Sunday, 28 August 2011

Chad's Challenge

Chad Peterson's ranch is unlike any other I visited, posing a unique set of challenges to any farmer or rancher.

The first issue is the soil type. Chad farms in the Sand Hills area of Nebraska, where much of the higher ground is, literally, sand dunes. The fine sand is extremely unstable, and if exposed to the air will blow and wash away in moments.

The second issue is the low rainfall. Interestingly, the water table is only a few feet below the surface of his land, so water availability for cattle is not an issue - he pumps water continually into a trough for the cattle, letting surplus water run back onto the ground and into the aquifer. However, lack of rain coupled with the sandy soil means grass will only grow if managed very carefully.

This is a picture of Chad's watering system (borrowed from this website - - as for some reason the photos I took failed to save onto my camera).  Water is pumped continually, with surplus water emptying through a sumphole and down a pipe onto the previously grazed field behind the cattle.

Fortunately Chad has the skills and ability to make a success of farming under such conditions. He realised long ago - before he had heard of 'mobgrazing' or knew of anyone else who was farming like this - that allowing grass time to recover was vital. The best way he found to achieve this was to bunch the cattle up, keeping them off the majority of the land for long periods.

This allowed plants to grow a good root structure, it gave soil microbes a good food source and it encouraged the development of fungae and the excretion of glomalin into the soil, all of which help to stabilise the fine sandland.

Chad's land is to the right of the fence. Notice how, on the previously overgrazed left hand side of the fence, bare sand is showing through, whereas Chad's paddock has excellent vegetation covering and protecting the soil.

That Chad arrived at this conclusion long before anyone else was practicing (or even discussing) mob grazing demonstrates what an innovative thinker he is, coupled with great observational powers and a willingness to try new things.

He has recently turned his attention to the type of cattle he runs, and has switched breeds, preferring the hardiness of highland cattle which, he says, perfom well under the harsh climate of North Nebraska.

The highland cows and calves moving to new grazing. The calling is not typical of mob-grazed cattle but in this sitation was due to a combination of cows and calves staying 'in touch' with each other and also that Chad was making them graze down some older, less nutritious pasture. They were complaining a little, but still looked in good condition. If they'd looked over the fence at Chad's neighbours, they'd have realised the grass isn't always greener....!

The water table on Chad's ranch was a few feet below the surface of the soil. Here, he and his assistant, May, cross a small creek. Sand can be seen on the hillside in the far distance.

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