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Emily Helms, NRCS’s State Rangeland Specialist in SD, explains why Rangeland Diversity is Important

“Everything works together. The more diverse a pasture or grassland is, the healthier it is, the more resilient it is to any disturbance that comes at it. So, if we can have that diversity it’s going to reduce the inputs needed and the landscape can be more resilient as well.”


By Mike Cox


Emily Helms holds a degree in Range Management and Agronomy from South Dakota State University. She was working toward soil health in 2012, with Pathways; a Federal program that allows high school students and recent college grads the opportunity to work for Federal Agencies and learn about various jobs while also getting paid. During her Pathways time, Emily completed the Grand Tour of Milbank, Brookings, Burke and Hayti, SD, right on the edge of Lake Marsh.



Emily served as NRCS State Rangeland Management Specialist in Huron for the last three years and recently moved to Rapid City, where she continues in this role. She oversees all technical information pertaining to grassland management, coordinates new employee training, and partners with the Grasslands Coalition.


Emily grew up on a small ranch near Wall, SD, which solidified her interest in working outdoors. She joined the FFA and got involved in Range Judging, and that’s where she developed a knowledge and passion for soils, plants and grazinglands.


Her current focus is on the loss of rangeland and what’s causing that loss. She currently spends much of her time interacting with ranchers, farmers and tackling these big issues.


The first of four threats to rangeland is: Woody Encroachment, which is an increase in density, cover and biomass of woody plants in grassy ecosystems. Four states, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas have formed a coalition to reduce the spread of woody species (including Eastern Red Cedar and Russian Olive trees), among other woody species, that are rapidly moving into grasslands and disrupting the existing grassland ecology. Combating woody encroachment is not easy, but essential work. Mechanical treatment, i.e., simply cutting the encroaching trees, is a short term solution, but may result in many more seedlings sprouting from the mother tree. Re-introducing the tool of fire, followed up by proper grazing management and monitoring appears to be the most effective method of addressing this problem. Nevertheless, opportunities for prescribed burns are limited and really need to be addressed at a community level; for example see, what the Mid-Missouri Prescribed Burn Association is doing.


Urban Encroachment is the second of four primary threats to rangeland. Emily singled out the Black Hills area as an example of locations where natural grasslands are being carved up to make way for more development. Spearfish and Sturgis are seeing large scale growth with little regard to preserving the grasslands that have existed for centuries.


Conservation Easements are one way to combat this threat. Families can decide what to do with the land if they no longer want to farm that property. A permanent conservation easement allows a family to save the property from development and keep it natural forever. “Once a house is built there, we can't ever get that back. That diversity, that soil; That ecosystem is basically ruined with putting the House on it.”


Grasslands are also being lost by being converted to croplands. The temptation to convert to cropland can be driven by improved crop prices, but also be convenience; as producers get older, there is the attraction of being able to benefit financially from row crops without the burden of dealing with animals year-round.


“We have an aging farm and ranch community. Lot of guys are getting older, and they don't want to deal with cattle. So it's a lot easier to plant it in April, harvest it in August and then go to Arizona in the fall and winter. The AAA club, some people like to call it and that is pretty easy to just be a farmer.”


The fourth issue with loss of grassland habitat is the encroachment of cool season invasive grasses, Kentucky bluegrass, smooth brome and crested wheatgrass have taken hold in the grasslands. Why are they a concern? Yes, they do present grazing opportunities for a short period in the early summer, but they shade out native species.They crowd out the deep-rooted natives withtheir shallow root systems. Tools like targeted grazing/utilization of the cool season invasives and prescribed burns, if used carefully can be effective.


Solving these four problems won’t be easy. Education and support for the grasslands are sometimes hard to translate into action. Prescribed burns for invasive trees and grasses can be effective but must be done with care. Utilization of cool season invasive grasses in the early summer is another tool that can be context specific – the South Dakota Grassland Mentoring Network, NRCS Rangeland Specialists and SDSU Extension are ready and eager to help. Like so many other environmental challenges we face, turning the tide grassland loss will require changing the minds and habits of everyone with dirt under their feet.

Finally, Emily points us toward hope. There is a growing number of ranchers who are embracing adaptive grazing and other effective grazing methods. One only needs to look at the Amazing Grasslands video series, where 12 excellent range managers per year have been featured since 2018. Emily Helms, her team members, partners and participating ranchers embody this hope for the future of the grasslands.


Helpful Links:

USDA-NRCS South Dakota Range and Pasture website that includes the SD Drought status and drought map, drought tools, south Dakota Range Planning Tools and South

Seminar on Invasive Species


Webinar: Reducing Woody Encroachment to Conserve Rangeland Production in the Great Plains



SD Grasslands Coalition - https://sdgrass.org/


The Central Grasslands Roadmap: https://www.grasslandsroadmap.org/


Mid Missouri Prescribed Burn Association: https://www.midmissouririverpba.com/


Prescribed Burn Videos, Podcasts and Blogs: https://www.growingresiliencesd.com/prescribed-burn

Drought Management Videos, Podcasts and Blogs: https://www.growingresiliencesd.com/drought-management


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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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