Regenerative Grazing with Jaime Elizondo
“Fat cows, fat cows, fat cows.”
This is the mantra of Jaime Elizondo Braun of Regengraze. I found about Mr. Elizondo while attending the Texas REX with Darren J. Doherty, where he gave a presentation on regenerative grazing. This quick presentation left me interested and I wanted hear more about what he had to say. The cattle looked very healthy, he had tripled stocking rates, increased soil fertility and profits. I set out to visit his newest project in Waller, Texas for a 2 day Regenerative Ranching course.
The first day we talked about managing in such a way that carbon returns to the soil via photosynthesis. To Mr. Elizondo soil life, plants, and wildlife diversity are biological capital that we must always improve in order to obtain maximum profitability. He explained his experiences on the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers and fire (making note that fire destroys mycorrhizal fungi). He made it very clear that these options will have seriously consequences for your ecosystem, but cattle could be used instead to stimulate all of the biology that we want.
One of the biggest problems with cattle in Texas today is that they are not adapted for our high heat environment. This leads to all sorts of management problems that require cattle owners to feed to maintain good body condition when they should be breeding for good body condition. Because many are not heat adapted they suffer and require pampering. Cows with adapted genetics will require less pampering and thrive when hard times like drought or flood comes, calve year after year, maintain body condition on low quality forage, and live longer.
Mr. Elizondo went into depth on the differences of selective and non-selective grazing. Selective grazing happens when an animal has continuous free range, the cow will select the tastiest plant and take a bite, she will continue to select all the best forage first and leave all of the unpalatable plants standing. This favors the undesirable plants. Non-selective grazing requires a higher level of management, but the results are visibly positive. The cattle are moved across the landscape at high density so that they are forced to eat or trample all of the plants. During this time the hooves roughen the soil, manure is dropped evenly in the pasture, and then the pasture is rested until it is completely recovered its growth. This prevents the overgrazing of desirable plants and encourages strong root development. Overgrazing is a function of time, not severity. It happens when animals re-graze a given plant before it has replenished its reserves. After one grazing the plant must have time to recover before being grazed again. Pastures with diverse species will require non-selective grazing to maintain an even playing field for the diverse species to grow even more diverse. Non-selective grazing cannot be done well with non-adapted cattle that cannot survive on pasture in the heat. Imagine the buffalo herds, a native adapted animal moving at high density through the prairie, being moved constantly by wolves and the need for fresh forage. Their dung and urine spread evenly in their wake. Nature required them to be tough through natural selection. To mimic this we will have to confront many of the paradigms that we have today about cattle breeding. Instead of managing for the maximum profit per animal, we must manage for maximum profit per acre. Imagine a corn farmer only trying to grow the largest ears of corn instead of trying to grow as many average sized ears of corn as possible on the farm. In regenerative design we take this even further by diversifying. We grow trees, vines, shrubs, herbs, root crops, small animals and large animals. By layering many elements we are able to manage for maximum sustainable production, but our maximum continues to grow as the ecosystem is served.
When we were not in a classroom we were out in the field observing the rangeland, the cattle or the infrastructure. The ranch had been conventionally grazed before Mr. Braun took over management. The pastures had obviously taken a beating. In the better pastures Bermuda grass, sweet clover, ball clover, plantain, rescue grass, rye grass, and vetch were in abundance. The more abused pastures were mixed with Bermuda and ragweed. The herd was mixed with many varieties of cattle. Many of them looked great, but there were many non-adapted cattle in the herd that did not look so good. The best-looking cattle were the mashona and mashona mixes. These are heat-adapted cattle that are very docile and maintain good body condition even during hard times. I had a newborn mashona calf come right up to me and give me a nuzzle, it was wonderful and really spoke to how friendly this breed is with people. None of the other cattle came close and some were skittish enough to make the whole herd run. The ranch had attempted using electric fencing before, but had failed because of improper grounding. Improper grounding is one of the main issues with electric fencing failures. Because of this failure they had built miles of barbwire fence that was still in place. Mr. Elizondo uses 5/8” fiberglass fence posts bought from Kencove, with a hole drilled through the post at the top and simple wire tie. The hot wire is high tensile galvanized wire, for gates he uses 8 ft PVC pipe probably 1 ½” with notches on the end of the pipe that prop up the galvanized wire. These “gates” can be easily moved and just lower the wire once removed. The cows have access to a laneway that leads them from any pasture to a water trough. The trough is a large galvanized tank with a float valve on it. They had been using a Great Plains no till seed drill to seed all of their pastures, it looked like they were having really nice germination seeding directly into Bermuda grass. I would like to try this and also incorporate many medicinal herbs and other valuable native plants, both as forage and for harvesting.
Overall I think Mr. Elizondo runs a very tight operation, he was extremely professional and kept my attention throughout the course. I definitely recommend Mr. Braun for educational courses or consultancy, his knowledge is expansive and tried through experience. However, he made it clear that if you wanted to really make this kind of animal impact you would need at least 200 cows to make ends meet, unless you had another source of income. As with anything, implementation of a grazing system of this magnitude has to be thought out and context has to be considered. The benefits are obvious with this way of grazing, but how can we incorporate this style of grazing into our polycultural systems? How can we stack functions and revolutionize even further? I think that a smaller more highly managed property could use this type of grazing system, but with lesser animal numbers it will be critical to have other sources of income or a strong direct marketing plan. While grazing is a really comprehensive large-scale land management tool, you have to be ready to have high initial land investment, select/breed adapted cattle, have extensive infrastructure (water, fencing, forage) and the will to commit. My hat is off anyone who can make this happen. It’s my dream to one day make an impact of the full scale ecosystem spectrum, hopefully one day it comes true.
We need more ranches in Texas adopting this style of management so that our soils improve on a broad scale, instead of degrade. This could have incredible impacts on our drought and flooding challenges since every 1% of organic matter per acre in the soil holds 27,000 gallons of water. Regenerative grazing has great potential to drought proof the state of Texas.
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Joseph “Pete” Van Dyck
May 2, 2017