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Healthy grass in cropland country

Converting cropland to grass and switching to rotational grazing decades ago drive soil health, lower costs and grass and bird diversity.

Larry Wagner (pictured left) a rancher who grows grass in cropland country southeast of Chamberlain, SD, has readily shared his journey to grassland health from his early days of rotational grazing on the Soil Health Labs podcast.

Thankful his dad converted cropland into grasslands back in the 1950s, rancher Larry Wagner continued this family legacy of providing quality grass for their cow-calf herd that mimics Mother Nature.

Ranching 20 miles southeast of Chamberlain, surrounded by row-crops, Wagner runs around 175 cows and 25 yearlings to sell grass-fed beef and some feeder calves. “If we hadn’t converted everything to growing grass, I’d seed cover crops into row-crop fields to extend my grazing time in the fall and rest more pastures,” Wagner says.

Wagner emphasizes the importance of grazing the cool-season bromegrass hard, early in the spring, to open up the canopy for plant diversity. “People should graze this shallow-rooted brome earlier because it comes so fast,” he says. “Once that is grazed down by mid-June, the canopy opens, and the deep-rooted, warm-season natives will come, and you get a much longer grazing season.”

Take half, leave half

“You need to leave half the grass when you rotate because without ground cover, soil gets hot and kills your microbes that build organic matter to conserve moisture,” Wagner adds. “As your soil gets healthier, you see different species which are all good for the soil.” He’s also convinced healthy rangeland is vital to healthy livestock.

Checking the cows and grass hold many clues, especially when moving cows. “I move animals by watching the grass because you have variations in moisture, temperature, how it is growing and being grazed,” he explains. “For me, I check daily or every other day to get the most out of your grass.”

A source of pride for Wagner is his Audubon-certified conservation ranch. “They have found 32 different kinds of birds on our ranch during their audit. We’ve learned that if you’re managing the grass right for the cows, it’s right for the birds and all kinds of wildlife. They just all fit together,” he says.

Here’s more of what Wagner had to say in this podcast:

“Here in South Dakota, we always say we’re two weeks away from a drought. Having your soil in good condition in wet years helps store water than having it runoff. You get through a really dry year pretty well because it makes that much difference.”

“People don’t realize how much less work it is when you shift calving to May and June, compared to March and April. Fawns are born in June; that’s Mother Nature. It’s just like everything, the grass, the animals; it helps to be in sync with Mother Nature.”

“One of the biggest lightbulbs that came on for me was seeing how well rotational grazing worked, how it increased your grass production by doing it. The other surprise was building soil and not realizing it, a big reason how we’ve increased our production.”

“I’ve learned a lot from South Dakota Grassland Coalition, and we have a great mentors list on the website with experience in fencing, pipelines, later calving, grass seeding, and more. And the NRCS has been very helpful to me over the years with plans and overall thinking on how rotational grazing is done.”

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