Sept. 6, 2012 - There was a time, not that long ago, when Vance Mitchell ran his ranch the same way that five previous generations of ranchers in his family had done it, and the way most people did it at that time. He put all of his cows into one or two big pastures, put hay out for them to eat when the grass was gone and he put bulls out in the spring.
Over the last 30 years, Mitchell has added new wrinkles to the old routine. He went from one or two big pastures to 60 smaller paddocks which are intensively grazed and then rested while the cows are moved to another paddock. Bulls are put out in late summer or fall. He doesn't feed hay and spends very little money on fertilizer or weed spray. To keep input costs low and maintain cash flow, Mitchell follows what he calls the 80-20 rule.
"It means that 80 percent of the profit is made from 20 percent of the work," he said. "At the same time, 80 percent of the work spent chasing the last 20 percent -- hay, labor, rust and supplements.
"It's all about the grass. We don't look at how the cows are doing as much as we look at how the grass is doing. Ninety percent of what we look at is the grass -- not the market and not the cows, but the grass."
Mitchell has also added flexibility to his ranch by operating both a cow-calf and stocker operation. He buys heifers from the cattle barn and sells a group of them, keeping the best ones for himself. He checks to see which ones are pregnant 60 days after being put into the grazing system; those are the ones he usually keeps.
"A lot of it is based on body size, how they act and things of that nature," he said. "We pick ours and sell the replacements."
Most of what Mitchell has learned he learned the old-fashioned way -- by doing it. He grew up in a ranching family with roots stretching back to early-day Texas near Lolita in Jackson County. He earned a degree in ranch management in 1979, from College Station and married his wife, Eileen and raised three children in Edna, but he has never really quit studying, even as he works a real estate specialist with Wells Fargo Wealth Management in Victoria.
"I've kept up with all this grazing stuff over the years," he said. "I attended the 'Ranching for Profit' seminars and the classes put on by Bud Williams and others. Most of it, though, comes from just doing it."
As he has become more proficient at what he does and how he does, Mitchell has shared his first-hand lessons with students from Texas A&M and at Jackson County Cattle Raisers Association field days. Most recently he spoke to a grazing workshop in Jourdanton sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service as part of its Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative.
The Texas Section Society for Range Management (TSSRM) recognized him with its County Level Award as a "Friend of Conservation" for promoting rangeland management issues on the Texas Mid-Gulf Coast. The Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District named him Conservation Rancher of the Year.
Mitchell's message centers reducing an operation to its basics: grass, cows, water and fences. It starts with the grass and the paddocks, each one about 30 acres. How long he keeps the cattle in each paddock depends on how much rain the ranch is receiving at any given time.
"It depends on the grass," he said. "We move them through faster or slower depending on how much grass we have. We move them more quickly if we're getting rain and slower when it's dry. We never have them in any one paddock longer than 10 days. We average about three days."
Mitchell responded to the drought by destocking from 500 cows to about 150. He used to run one cow to every five or six acres but has cut that back to one for every 15 acres. The cows all run together, accompanied in the fall by Angus bulls and an occasional Charolais. He said he has room for about 180 cows, which adds up to about two truckloads.
"We literally grew nothing during the drought," he said. "The cattle we sold cashed out at a pretty good price. It hurt us -- we had to reduce the number of animals but we got paidIf you're a grass farmer, you can never have too much grass or too much cash."