On Sept 30, 2022, 23 participants influencing 215,127 acres gathered at HMI’s Hearth, Wind & Sol Ranch Open Gate just east of Estancia, New Mexico. Owners John and Debbie Humphries have invested in temporary and permanent fencing and water in order to run a contract grazing operation on their place at 45,000 pounds/acre stock density on 480 acres of their 640-acre ranch. They even have experimented with as high as 210,000 pounds/acre stock density.
The day’s program began with John explaining about how his great-grandfather had homesteaded in the Estancia Valley in 1919 and that his father still ranches near Willard—an arrangement that works well for John who has ready access to cattle for his experiment and for his father who has gotten a good lease fee. John explained how he has a background in climate change work in Connecticut where he lived before. As he and Debbie moved to New Mexico to be more geographically close to older parents, he would like to see how he can engage in agriculture that is good for the planet. You can watch a video of this introduction for more information. Or, you can watch his no-stress livestock handling with this video.
After a very brief introduction it was time for John to move the cows as he must move them approximately every hour during the morning with a mid-day hiatus for the cows to ruminate and then they pick up with more moves again in the afternoon for a total of about seven moves a day. John said he walks between five to seven miles a day moving fence. This is a six-week experiment as John will turn the cattle back over to his father once the animals have completed their grazing on all of his property.
The cattle were a little intimidated by the crowd eagerly watching the move so when John dropped the fence they held fast until we backed off. The animals were in good condition with full rumens, slick hides and well-fleshed. In addition, their cow pies were just the right consistency—firm, but not too firm. They quickly moved to new ground and got to grazing except for a couple who decided it was time to get a drink from one of two portable drinkers John has set up for them. John couples these drinkers to a shallowly buried pipeline he laid out this summer. He also built two miles of permanent high tensile electric fence using supplies from Timeless Fence Systems with a grant from the East Torrance Soil & Water Conservation District.
The animals always have access to water as John does not back fence, but the cattle are only in the lane for about a week. John developed an interesting diamond-shape fencing pattern to reduce the amount of walking he has to do each day. The animal impact was evident around the water points and where there was higher production bottomland, John said he could have gotten more grazing from those areas.
After John finished answering questions about how he chose his fencing and water supplies, the group moved to an area of the ranch that hadn’t been grazed to learn how to perform a forage inventory assessment with the STAC method. John noted that the STAC method had allowed him to conservatively plan for the number of animals. He noted that last year was not a great rain year and the first set of STAC monitoring they did averaged 3-6 Animal Days per Acre (ADA). John had done some bale grazing last winter and with great rains this year, he had calculated 8-12 ADA, going with the 8 ADA for his calculations of the amount of space to give the herd.
We then broke into groups to really find out how easy the STAC Method was and how to make it more accurate. Each group learned to determine what was edible or counted as forage as well as being able to estimate conservatively so participants could use this technique on their property.
We then had a conversation about how perennial bunchgrass monitoring helped producers really be able to monitor the resilience of their landscape and how management is influencing the key indicators of size and health of plant, distance of plants to each other (amount of bare ground), and the amount of plant litter on the soil surface. These are all key indicators of soil health and ecosystem function.
Next, we went to the ranch house for a delicious lunch of homemade bread, pickles, and tomatoes with meat and cheese, along with homemade zucchini bread, cookies, and kombucha supplied by John and Debbie. We then talked about what the potential return on investment was for the infrastructure (some of which was paid for by the East Torrance Soil & Water Conservation District) as productivity increases. John said that he is thinking that this kind of time investment might only need to happen once every 10 years once the biology has been rebooted by this kind of high stock density treatment.
Evaluations showed that everyone thought the program was good or excellent and that they would recommend the program to someone. Knowledge increase was 100%. People increased their knowledge around the value of grazing planning, how to plan for infrastructure development, how to assess the quantity of forage they have, how to trial animal density, how to determine when to move animals based on their behavior and land condition, how to determine return on investment, and how to monitor the health of ecosystem processes.
Thanks to John and Debbie for an excellent tour and the lunch. Thanks also to the Thornburg Foundation for their support of this program.