‘Disciplined non-conformist’ appreciates new grazing methods
for Tri-State Livestock News
Bruce Troester claims his wife is an important part of their ranching operation. She was from the start. It didn’t hurt that Bruce married a cowgirl. He’s sure that growing up on a ranch, near Crawford, Nebraska, influenced Vicki’s appreciation for the lifestyle, as well as her work ethic. The couple likes to think their three sons also benefited from being ranch-raised. Lane and Kelly have pursued careers outside of agriculture but remain involved in the Troester operation. Bruce says eldest son Will is engaged “almost full-time” on the ranch, but takes on day-work too.
Bruce, however, was raised on an east-central Nebraska dairy. He definitely learned how to work, but Bruce’s youthful labors were focused on milking cows and growing row crops. He readily admits that he knew little of ranching when he first came to the Panhandle country.
“The learning curve was pretty steep,” grins Bruce. “In the long run, though, my lack of experience probably was an advantage. I wasn’t locked into any paradigms that I had to unlearn.”
Production agriculture and perhaps ranching in particular is often thought of as an industry strong in traditions. In plenty of ways, that’s a good thing. Sometimes, however, managers become so tradition-bound that alternative management practices – methods differing from what they’ve always done – are dismissed out-of-hand. Different ideas aren’t even considered. Not so, on the Troester Ranch.
“I guess I’ve always been willing to try different things,” says Bruce, who hopes his sons have learned to keep an open mind. Over the years, he’s demonstrated that willingness to experiment, but always with a plan in mind. You might even say Bruce is a nonconformist, but a disciplined nonconformist.
Married since 1983, Bruce and Vicki started ranching on leased land in Dawes County. In 1988, they purchased their current spread located near Marsland. Straddling the Dawes – Box Butte county line, the ranch incorporates center-pivot and side-roll irrigated acreage, “tame” grass pastures and native range that includes subirrigated meadows fronting the Niobrara River. In the kind of cattle they raise and how they manage ranch resources Troesters have dared to be different.
It’s been said that heterosis (hybrid vigor) is the nearest thing to a free lunch that a commercial cow-calf producer will ever see. Troester Ranch embraced the concept early. And during a time when much of the commercial industry was trending toward straight-bred herds, Bruce choose to raise composite cattle representing a blend of British and Continental breeds. His application of balanced trait selection has paid close attention to maternal characteristics and avoided overemphasis of growth traits.
“We save replacements out of home-raised females and we raise our own bulls,” says Bruce, citing a preference for easy-fleshing cattle of moderate mature size. “We use artificial insemination to introduce new genetics, breeding some of our very best cows to A.I. and choosing bulls from the resulting calves.”
Calving starts in March so, by late February, cows have been brought to meadows adjacent to calving lots. Heavies are sorted into calving lots where hay is fed in fenceline feed bunks to minimize waste. Mature cows, second-calvers and first-calf heifers are grouped separately, so their differing nutrient requirements can be managed. After calving, pairs from the three groups are sorted out to meadows where hay is fed until after grass green-up and turn-out time arrives.
Troesters also started early to improve the volume and quality of forage produced on the ranch, along with improving forage utilization through grazing. In the beginning, the ranch’s 3,800 acres of native range was divided into just four pastures. Over the years, those were subdivided and further subdivided to create the 16 native pastures that currently exist. Additionally, there are twelve “improved” pastures – half in crested wheatgrass and half in pubescent wheatgrass.
Cattle are rotated frequently, exposing pastures to relatively short periods of grazing, followed by long periods of rest. The length of time cattle remain in a particular pasture can vary from a day or two, to as long as three weeks. It depends on pasture size, moisture and forage conditions, and the impact Troesters want to make during a particular grazing period
The summer grazing season typically starts in early May, with cow-calf pairs first grazing, in rotation, the cool-season perennial grass pastures. Then starts the rotation through native pastures. Typically, each pasture has been grazed just once during the grazing season. Bruce tried something different in 2019, though, after learning about North Dakota grazing studies showing how total forage production and forage quality might be increased by employing a second grazing period in well-managed grazing systems.
“We tried that on some of our native range – pastures that were grazed early is the season,” explains Bruce. “When the grasses are grazed early, while they’re in a highly vegetative state, it stimulates tillering. If we don’t graze too short the first time, if we allow sufficient rest, and if there is sufficient moisture, we get enough regrowth to allow a second grazing period in September or October. And the regrowth is higher quality than grass that’s been stockpiled all summer.”
After calves are weaned, Troesters have found they can extend the grazing season by running the dry cows on forage grown under pivot irrigation. The field produces a mixture of cool-season grass and alfalfa which is harvested for hay, in June, usually yielding about five tons per acre. The regrowth is saved for grazing in late fall and winter.
With watering sites located at the pivot point and the 115-acre field’s four corners, Troesters use electrified polywire fencing to create multiple paddocks – each including about 2 ½ acres and providing a day’s worth of forage for the herd.
“With daily moves we can pretty easily get 45 days of grazing for 350 cows,” says Bruce. “We can get more days by feeding a little bit of supplemental hay. That pivot’s green forage is usually pretty lush and the manure gets pretty loose, so we like to feed some dry hay (to slow the passage rate) and that also extends the time we can graze on the pivot. When the weather cooperated, and by feeding nine or 10 pounds of hay (per cow per day, on average) we have stayed on it for up to 75 days.”
Of course, winter weather can be a complicating factor. If it does snow, additional hay is fed by spreading it on the field or on adjacent areas of native range. Bruce maintains that no hay is ever wasted. Any that is not consumed and is instead trampled is returning nutrients to the soil, feeding microorganisms and building up organic matter.
Intrigued by the beneficial impact of grazing at high stock density, Bruce also has begun to experiment with mob-grazing on some summer pastures. Here too, polywire fencing is used to strip-graze such that large numbers of animals are concentrated on a small allocation of forage, but moved multiple times per day.
“We do achieve greater harvest efficiency with mob-grazing. The cattle are less selective and eat more of the available forage,” says Bruce, also noting the increased herd effects of hoof action and waste deposition. “And rest periods are even longer, which is beneficial. We’re seeing improvement in those pastures where we’ve mob-grazed. We’ll be doing more of it.”
Bruce also plans to start harvesting more hay as baleage – a fermented forage that has been cut and baled at 45 to 55 percent moisture content, then wrapped in plastic. He has experimented with this hay harvesting method and liked the results.
“It’s really good feed, with more forage protein content retained,” offers Bruce, also noting the advantage of being able to bale hay after a shorter wilt-time than is required with traditional hay harvesting. “We’ve been able to lay down hay one day and get it wrapped up the next day. It’s just a lot easier to find a two-day window of favorable haying weather, than it is to get the three or four days you need for putting up hay in the traditional way,” he adds.
Bruce insists “there is nothing all that special” about his family’s operation. Then again, maybe there is. When he considers the circumstances leading to opportunities to buy the nucleus of a cow herd, to lease property and eventually purchase a ranch, Bruce realizes he and Vicki couldn’t have done it alone. They’re convinced a higher power was at work. That helps inspire the Troesters’ desire to be good stewards of their ranch resources. Sometimes, it means looking at the things from a nonconformist point of view.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News