According to Pat Guptill, long time South Dakota cattle farmer and seasoned practitioner of Adaptive Grazing, the process is: A Little Bit of Science; Whole Lot of Art.
By: Mike Cox
Pat Guptill lives in Quinn, South Dakota, on a 7000-acre ranch. In a recent interview with Growing Resilience, Pat explains what Adaptive Grazing is, why it is important, and how he got from considering it to becoming one of the foremost South Dakota experts on the subject.
Pat will tell visitors to his operation that cows aren't the most important livestock on his ranch. Microbes are much more essential than any other living thing, and he strives to make sure their existence is guaranteed in every endeavor involving his ranch. If the microbes are healthy then the grass is healthy, which means the cattle that feed there will also be healthy.
Adaptive Grazing Management is a process of rotating feeding cattle over several different pastures and moving them quickly. The idea is to allow the cattle to eat high quality food, and then move elsewhere before all that grass has been eaten. This process allows the remaining grass to recover quickly; an absence of bare ground protects the existing root system and keeps the soil microbes thriving. Pat's goal is to ensure that a minimum of 1000 pounds of residue per acre is left behind. This assures that available grass will be there up to a year later.
The South Dakota Grasslands Coalition estimates 3-5 years for a bare pasture to recover grazing capability. Adaptive Grazing reduces that recovery time to almost nothing with a little rain. Additionally, manure from the cattle is deposited on the ground and the hoof action of the grazing cattle trample plants to put them on the ground. When the cattle move elsewhere, nature and dung beetles to do what they do with the manure and the ground cover to set the scene for recovery, and leaves a ground cover over the pasture.
Although Pat is highly respected on the subject, he insists that he is still searching for the perfect setup. He preaches a simple approach. First, Observe, Respond, Repeat; no matter what the plan initially is. Every ranch is different and every season is different. Start slow and small. "It's a little bit of science and a whole lot of art."
According to Pat, the best way to begin is by dividing the target pasture in half, and plan toward an ultimate goal of moving cattle daily. While daily rotation might not work for everyone, it allows for changes to other options easily. He also suggests asking for help. The South Dakota Grasslands Coalition offers many types of assistance, including a staff of well-versed mentors. Pat emphasizes that the mentors want to help; want to hear questions. "Most of my knowledge comes from hearing questions I've never thought of before."
Pat insists that Adaptive Grazing is a simple process as long as a rancher is prepared to make adjustments. "I was overwhelmed at first." He remembers how his daughter Josie, who was in grade school at the time, helped him start the program and in three weeks knew what needed to be done without further instruction.
"Before we began this, it took most of my neighbors helping to move cattle. Now I can do it alone. The cattle trust us. When we take on new cattle in the summer, you have to babysit for the first day. In 3 days, they are manageable and in a month, they will follow you."
The goal is to "fix their plates for them." The cows eat their favorite food first and then eat whatever else is available in the designated paddock. If left too long, the herd will return to their favorite grass as new shoots start to appear. The trick is to move them after before any new growth starts.
The use of movable electric fencing and portable water tanks and pipeline makes it easier to change plans because circumstances change. Pat does suggest that if one is using electric fence in the same place for as long as three years, it is time to make that fence permanent.
The "gentle massage" of the soil by the grazing cows; hooves loosen the soil, put plant residue on the ground as armor and allow rainwater to infiltrate into the ground. When this process first started on Guptill’s operation in 2007, Grasslands Coalition measured organic matter at 12"-18" inches deep. Six years later, evidence of organic matter had moved to at least 36" deep. This translates to a deeper root system for grass and allows the soil to absorb more water; which keeps grass growing year round and makes rain runoff almost non-existent.
Pat's Vet bill was about $2500 per 150 cattle 25 years ago. Now it is $50 per 250. Sick cows no longer hide in the herd. "They come out to me now." Being among the cattle on a daily basis reduces stress. The herd becomes comfortable with you and will do as you desire. Stress, which is always a two-way street, is reduced on both streets. Every creature is happier and healthier.
Pat emphasizes that the rancher must establish a base of good grass and healthy soil, then pay attention to what is going on. "The whole deal is, if an animal's got the right nutrition and the right vitamins and minerals, it won't get sick. And keep the stress away from them. We can't control stress because we can't control the weather. So you got to watch it. Next year might change. I mean, it's just year to year, it's always different."
In addition, we provide some video links that feature Pat:
For more information on Adaptive Management see this podcast;
https://www.growingresiliencesd.com/podcasts/episode/efba1b3a/32-adaptive-management-applied 2013 SD Leopold Award: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGsjUdScWZM A 2014 video by SDSU visits with Pat about High Stock Density grazing (Pat doesn’t necessarily like to use the words “Mob Grazing”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWC9qkYdDNA In 2021, Pat and wife Mary Lou, through the SD NOLO (Non-Operating Land Owner) project, discuss “Understanding the Connection: Stress Reduction Through Soil Health”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfIJp-M1K5U Also please visit the SD NRCS Range and Pasture website for more information at:https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/natural-resource-concerns/animals
Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:
1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts and more.
2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.
3.Follow Growing Resilience on social media:
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4. Our homepage: www.growingresiliencesd.com