Hearth, Wind & Sol Farm lies in the heart of the Estancia Valley on 640 acres of New Mexico rangeland. After 20+ years in New England, owners John and Debbie Humphries moved to Albuquerque in 2020 to be closer to extended family. John’s great-grandparents homesteaded in the Estancia Valley in 1910, and his dad’s ranch south of Willard includes the original homestead. John and Debbie purchased their land in the summer of 2021 and moved out to the farm in April 2022.
John’s idea was to experiment with a sufficiently high stock density to improve soil health and ecosystem function on this land to see what might be possible on larger landscapes. He aimed to spend six weeks running a herd of 50-70 cows at 45,000-lbs/acre stock density to see what the land’s response would be. This case study focuses on his water and fencing infrastructure design and development to reduce erosion and efficiently move cattle through seven 1.25-1.5-acre paddocks each day, moving the herd by himself with low-stress livestock handling. To prepare for that work, John participated in HMI’s “Next Step” mentoring program to learn how to create a Whole Ranch Plan.
Previous Management & Influence
This property was originally divided into a 160-acre parcel on the west side of Riley Rd and a 480-acre parcel on the east of the road. The 480-acre parcel had a well, drinker, and corral in the center and served as one paddock. In 2013 Holistic Management practitioner Joan Bybee of Mesteño Draw Ranch purchased the land and put in a two-wire high tensile fence to create 3 paddocks and grazed each paddock for about 2 weeks during the growing season with approximately 14 cow/calf pairs. The result of this grazing practice was increased diversity moving from a monoculture of blue grama grass to the return of other native grasses like sideoats grama, ring muhly, vine mesquite, squirreltail, alkali sacaton, silver bluestem, western wheat, galleta, and sand dropseed for a total of 25+ plant species. However, there was still a lot of bare ground, plant pedestaling showing erosion, and dead plant centers from not enough animal impact.
John was also influenced by participating in an HMI field day at Shawn Howard’s Lazy M Ranch where he saw how Shawn set up his temporary electric fencing and portable water to contract graze a local rancher’s cattle at approximately 100,000 lb/acre stock density in Angel Fire, NM.
John also did some bale grazing in the winter of 2022 with 20 SAU that stayed on the property for 3.5 months grazing the stockpile from the previous year as well as the hay bales that John provided in strategic areas.
2022 brought a good rain year with 17 inches of rain from mid-June to the end of September, showing the potential for the property. Average rainfall in this area is approximately 12-14 inches.
Grazing & Infrastructure Plan
In September 2021 John performed some forage assessments using the STAC method to determine the carrying capacity for his property. Paddock ratings ranged from 1 Animal Day per Acre (ADA) to 6.6 ADA. (see Fencing Infrastructure map below). John wanted to plan conservatively to make sure he had enough feed for approximately 50 Standard Animal Units (SAU) for 6 weeks or 2,100 AD. He also wanted to reach the 45,000 lbs/acre stock density as some regenerative agricultural consultants have found that to be the minimum stock density that can really kick start soil biology with sufficient animal impact and grazing utilization.
With that goal in mind, John began exploring fencing designs that would make it doable for him to make approximately 7 daily moves assuming he would move the cows at daybreak and then hourly until they began ruminating around 11 am and then start back up in the afternoon until dusk. He also wanted to be able to easily move water easily so that cattle wouldn’t be trailing back to the one trough in the center of the property.
Using the STAC measurements that showed the highest production areas along a draw that runs through the northern two main paddocks, John decided to divide each of those paddocks into permanent paddocks of three lanes that are 900 feet wide with more electric high tensile fence that he could connect with the existing permanent electric fence. He would then divide these lanes further with temporary electric fence that would be approximately 1.5 acres each. (See Daily Fencing map below.)
John initially thought he would start his contract grazing of his father’s cows in July or August, but because of the timing of weaning calves, he had to wait until mid-September to get the cattle to his place. In preparation for that visit, John performed another STAC forage assessment in the beginning of September 2022 and found that the STAC measurements ranged from 5-18.6 ADA. With those numbers in mind, he agreed to take in 70 SAU which included 64 cows, 15 calves, and a bull. This total equated to 4,200 Animal Days (AD), up from the historical 588 AD for a 614% increase.
John had never worked with a herd of 50 cows so he was initially nervous about bringing 70 head on. However, he quickly realized that he actually needed the additional animals to utilize the forage he had and the cattle responded so well to the electric fence (despite never being trained to it), that he wished had gotten the additional 40 weaned calves that he chosen not to take in from his father.
Installing Water & Fence
To prepare for the cattle John added the 2 miles of permanent high tensile fence to create three lanes in the highest producing paddocks. With the additional portable electric fencing he was going to attach to the permanent fencing he needed to make sure he had enough voltage from the chargers and he also used a two-wire system with the top wire hot and the bottom wire as a ground to makes sure there was enough of a pop even in dry conditions to make the cattle respect the electric fence.
He has 12 grounds rods in the system, and it’s wired such that all of them are interconnected all the time—even when the fences aren’t hot or gates are open. There are six rods at the corral (two near each of the fence energizers). And the other six are along the high-tensile lines, strategically placed at low points where water is most likely to infiltrate and create a better connection. The grounding rods he installed are all 5/8″ 6-ft galvanized rods. 8-ft rods would be preferable, but I he got free shipping on the 6-ft rods.
With this current system, the maximum length of fencing that is energized at any one time is 3 to 4 miles. When the cattle are in one of the southern lanes, there are two fence energizers being used, but in the middle or northern lanes, only one energizer is supplying all the fences. The energizers he has are 1.6 joules and rated for up to 25 miles. John has gotten readings of 6000 volts on his fence which works since he is not back fencing and the cattle have easy access to water and more space.
He also buried a half-mile of 1.5-inch polypipe about one foot down under one of the permanent fence lines and installed two risers per lane that would provide water for 6 of his large paddocks that he further divided into small 1.25 acre paddocks with cattle moving back to drink. He then moves the two tanks every week approximately.
John also developed a fencing pattern that allowed him to have triangular paddocks rather than long skinny paddocks that might cause the cattle to pressure the fence. He chose to walk when moving is portable fence but other producers use a four-wheeler. He estimates that he walks 6-7 miles a day moving fence, but will only be doing this experiment for 4-6 weeks.
While it is too early to tell how much increase in forage will occur for this investment in increasing stock density and animal impact, other rangeland of this type have shown at least a 30% increase in productivity with as much as a 400% increase in stocking rate. The goal of this investment is to be able to increase resilience in the land so even in drought years production remains average while in good rain years there can be a significant increase in carrying capacity.
Fencing & Water
Fencing and water costs include
- Fencing supplies approximately $6,000 (includes $1,000 for temporary fencing materials with possible shorter life span)
- Labor for permanent fencing 1 mile: 100 hours X $15/hr=$1500
- Water line & fittings, portable drinkers, and Ditch Witch rental add up to about $4,000
- Labor for ½ mile of water line: 50 hours X $15/hr=$750
(Does not include researching time)
Total Cost $12,250
Grants—The local Soil & Water Conservation District provided $5,000 cost sharing grant for the fencing and probably would have covered the $4000 in water costs
Cost with Grant $3,250
Yearly cost of investment without Grant (assuming 20-year life of infrastructure) = $613
Yearly Cost for investment with Grant = $163
Labor for Moving Animals, Fencing & Water
John was averaging 8 hours a day for a month to move fence and water (the animals moved themselves). If he had to pay someone else to do it he assumed $15/hr for a total of 240 hours = $3600
Carrying Capacity Increase
The previous Carrying Capacity was 14 SAU for 42 days or 588 Total Animal Days
The current Carrying Capacity is 70 SAU for 30 days or 2,100 Animal Days, which represents a 257% increase in Carrying Capacity
Using those figures and the figures from the cow/calf profitability table, we can then look at the potential return on investment (ROI) if this kind of production can be maintained in average years using the following numbers:
Gross Profit per cow (includes depreciation): $200*
Previous carrying capacity of 1.6 cows (588 AD / 365)= $320 (1.6 cows X $200)
Current carrying capacity increase would be 4.1 cows (2100 AD / 365)=$820
Increase of $500/year
Lease AUM per cow income
If we assume a lease rate of $20/AUM (1.5 SAU for cow/calf pairs) then the lease ROI would be potentially follow as:
Previous carrying capacity of 14 X1.5= 21 X AUM rate of $20/head =$420
Current carrying capacity of 70 X AUM rate of $20/head = $1400
Increase of $980/year
How to Scale This Experiment
Certainly, labor is a huge cost in this experiment so determining how to reduce labor is a critical factor in being able to scale these concepts to larger landscapes. John is looking at attempting a similar experiment on his father’s 10,000-acre ranch where paddocks are as large as 2,000-acres. Using CRP money, they will divide these larger paddocks into smaller paddocks with water access and then use portable fencing to increase stock density and increase recovery periods.
John’s thought is this level of stock density may only be necessary every 10 years so each larger paddock gets a “stock density treatment” of this magnitude within that context and lighter stock density in other years. Attention is paid to increasing production of higher producing paddocks first as the ROI on increasing an 8 ADA paddock by 50% is much greater than if you do that same work on a 4 ADA paddock.
Likewise, doing a cost:benefit analysis on increasing herd size so paddock sizes don’t have to be as small to get as much stock density as possible is another consideration. Lastly, looking at using tools like a four-wheeler to reduce labor for fence moving could also make a difference in the ROI for this type of experiment.
Supplies/Equipment Vendors for HWS Ranch
John did a lot of research on the best places to buy the supplies he needed for his project. His vendors included:
- Timeless Fence (timelessfencesystem.com) – primarily for high tensile posts and braces
- Kencove Fence (kencove.com)
- PowerFlex Fence (Powerflexfence.com) – source for the water fittings and valves
- Premier1 (Premier1supplies.com) All four of these companies have overlapping product lists that sometimes have surprising differences in costs
- Fence energizers from Circle C Supply (circlecsupply.com)
- Portable drinkers from Tractor Supply
- High tensile wire from Ranchero Builders Supply in Belen
- The 1.5″ diameter pipe from Williams Windmill (williamswindmill.com) in Lemitar
Our thanks to the Thornburg Foundation for their support of this case study.