AoR 124: Jim Gerrish on 50 Years of Grazing Science

Jim Gerrish is in the top 10 names known to ranchers for grazing management expertise. His career, both as a researcher and as a rancher, spans animal nutrition, plant and community physiology, East and West, irrigated and dryland, rhizomatous and caespitose. Our conversation covers all of that as well as livestock industry history, the decline in sheep production in the early 20th century, and rules of thumb for grazing and grazing economics. Listen in on a wide-ranging conversation about grazing principles across the U.S.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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Welcome back to the Art of Range. My guest today is Jim Gerrish, grazing researcher formerly in Missouri, but who has been in Idaho for a number of years now. Jim, welcome to the show.

>> Thank you, Tip. Pleasure to be here. And I'm looking forward to our conversation.

>> Yeah, I am, too. I actually don't have a thorough bio on you. But when I started with WSU Extension, oh, 20 years ago, we had you in Washington State for a grazing conference, then you were coming from Missouri. And I think you'd been there for some time at that point. But, yeah, talk a bit about the history of how you got into grazing research because there's not that many people doing this kind of work. And then how did you end up coming to Idaho?

>> OK. Well, that is a long story.

>> We've got plenty of time.

>> Matter of fact -- yeah, too. How did I get interested in grazing actually goes way back to the mid-1970s before I can even thought about, you know, going to graduate school, to becoming a professional researcher. It's just -- we had a rancher from Argentina, who visited us on the farm in Missouri and I did not grow up in the cattle business, I did not grow up grazing, I grew up with crops and hogs. We did do custom hay baling. But this rancher from Argentina, you know, he came and talked about moving cattle every day, 100% forage diets. And, of course, they didn't say grass fed beef in those days, but that's all Argentina produced was cattle for slaughter off a pasture. And so he first introduced me to these ideas. And when I did start to graduate school, I went to the University of Kentucky actually originally on a plant breeding assistantship. And I got there and decided that really wasn't what I wanted to do. And they had a new pasture ecology professor there who had just come from New Zealand. And so I ended up being Chuck Dougherty at the University of Kentucky, I was his first American graduate student. And that's what really started me on the path of research and grazing management. And out of grad school, I guess I'm one of the few people can say, "I only applied for one job. I only have one job interview." And that was the position I went to at the University of Missouri. And I was there for just over 22 years. And I was not at the Columbia campus. I was at one of the outlying research centers, which I saw as a vastly underutilized resource. And so we ramped up the research there, got into more of, you know, at the time, we would call it a New Zealand style approach to grazing management rather than the traditional American set stock program. And as I said, I was there for 22 years. And then in 2003, at age 47, made the decision to quit the university, go into private business, and move out West. And the move to Idaho was 100% recreational lifestyle move. There was no motivation, you know, to be in western ranching, to do any of the things that I've done over that almost 20 years. Now, April 1st will have been in Idaho for 20 years. We've -- I moved here so I could hike in the mountains, hunt and fish and stuff, and ended up filling to deal managing one unit of a larger ranch, the irrigated portion of that ranch. We also had desert rangeland there, too, but that's why I learned grazing management on center pivots and flood irrigated land. I would say I learned it on side rolls or wheel lines too, but that's my least favorite form of irrigation. So I often don't admit that I, you know, do that. But there in kind of a large nutshell is my story of how I got here. And I should mention the whole time that we -- well, almost the entire 20-plus years at the time that we were in Missouri we had our own grass farm there, started out just on small acreage running sheep. And then we expanded the land base very substantially. And when we had more acres, we ran cattle. So we did cow calf, custom grazing. Like I said, have done the sheep. I've even custom -- we -- I've even custom grazed horses, which you don't find a lot of people doing that. So --

>> Yeah.

>> -- I've got a lot of, you know, the academic research experience, a lot of outreach experience from them. And then I've got the practical application both 20 years on a farm in Missouri and almost 20 years on irrigated pasture out here in the West.

>> Yeah, you actually grew up in northern Arkansas, just south of Mountain Home on the White River, I don't know, maybe 40 miles south of the Missouri border, a little bit more trees there. We don't really have good grass and a river bottom but similar climate anyway. What would you say were some of the highlights or interesting research angles that you ended up getting into in Missouri?

>> OK. I'm going to -- I'll preface that by saying when I was at Kentucky and starting, because I knew absolutely nothing about grazing, I just started pulling shelves off the book or books off the shelves in the library. And the most interesting book that I read was Grass Productivity by Andre Voisin who -- and I still considered that the most significant book on grazing management written in the 20th century because it introduced the whole idea that time management is the key component of grazing management rather than just stocking rate theory and spatial management, which is what we were largely taught in the US. And so time management, as it relates to graze and has always been a key part of everything that I've done. Now, from the research standpoint, when I came to University of Missouri, basically, my assignment was to make beef cattle competitive with soybeans on marginal rolling land in North Missouri. And to make it more profitable, we have two sides of an equation we can work with, we have the income side and we have the cost side. Well, we were at kind of a low point in 1981 when I arrived in Missouri, we were in a low part of the cattle cycle. And so there wasn't a lot we could expect to do on the income side of it. So it was totally related to cost management. And even to this day, if you look at the typical cow calf budget in almost any state in the US, the biggest single line item cost is feed costs. And a big, you know, part of that is winter costs. And -- so it made sense to me that what we had to tackle to help profitability was feed costs. And because winter feed tended to be the larger proportion of that, we started almost immediately into more winter grazing work and then just really focused on how do we get more days of grazing in the dormant season. And one of the first steps was just feed budgeting rather than turning cows out on, you know, an 80-acre pasture of fescue, which is largely what we have in Missouri and just letting them go at it because that's what they've been doing there for several years at the research station. And they get 40, 50 cow days or grazing days per acre. When we went to time control management, we quickly got that up to 70, 80, 90. And then we started doing research at how can we do a better job of growing stockpiled pasture. And that put us up to 120, 130 cow days per acre. So we went from it taking three days to graze the cows through the winter, which was completely financially unfeasible to be unable to carry a cow through the entire winter on one acre. And it made it a very, very affordable part of winter grazing or the winter feeding program. And then we figured out that we've got to do a lot better job of grazing management in the summertime to ensure that we have that stockpile opportunity to graze in the winter. So that put us more into tighter and tighter grazing management in the growing season. And then on our own farm, I started -- so at research station through the early to mid-80s, we considered intensive management, you know, moving every, you know, either twice a week or once a week. And then there's real bad drought in '88. And on -- we went to daily strip grazing them just try to stretch the feed out. And it made such a huge difference. So I started doing daily moves in 1988 with both beef cattle and sheep and I've largely been -- I move them every day. And this isn't a productive environment. I'm going to move them every day in person on rangeland before I moved west because everybody said leaving their -- them there for, you know, a month or six weeks was fine. I believe that. And as I lived in the western ranch land environment and worked with that more, and years went by now on ranch land, you know, I'm kind of a five to seven days is the length of grazing period that, you know, I like to allow on rangeland. So, again, time management. That's been my focus for 45 years.

>> Yeah. And no, thank you for that. I feel like there's some -- there's always some danger in attempting any universal guidelines. And, of course, as you mentioned, the dilemma on rangelands is that to do something like a daily move, you have to have the infrastructure to support it, you know, electric fence, plus water, and oftentimes the per acre profits won't support the infrastructure. We may be getting around some of that now with a virtual fence, but you still got to have water somewhere. And I would say -- I'm maybe getting ahead of myself here, but I feel like one of my observations is that you can't get away from this issue of time, even more than timing on rangelands in that, you know, you mentioned a minute ago that the conservative or the conventional wisdom on grazing rangelands is that if you have a conservative stocking rate, plus some effort at animal distribution, that's going to be sufficient. And as you likely know, that debate still -- I don't know if it rages but at least simmers within the rangeland academic community. But I would say that my observations that aren't backed up by anything quantitative is that when you have grazing periods that are longer than -- I mean, if somebody asked me off top my head for a number, I would have said, you know, 30 to 45 days. Once you get grazing periods that are longer than that, it doesn't matter how big it is, or how small it is, or how many animals it is, it's probably going to end up, you know, regrazing plants and causing some damage and causing soil disturbance and pressures that probably aren't sustainable. But on the other hand, you know, we can't totally get away from stocking rate. That's still a, you know, how many animals for how long and where is still a primary grazing decision? And I want to say -- was it Bud Williams who said, "I've seen lots of ranches with too many cattle but not very many with too much grass?"

>> Yeah, Bud always said something like that. Bud talks about having three inventories to manage. And those are your grazing resource, capital, and then the livestock that you have. You can never have too much standing grass, you can never have too much capital, but it's very easy to have too many livestock. And, you know, the pride and joy of most ranchers is, you know, their livestock. And so they focus on that more than they forage resource and capital management. Another thing that Bud said is ranchers love cows and they hate grass. They try to get every cow that the fence will hold and get rid of every blade of grass within that fence. So, yeah. Coming back to the stocking rate, the idea of protecting the resource with a conservative stocking rate is where our range science industry has been, you know, for hundred years. And we do not see a lot of healthy rains necessarily at the end of that. And I think the -- what I've come up with is the easiest explanation of why short grazing periods are important is because if we think about what is happening to the plants and the soil, during the actual grazing period, mostly negative things are happening. We're removing leaves, which diminishes photosynthesis. We diminish photosynthesis that shrinks the root system. It also reduces the direct flow of energy to soil microbes. And the only time that compaction can occur on the landscape is when livestock are actually present. They are walking around impacting the soil with us. And so we strive to minimize the number of days during the active growing season in which those negative things are happening. If we look at the recovery period, and I always say recovery, not rest, because recovery has to happen during the active growing season. If we look at the recovery period, mostly positive things are happening. So logically, it makes sense to minimize the number of days that negative things are happening and maximize -- in this case, I'll say optimize, optimize the number of days in recovery. And what we have found is we can use time management to protect the resource as effectively or in live view more effectively than what just the conservative stocking rate will do. And in academic research, we sure don't see, you know, very many results that support that. But I think it's the nature of how research gets constructed. In case studies of branches, we see lots and lots and lots of examples of rangeland improving, while stocking rate has increased when the ranch changes from a spatial-based management focus to a time-based focus. Now, there's not an unlimited, you know, expansion capacity. The environment in which we live still sets the maximum carrying capacity that we might achieve. But it is our grazing management that determines how much of that potential we capture. And the reason this becomes so important now is I'll say 40, 50 years ago, the relationship between land cost, cowboy cost, and the value of the livestock on it, we could get by with conservative stocking rates 40, 50 years ago because of economic relationships. Today, because even rangeland cost so much and the upkeep of the salary and the tools that a cowboy needs have gone up proportionally much, much more than the value of our livestock, we have to get more out of every acre these days in order to survive on the ranch. The days -- in my view, the days of using conservative stocking rates to -- because tech, the resource base is not our optimal solution anymore.

>> Yeah, I think I would agree with that. That sounds a bit like some rules of thumb that Floyd Reed has advocated for some time. I don't know if you and Floyd ever met. It seems like you might have.

>> Well, we did.

>> OK.

>> Yeah.

>> For some reason, the way that he said this made it memorable and so I've repeated it quite a few times. But he liked to say that there are several -- I want to just think through some grazing rules of thumb here and we can analyze them. His were that he thinks work in nearly any plant community, you've -- he would say you've got to defoliate the primary forage species moderately. Rule number two is don't be in the same place at the same time every single year, changing the season or timing of use, and allow plenty of growing season recovery before regrazing. I'm hearing a fair bit of that in what you've described. But it also seems to me that these things are also -- you know, if you're obeying any one of them, it also gives you some resiliency against another one, like if -- you know, if we're doing a five-day grazing period on rangeland, you could afford to come back to that spot at the same time next year because you've had such a massive amount of recovery time.

>> Yeah, the three principles, you know, that you said, you know, that Floyd advocates, yeah, that's exactly the same sort of thing that we're talking about. Before I moved West, you know, I've -- all my career, I'd heard this, you know, take half, leave half as a grazing principle. And I thought that was universally applicable on ranch land. And after living and working out here in the West, I've learned that 50% utilization is excessive and very excessive in many of our semi-arid settings. And so in all of our grazing planning with clients and stuff, and what I teach, we have a sliding scale of maximum seasonal utilization target based on what the forage production level is, what the annual growth is. And so that moderate level of utilization, you know, if we're -- if we were thinking 50%, we don't even get to a 50% utilization level until the plant community is producing in excess of 2,000 pounds per acre.

>> Yeah.

>> Now, I -- where we live here in central Idaho, you know, a whole lot of this country, the annual production is 400 to 600 pounds.

>> Yeah.

>> And in that setting, you know, 25% to 30% is our maximum utilization target. And 15, 20 plus years ago, you know, I would have thought that was a extremely conservative position. And surely, we can do more than that. And what I have learned is in these rangeland settings, what you leave behind is more important than what you take off because we're never going to build any litter cover, we're never going to improve the water cycle if we don't leave more residual forage behind. And what I have observed here and what I have found is it's a whole lot easier to leave that appropriate level of residual behind with shorter grazing periods than it is with long grazing periods and a very conservative stocking rate. When we have the longer grazing periods, the likelihood of having certain areas that are grant -- getting grazed excessively while other areas are underused, it's far more likely in the course, a lot of the reasons we have these long grazing periods we've already alluded to, and that's the lack of stock water availability out there. We've done a lot of infrastructure projects throughout the West from, you know, four to six-inch rainfall environments to, you know, up to 20-inch rainfall environments. And most of the time, if our AUD per acre yield potential is greater than 10 or if you want to put it in AUMs, if it's more than 0.3 AUM, if that's what the yield potential is, we can generally get a positive return on investment from stock water development. If the base productivity is less than 10, that's -- and you're not working with a rancher in that kind of environment and he wants to improve range health and grazing effectiveness and all that. And we do cost benefit analysis on everything that we do and if it says it's not going to pay, that's when I say, "Hey, have you ever thought about moving to Missouri?"

>> Right.

>> Because there are some environments out here that may be in today's economic climate, we are just not going to make ranching work.

>> I think that's right. In fact, I think this is some of what's driving the -- at least the conversation, as well as some experimentation and virtual fence right now. I'm involved in several large-scale grazing projects around Washington State. And in many cases, as I mentioned in a episode with Karen Launchbaugh and some other folks talking about just principles around virtual fence a little while ago, you know, some of those fences that are now not repairable, like they've propped them up, stretch them out for literally nearly 100 years. And now they're at the point where that hardware is no longer viable and they're looking at complete replacement, not just maintenance. And the cost of that is, you know, so far above what the land could pay for, that people are saying we have to do. We still have a need to distribute animals and control time and timing, but we're not going to be able to do it with barbed wire, for sure. Do you have any thoughts on some creative methods of controlling that? I mean, one obvious one that I think we see coming back is hurting and people using large enough groups of animals that there's enough money in it to pay for someone to actually run them around like you would herd of sheep. I'm curious what else you've seen or if you have some ideas on how we do that because a lot of these people are not going to move to Missouri.

>> Right. Boy, I hope not. So I'll talk about the virtual fencing first. So I'm in ongoing conversations with three or four of the virtual fencing companies. We have some clients who are using virtual fence. And the biggest sale point right now from the conversations I've had both with the manufacturers of the product and the users is we have a 85% to 90% compliance rate, which means 10% to 15% of the animals do not get trained to the virtual fence system and are not where they are supposed to be. Now, if you are on your own private rangeland and using virtual fence and 10% to 15% of your animals are not where they're supposed to be, it's not a big deal. But on public land, if those 10% to 15% are in areas where they're absolutely not supposed to be, you're going from --

>> You have a problem.

>> -- you know, get -- yeah, you're going to get a citation for trespass. And there's going to be a fine to be paid. Some of our neighbors who are in various environment or even anti-grazing groups, they are going to capitalize on those sale points and we have a problem. Now, technologically, I would like to say that they're going to come up -- the manufacturers are going to come up with more effective control mechanisms to reduce that noncompliance. There's also, maybe as rancher, we could -- should consider noncompliance, that callable offense, because any cow who's noncompliant probably is going to teach her calf to be noncompliant. So we have this generational flow of noncompliance. And so if you are a public lands grazer and this is a real issue, either the noncompliant ones become a herd that stay on your deeded property or they go down the road. But I do think there's great potential in virtual fencing as a tool and it is going to improve and I'm going to continue to work with the various companies and ranchers to try to solve some of these issues. Now --

>> Yeah, that -- go ahead.

>> Go ahead.

>> I was just going to mention that was -- that idea of calling animals that don't respond well was something that Jay Smith mentioned in a recent interview about their experience working with Julia Lich [assumed spelling] and the group there at the U of I Cummings Research Station. Namely, he said you can often tell which ones are not going to respond well to the virtual fence signals in the training period before they leave the house. And don't take those to the mountain.

>> Yeah. I've heard exactly the same response from some of our clients is you can tell at the corral, you know, when you're just processing cattle who's probably going to be a problem up there. Because if you got a bad attitude in the corral, you're probably going to have a bad attitude on the mountain too.

>> Yeah. And I think the data on animal distribution, again, as Jay [assumed spelling] said and other people have mentioned who have been using this, the information on where animals go and which animals go where is -- especially on large landscapes where you oftentimes only have a loose grasp on that, is really valuable data.

>> Well, yeah.

>> In terms of, you know, being able to -- maybe the cow does use the corral relatively well but she's also the one who never leaves the creek bottom. That, too, might be an animal that you don't want to send back out next year.

>> Right. I've got -- I've worked with several ranchers around the last large operations who once they started observing animal behavior and they could separate their herd into hill climbers and bottom dwellers, they basically started culling bottom dwellers out, you know, whole cow lines. And usually, it's a matriarchal component of a herd that just stays in the bottom all the time. It'll be an old cow, her daughters or granddaughters, great granddaughters, it's a generational thing. And so, they culled entire cow lines based on how they were using the landscape and converted their herd to, you know, be predominantly hill climbers, even livestock in -- near Adel, Montana.

>> Cascade. Yeah.

>> Yeah, Cascade, Adel area real good example of some people who have done that.

>> OK. If we're going to switch gears and talk about herding, so Glenn Elzinga of Alderspring Ranch, a lot of people have, you know, heard of Glenn Elzinga, some of them have actually gone to -- on some tours and things. So, Elzingas do -- they do certified organic grass-fed beef, they have a product that does come from rangeland but they are forest service permit. I think it's between the forest service and BLM. I think it's nearly 40,000 acres and they do 24/7 herding up there. Initially, they started doing it for wolf management because in the grass-fed beef business there, animals have real premium value to them and they could not afford the losses that the wolves were inflicting. So, they started herding 24/7. And then, they transitioned from just doing it as wolf management to actual grazing management and focusing on keeping their herds moving and never grazing in the same area twice. And so, the herders, usually there's three individuals up there with a herd of I'll say, you know, 300 animals. And Glenn, you know, he's very good with his accounting and cost-benefit analysis. And with the premium value of their animals, he thinks it's cost-effective for a herd of 300 to have three people up there and their crew rotates out -- I don't remember if it's a weekly or biweekly basis. And then, he's looked at the numbers if these were just commercial cattle and then I know some other operations that do herding on commercial operations and it ends up being about 800 head, you know, if it's commodity cattle. You need at least 800 head on the herd to justify the cost of herding. So that's kind of a financial benchmark there. And I'm wondering, Tip, have you heard of Alejandro Carrillo from Chihuahua in Mexico?

>> I heard the name but I've not run into him.

>> OK. So, at Las Damas Ranch, which is mid-20,000-some acres, they do daily moves with a herd typically, you know, couple thousand head in a herd in their productive country. They do use electric fencing to manage the grazing but their rougher country, it's all done with herding. And the positive impact that they have had on their plant community and there are -- I think they're over 10 years doing this now. The improvement of the plant community is tremendous and their animal performance has gone up, their carrying capacity has gone up, and I think, as a guest on your program, because he really is the art of grazing, the Art of Range management but to talk with Alejandro would be a real interesting for your listening audience, I believe. I've been to that ranch twice and it is truly amazing what they have created, you know, in a dense rainfall environment in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert.

>> Wow! They -- you know what, I'm reminded now that I did run into him. I actually had the chance to go to the Australian Rangeland Society meeting back in September and he was one of the speakers. And we did -- we visit him for a little while and I had -- I was just trying to blank on that name.

>> Yeah.

>> We did talk and I'm glad to hear you say that that's working because, you know, sometimes these talks that are given by ranchers where they're saying, you know, we transformed the place, I think people sometimes feel like there must be something missing there. You know, they're peddling some snake oil or the climate, you know, gave them more rain or something. But certainly, you -- it appears to be a pretty significant transformation from what it was. And actually, I just finished reading Dan Dagget's book, Gardeners of Eden --

>> You bet.

>> -- where he described some pretty similar situations in the desert southwest where they're working with extremely low precipitation and sort of unpredictable seasonality of precipitation, and where some I would say intensive grazing management has made a world of difference.

>> Yeah. We see those examples here in the US and then a fair a bit of work in Australia, I've seen it in Australia. But as probably the top pick ranch where I've seen the greatest impact in what I would call a really reasonable amount of time would be Alejandro's place in Chihuahua. It is amazing. And then, there's actually a group of about a dozen ranchers in that area that are doing the same sort of things that Alejandro is doing. And, you know, I've -- I can't say that they're all equally impressive --

>> Yeah.

>> -- but they're all a step above, you know, what's the general condition in the neighborhood.

>> Right. And part of what Dan Dagget is getting at, I felt in the book, is this do-nothingism that says if you just walk away from the land and let it do its thing, it's going to return to some idealized climax state that maybe is only in our heads, but that doesn't actually work out very often in the real world.

>> Not -- no, it doesn't. So, the Pahsimeroi Valley where we live here in Central Idaho from the 1890 into the 1960s was really a lot of sheep here. And there's an area on what it -- the area that's actually called the Pahsimeroi Mountains which was all sheep-grazing permits, you know, in the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s and that land was degraded by overgrazing some sheep back in that area. There's been very few sheep there in the last, you know, 40 to 50 years and that country, you know, is still markedly degraded compared to areas that did not have this heavy sheep pressure, is that area dead? And so, yeah, it -- and there's work also done at the Jornada Rangeland Research Facility where there's been total exclusion for I guess 80 years now. And now, it did not just transform back to, you know, healthy rangeland conditions. It is with -- it -- the total of absence of grazing, there's been less progress on that land healing than where they have been doing conscientious grazing management since the creation of the station.

>> But in terms of the court of public opinion, people react to the kind of grazing that caused the damage a hundred or more than a hundred years ago.

>> Yes.

>> I think it was a Nathan Sayre's book, Politics of Scale, that he traces some of these problems even to economics more than bad grazing management. I -- you know, back in the late 1800s, there was this, you know, financial speculative fervor in cheap credit that allowed people to buy -- to borrow money to buy more cattle than they had any business getting into and then filling that out on western rangelands that appeared to be an inexhaustible resource and then some of that got continued. I still think there's probably some bad rules of thumb and I want to ask you about that in a minute. But I'm curious if you have any greater knowledge than what I've just related about the history of overgrazing from the late 1800s.

>> No, you're pretty well on target there. I would add that a lot of that speculative landownership in the west tier prior to the Dust Bowl and the Taylor Grazing Act, things like that was landowners in the UK, Scotland, and Britain buying this land here. Now, they were also invested in the textile mills in the UK and a lot of them had never been on the land here, they put sheep here for wool for their textile mills and they just kept pushing, pushing, pushing for more and more sheep, more and more wool with no idea of what it was doing to the resource here. And then, finally, it all collapsed with the droughts of the 1930s but also remember that the demand for wool also collapsed around World War II when the armies of the world transitioned away from woolen uniforms to cotton and then to non-natural fibers where they -- where we are now in uniforms. That collapsed the wool market and then not to also mention the lamb consumption market. World War II was the turning point in wool -- excuse me, lamb conception and my dad was one of those people who ate too much kangaroo or mutton or something in World War II that until we started raising sheep, my wife and I in the early 1980s, my dad had not a put a piece of sheep in his mouth from 1945 until probably 1984 --

>> Wow.

>> -- because of his disgust with what --

>> Yeah. You know, in the army said, "Lamb that wasn't lamb," and there's a whole of generation, you look at the per capita consumption of lamb pre-World War II versus post-World War II, you know, and it's a collapse. So, the sheep did their degradation in the first third of the 20th century. And then, when both the lamb and the wool markets really dropped off post-World War II, sheep numbers finally trended downward. But the foreign ownership of lamb out here, the high demand for wool through the first three decades of the 1900s, that's what set up a lot of lamb degradation here in the west.

>> I do want to go back to one of the comments you made right at the beginning and that's related to my -- maybe this will be our final question will be coming up against an hour. But you mentioned that cattlemen often want to get to every blade of grass. And I have had a theory, I guess, just based on observation that I live in Ellensburg, Washington, you know, where a little bit like you're part of Idaho where nearly everybody has got some irrigated pasture and then you got some version of rangeland or, you know, mountain and forest ground. And so, you got this -- you've got this contrast in plant community types with the really productive irrigated sod-forming grass types with a -- maybe not a ton of grass species but certainly rhizomatous and productive. And then, adjacent, you've got stuff that's, as you said, 500 pounds of the acre, maybe a little bit more than that once you get up into the forest. But I wondered, is this how the West was lost in that many of these guys that came out West were obeying the old adage that a grass plant's golden life is to produce a seedhead and the cowmen's goal is to prevent it from doing that and -- which, of course, that works pretty well on a sod-forming irrigated or otherwise rain-fed plant community like we have in the mid-West where that stimulates vegetative reproduction and more tillering and the plants aren't dependent on seed production for reproduction and so it works out all right. But if you prevent perennial bunch grasses especially in semi-arid areas from ever producing seed and -- I think this is my question. I have -- it is look like that the main problem was that, you know, you had annual relatively severed defoliation and always in the late springtime because that's, you know, from an animal husbandry standpoint here again trying to protect the animal, from animal husbandry standpoint, it makes quite a bit of sense to match the nutrient demand of the cow. And if she's a, you know, late-winter calver, then you've got animals trying to, you know, rebuild body condition for rebreeding and she's lactating. You want to match that up with the natural nutrient supply of the plant community and so we grazed it hard in the springtime. How much of that -- so I'm saying that that rule of thumb to stimulate the plant by preventing it from going to seed and grazing aggressively enough that you make sure that sort of happens every year using the same thinking on semi-arid rangeland and bunch grasses as we're using on rhizomatous sod-forming communities that have more water. I have attached some of that damage to the timing and the severity of defoliation and I'm wondering if it's mostly the severity and the failure to observe, you know, that primary rule that you mentioned that you've got to have this mineral residual left behind.

>> You're exactly right. We can go all the way back to, you know, the early colonial days of America. There is a culture of farming and grazing in the very temperate Western Europe maritime region of the UK, The Netherlands, the west coast of France, all that. People came to this country in the 1600s, 1700, 1800s coming from a lush, very forgiving environment of Western and Central Europe.

>> Right.

>> They first settled in the very lush and resilient Eastern US, progressed into the mid-West. And so, culturally, there is centuries of the philosophy that you talked about on how to manage grazing in a temperate, forgiving environment. And yes, they moved progressively west in the drier and drier, drier environment trying to do exactly what they had been doing and their ancestors doing in these non-brittle environments of Europe and the Eastern US. And the severity of grazing to try to prevent seedhead production, the lack of recovery time, you know, for our bunch grass, sedge grass communities is what has turned so much the Western landscape into cheap grass, medusahead and really annual forages. It is that Eurocentric grazing philosophy that --

>> They worked for half of a millennium.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah.

>> It -- yeah, but it absolutely does not work here except on the irrigated land. And I have learned so much having the opportunity to work with both center-pivot irrigation and desert rangeland grazing since I moved out here which is two environments, very different from the mid-West where I grew up and had my, you know, academic career. I'm confident, based on what I've learned in this Western environment, that I could go back to Missouri and increase our productivity and carrying capacity by another 40 or 50% above what we were doing and we were already more than double the stocking rate. What conventional wisdom said, "You can do it in our county in Missouri." It's all about water management and we have our I'll say water cycle management and most of that Eurocentric grazing practices that we applied in the semi-arid rest completely broke the water cycle and that's what we have to fix. I always say in the highly productive environments, our chief focus in grazing management is capturing more and more and more solar energy, that is our goal there is maximize energy capture in a productive environment because the water is going to be there. In the West here, our first focus on rangeland has to be how do we improve the water cycle. We don't want to focus on maximum harvest of photosynthetic energy in the dryland like we do in the wetland or wetter country. We have to focus on what do we need to do to improve the water cycle and the first step there is we got to increase our willingness to waste grass, to leave stuff behind, to -- we have now hopes of rebuilding this landscape if we don't get a more functional water cycle working on millions and millions and millions of acres.

>> Yeah. I mean, to some people that feels like leaving money on the table but it's putting money in the bank.

>> That's exactly right. You know, one of the things that I say is what you harvest or what you utilize pays your operating costs but it's what you leave behind that pays your overhead costs because what you leave behind is what builds the productive of a land, it allows you to pay, you know, salaries, land payments, utilities, insurance, taxes, all of those fixed cost stuff. We have to have healthy land to be able to pay that and too many people within our industry are only focused on harvesting every blade of grass so that they can try to cover their operating costs. But in the long term, it puts them in a deeper and deeper financial hole because it lowers the productivity of the ranch.

>> Yeah. It seems that one of the other big differences is that there's a dramatically shorter growing season in much of these. Once you get to the west side of the Rocky Mountains, you know, it might be 90 to 120 days when you got both soil moisture and soil temperatures that are supporting plant growth.

>> Yeah. Our real rangeland growing season for our BLM, for our desert range here is 45 to 60 days. That's all it's going to be. And as you move up the mountain, the growing season starts later and ends sooner. So it's 45 to 60 days up there also but it's very -- it can be very productive, you know, up the higher altitudes in that 45 days that it does grow. Down here, on the irrigated land, we can, especially since the falls have been getting warmer and warmer and warmer, I think we got about 140 growing days on irrigated land and we're at about 6,000-foot elevation. I'm going to make one last comment here because I was just working on this last night, this morning and that's looking at the relative cost per AUD based on rangeland productivity and, you know, what fair market value of rangeland around here is now versus irrigated land. You know, there's a lot of people saying, "Ooh, irrigated land. That's way too expensive to graze cattle on. You got to have a mouth there on rangelands." On well-managed irrigated pasture, our cost per AUD is about half of what it is on rangeland.

>> Yeah.

>> It's way more affordable to run cattle on irrigated land than it is on the rangeland and that is awfully hard for a lot of ranchers to, you know, accept that concept but that's, you know, what the -- and I've looked at this a number of times but it's fresh on my mind because I was just doing those calculations for somebody earlier today before we got on this.

>> Now, I think that's -- I'm saying I think that's probably right. You're the one that ran numbers and you've got a few decades more experience than I do, but I would say that matches with what people that had been doing it for a long time can feel. In fact, I think some of that is even baked into the low cost of federal grazing permits. I'm not an expert on this but Neil Rimbey and some others have ran those numbers, you know, lots of different ways and that's one of the reasons why they have been cheaper is that in recognition of the fact that the cost of operation on these large, less-productive landscapes is significantly higher per animal unit day.

>> Yeah. And some of the costs we have to factor in. So, yeah, we have rules here. Washington State welcome to wolf --

>> Yeah.

>> -- the ranch that we were rolling up until last spring. Usually, five to 600 cows going up on the forest permit, 15 to 35 calves lost every year to wolves. That has to be factored -- that financial lost has to be factored into the cost of operating on that landscape. And then, if you have cattle out of place because somebody from a particular organization opened the gate and led them into an area where they weren't supposed to be and you do get the trespass, you know, fine on that, that gets factored into it. And depending on situations, many ranchers I worked with actually find that their public land grazing is their highest cost per AUM because of all those other costs above just the grazing permit. And it makes you less and less interested grazing out on the forest.

>> Yeah. Yeah, it sure does. I will go ahead and wrap it up here but I wanted to give you a minute to talk about the grazing school that you've been doing for some time. I know quite a few guys from Ellensburg that have been to that grazing school and it has definitely made a difference in their thinking, in their management, in their enthusiasm for the business which is worth quite a bit. Say a bit about the -- your grazing school.

>> OK. I'm going to start out say in 1990, we started doing a three-day grazing school program at the University of Missouri and it was very successful. It's for that reason that Chad Cheyney who was University of Idaho extension educator in Butte County, Idaho, he has started a similar program in 1994. And then, I got invited to come out and teach in the Lost Rivers Grazing Academy put on by University of Idaho in 1997 and I've been doing that ever since. That is the main reason we actually moved to Idaho rather than somewhere in the West was the grazing school. So we do this each fall in September near -- on a ranch near Sandpoint, Idaho, we do it on a private ranch, Eagle Valley Ranch that has implemented most of our grazing management recommendations over the last 20 years. We'd limit class size to 24 students. And as you said, there's been a number of people from the Ellensburg area and Washington. Most of our attendees come from Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. Like I said, we limit it to 24 students, it's a four-day program, there's classroom sessions and field sessions. One of the things that makes this school fairly unique and we did the same thing in Missouri is we actually split the students up into teams and in field exercises. Each team gets a pasture area and a set of cattle, we give them grazing assignments, and we then have the following -- the -- it's a 24-hour assignment. The next day, we go look at and talk about the results. And, you know, in almost all of our evaluations, what comes back is people's favorite part of the school is the field exercises and that you don't learn anything any better way than actually doing it yourself.

>> Yeah, for sure and we'll put a link to that Lost Rivers Grazing Academy in the show notes for this episode.

>> Great. We appreciate that.

>> And -- you bet. And I think we'll close out there. Jim, I want to thank you for your time. You've been doing the art and science of grazing management for a long time and I'm thrilled to visit with you and be able to share some of what you've learned with people all over the country.

>> It was fun, Tip, and I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you'll never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

Mentioned Resources

Jim Gerrish's website is

Learn more about the Lost Rivers Grazing Academy at

Andres Voisin's book, "Grass Productivity: an Introduction to Rational Grazing" is searchable under ISBN: B09MYKBBWT and ISBN13: 9798201615178.

Learn about Sieben Live Stock at and in episodes 60, 61, and 62. 

AoR 60: Ranch Succession and True Grit at Sieben Live Stock Co. with Cooper & Chase Hibbard

AoR 61: Cooper & Chase Hibbard, Part 2--Grazing Principles

AoR 62: Ashley Hibbard, Artistry on the Range


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