Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark are running more than 5,000 steers in one herd this summer.
It's seldom done but has many advantages.
The couple first combined all their herds on their ranch near Henrietta, Texas, last year during the severe drought that hit the Southern Plains.
They made that move to increase stock density and grazing efficiency and to lengthen recovery time between one grazing period and the next.
Birdwell says they had been moving toward the one-herd concept since they first bought the ranch eight years ago and were just about ready when the drought struck. In preparation they had removed some existing fences and built single-wire electric fence to subdivide the 14,000 acres into 150 paddocks. Much of the planning of those paddocks was to be certain they had water in all of them.
The Birdwell-Clark Ranch is a stocker operation on native range in north Texas. Birdwell buys and sells cattle throughout much of the year as do many stocker operators. He plans to hit a peak in numbers as the warm-season forage really gets going in late spring.
In years past the couple ran three herds coming into this peak time, then as they sold off bigger calves or sent them to feedlots they combined into two herds, then usually one herd of about 2,500 animals toward the end of the grazing season. These three herds they ran in three cells of about 50 paddocks each. Combining the herds into one made available all the 150 paddocks for use by the one herd.
Watching that many cattle move through a gate from one paddock to the next is not that different than seeing 500 or 1,000 or 3,500 trudge placidly but happily by. It just takes longer. Two moves the day Beef Producer visited Birdwell-Clark Ranch took about 20 minutes.
The cattle were clearly satisfied and not hungry as they walked into the gate and began to explore and graze. Some picked at forage as they entered but they were in no hurry.
"That's the way you want to see them move," Birdwell said as he watched them file in, the grass swishing on their legs as they walked.
It was peaceful, like watching a slow river roll by. There was little vocalization, mostly the swishing sounds. Sometimes a few calves would stop to look at the stranger in the Kubota and the rest would flow around them, then they would melt back into the flow.
Birdwell says this way of management is first an economic decision. It takes attention to detail and some experience but it allows them to run more cattle than normal and with less labor.
They gained 80 pounds of beef to the acre last year -- not bad in a drought. In the years before they typically gain 120 pounds of beef to the acre.