact that; there was less water distribution, there was a little more patchiness overall where some areas were grazed a little less or a little harder but on average, we feel fairly good about the grazing impact and residual we were able to leave behind on the season. Being able to leave a good amount of ground cover behind in the face of drought while not leaving too much behind in terms of fire danger is a tricky balance. However, we feel pretty good about where we landed on the spectrum. 

While our season was shorter, the cattle did perform extremely well from a weight gain and health standpoint. Having a dryer season typically results in stronger feed from an animal perspective and reduces the number of illnesses that the cattle suffer. This year we had 1200 head and we didn’t have a single animal die. That is a pretty wonderful, atypical management reality and can be attributed to the weather and how much attention and care the team pays and gives to the cattle. 

It’s extremely easy to be happy or feel good about what you’re doing when everything is going well. However, adversity reveals character. The last two years have been filled with a great deal of adversity and we feel extremely grateful for the collection of people we have on this team that has revealed solid character. Despite the historic drought, we were still able to manage as effectively as possible, constantly adjusting management based on what we were seeing on the ground. The team; while extremely stressed and overworked for a bit of time, was able to stay in good spirits and work collectively to overcome the obstacles until we sent the cattle home. Additionally, the stress on the system has forced us to work harder to better develop our water systems to be more resilient on the ranches which will only put us in a better position moving forward. Last Lee being able to train new generations of land managers and bring new managers on has been extremely rewarding and we look forward to building out more capacity to do that in the future.

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