The Blue Head is cross fenced into over 70 pastures ranging in size from 10 acres to almost 3,000 acres and we move our herds through them on a schedule planned well in advance. Currently we have three main herds of about 2,000 head each. Using the principles of Holistic Planned Grazing developed by Allan Savory we calculate how many pastures each herd will require, how long the rest period needs to be between grazings for adequate recovery of the grazed plants and how long the herd needs to spend in each pasture.
The ideal (seldom achieved) is for each plant to be either bitten off once or stepped on by a cow in the brief time the herd is present. With a grazing plan written out months in advance and even with the inevitable alterations to the plan we can know if we will have adequate feed in the event of drought or other circumstances that can affect a ranch. Knowing how much grass is needed, monitoring how much is growing and being prepared to re-plan if it becomes obvious that the two aren’t lining up gives a rancher a wonderful peace of mind. We can predict long in advance if it appears we need to reduce cattle numbers, find more pasture or take other steps to react to adverse conditions.
In the spring, summer and fall, when conditions allow rapid plant growth we like to aim for a recovery period of 25 to 30 days. In the winter months when growth is slow or nonexistent the plan calls for 50 to 60 days of rest between grazings. For much of the year a herd will spend just one day in many of the pastures and never more than a few days. Obviously moving that many cows that frequently keeps us busy. Hence the 40 head of saddle horses. The cows have learned well that when a human in an ATV shows up and opens the gate it means fresh feed and most of them move to the next pasture on their own but there are inevitably some stragglers that linger in the woods and thickets. We ride almost every day to keep those caught up with the main herds.
The connections between healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals that eat those plants and the health of humans who eat those animals are becoming more obvious as our understanding of these relationships grows. Grass, to remain healthy, needs to be grazed. Grazing, done correctly, promotes regrowth of plants. Soil, to be healthy, needs plants growing in it that are periodically disturbed then allowed to regrow. This disturbance/rest cycle stimulates more plant growth which stimulates the growth of bacteria and other microbes that soils require to be healthy and alive. The action of hooved animals plants seeds, breaks up capped soils, knocks down standing plant material so it’s in contact with the ground and can break down more readily and allows better moisture penetration. There is a marvelous symbiosis between large grazing animals and the tiny microbial creatures that is crucial for the health of the life in the soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals that feed humans. A primary focus on the Blue Head is to learn more about those connections and how to use our livestock as tools that promote ever more healthy soil, plants, animals and people.
Why Cracker Cows?
The short answer is: For the African genetics.
We chose to stock the Blue Head almost totally with cattle that can trace their ancestry back to Africa. Originating in the harsh climate of northern Africa they were taken to Europe by Moorish invaders in the middle ages and then brought to the New World by the Spanish explorers in the early 1500’s. From then until around 100 years ago they were virtually the only cattle in Florida and have adapted to survive, and even thrive, on just what Florida grows. As a product of the wilderness they do well where more refined, “bred up” cattle have to be pampered.
Our goal is to have a herd of cows with a mature body weight in the 750 to 850 lb range, genetically adapted to a subtropical environment that can thrive with little or no supplementation, able to raise a calf every year for many years and of Bos Taurus origin. In modern times, Bos Indicus (Brahman and Brahman crosses) have become predominant in Florida but we are convinced that to do well with minimal inputs the tropically adapted Bos Taurus cattle, which includes Crackers, Corrientes and Longhorns, are preferable.
What is today known as the “Cracker” breed is the Florida strain of the cattle of Spanish origin that includes the “Corriente” of Mexico and the “Longhorn” of the American Southwest. We needed 4,000 head to initially stock the ranch and finding that many actual Florida Cracker cows for sale wasn’t possible so we opted to also buy Corriente and Longhorn cows as well as a few crossbreeds, some with Brahman influence.
Most of our cattle have horns. We find this to be of substantial benefit on the infrequent occasions that they are in the pens. Two or three times each year we have to put our cattle through the cow pens to sort off individuals to sell or for other reasons. We sometimes work several thousand in just a few hours and horned cattle don’t crowd together when confined in tight quarters. Because of the horns they keep more space around themselves and the stress of being in a small pen or alley is greatly reduced. Polled (hornless) cattle crowd together more tightly and suffer more from the heat and stress of being jammed together.
An unexpected trait we’ve found in these cattle is that they spurn the bagged mineral supplements that most cattle, especially in high rainfall, leached soil environments like Florida usually require to thrive. Our “start up” cattle were all purchased in September and October of 2015 from across the southern tier of states from Florida to Arizona and as far north as Colorado and Oklahoma. For a few months they gobbled the supplementary minerals we provided about as fast as we could haul it to them but after a few months they began to leave more and more in the feeders until eventually they completely ignored it. This has continued right up to the present. Initially worried that surely they must be lacking in at least some of the minerals necessary for health we have become convinced that they are finding what they need in the forage they consume. These cows are browsers almost as much as grazers and eat a little of everything, including many plants normally considered to be toxic to cattle. Under our program of holistic planned grazing they are constantly moving to fresh feed in new pastures. A few pastures are “improved” with near monocultures of introduced grass species but, more often, there is a wide range of native grasses, shrubs, forbs and trees and apparently our cows are meeting their mineral requirements by eating just enough of plants that contain what they need. We still offer them some commercial mineral from time to time (mostly to reassure ourselves) but they continue to turn their noses up at it.
Interestingly, our horses, that spend most of their time in a few “improved” pastures near the headquarters, do consume some of the bagged minerals we offer them. Sometimes we will have a few cattle in the same pastures and after awhile they will begin to eat some mineral. This reinforces our theory that our cattle that are able to meet their mineral needs by selecting their diet from a plethora of grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees.