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Resilience Rodeo - A. Jay Heiss on rotational grazing, and his soil health responsibility.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a “Cowboy”, South Dakota’s state sport of rodeo is familiar to many of us. Rodeo’s origin comes from Spanish America as far back as the 17thcentury and was originally the process of gathering cattle for purposes of moving them to new pastures or gathering them for slaughter. Thus, the Spanish word “rodeo” translates to “round up” in English.

Before rodeo became the competition of specific roping and riding events that it is today, it was a practical test of a cowboy’s skill. Success in today’s rodeo, or even those from past centuries, takes many of the same skills and attributes that can make success in ranching as well.Grit, perseverance, camaraderie, faith, failure, an eagerness to learn and improve, and oftentimes stubbornness are all characteristics that make someone a cowboy and gets him or her to the next go-round, whether it be in the arena or on the ranch.

That’s why we, at Growing Resilience SD, are excited to kick our spurs into what we’re calling the “Resilience Rodeo”. We’ve rounded up ranchers, farmers, and field/range experts from across South Dakota to share their experiences, successes, and setbacks when it comes to building and maintaining resilient grasslands, prairies, fields, livestock, and families. So, saddle up and get ready for a weekly go-round of lessons from South Dakotan’s about how they handled their draws to become the champions and queens of the “Resilience Rodeo”.

This week on the “Resilience Rodeo”, A. Jay Heiss shares his inspiration for rotational grazing and May calving, and how he feels like it’s his responsibility to manage grasslands in a way that leaves the soil better for the future.

Growing up on a farming operation with a feed lot and ranch, A. Jay and his dad had a lot going on during his youth. “What I love to do is take care of the cattle on the ranch. I was not much into the farming side; I still don’t like the farming end. I would rather take care of the ranch and the cattle part, and my dad allowed me to do that.” Now following the lead of how the buffalo, antelope, and deer did it before fences were ever put up, A. Jay is using rotational grazing practices to manage a 26,000-acre operation with 1200-1500 cows.

A. Jay Heiss
A. Jay Heiss

1) What one thing have you done that has been most important to the success of your operation?

The one thing I have done to the success of this operation that I would say benefited the most would definitely be the rotational system. It absolutely helped with the grass; it made the soil better. It made us run 40% more cattle. It cheapened up our daily cost of grazing.

2) Can you recall a moment or time when the light bulb went on for you to change the way you were grazing?

A moment when a light bulb came on to me was early on when I saw a big ranch, a 10,000-acre ranch that could barely run 300 cows year-round. And I knew that wasn't going to work with land prices going up, feed prices going up. I knew that I had to find some way to create more beef every year and for sale. So, by doing that, the only way I could think of was a highly intensive grazing program where I could do a twice through program, hit the cattle and let the grass regrow and then hit it again. And by doing that, I also added more tonnage and more quality of grass that came in year and year after that.

After that, we did almost double the herd size to where now you're selling 650 calves off the ranch instead of the 350 calves off the ranch. Really the only cost would be the cattle. There's no other cost unless you really had to feed in the wintertime. But our program is also a grazing program in the wintertime. We will stockpile grasses in half of the ranch so that we can graze year-round to try to save on the feed-bill.

3) What surprised you most when you changed the way you were grazing?

What surprised me the most, the way we changed when we were grazing and was how easy it was to handle the 650 head, how easy it was to keep them fenced in. Also, how fast the grass would recover, after 20-30 days of rest, after a good rain, you could go back and look at some pastures. You grazed in June, and you could not tell that a cow has been on there. The grass regrew, it filled up all the cow trails.

Another thing was, some of the cattle trails that you would hit would be two foot deep, years and years of over grazing and year-long grazing in some pastures, the cattle trails were getting two, three foot deep, you couldn't hardly get to the dams without breaking the front end of your pickup. And today you can go to them same dams, after short time intervals into them pastures, they have filled up and they're full of grass. After a few weeks of being off it, grass actually comes up into them cattle trails and goes all the way to the dams, filled it in where it used to just be bare and dust.

4) What would you say the biggest misconception is with people who are not managing their grass properly?

The biggest misconception people have by not managing for soil health is they don't think you could run large numbers in small sections. And they think it's hard on them to rotate cattle every so many days. It's not that hard when they're done with the pasture, you open up a gate, they will move to the next pasture on their own. They also think when they see it eat all uniform that they think they're overgrazing it by too many cattle on it one time, which has nothing to do with overgrazing. It has to do with cattle on there for long periods of time. And that would probably be their biggest misconception of rotational grazing program.

5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't done yet to improve your soil health or grazing system?

Something I would like to do that I haven't done yet that would improve the soil health and the grazing system would be to get out of a chemical program for fly control. If I could get out of the pour-ons, the ivermecs, the injectables, I would love to try to do that. I've yet to see where an intensive grazing program with the rotation has completely eliminated the fly program. I still use the ivermec. I would still like to try some all-natural way or some way to not use chemical on these cattle and the land. I think it's actually probably hurting the bug system that's underneath the soil.

That's one thing, the last 10 years, I've been trying to figure out how to do that. And I've thought of a garlic program. I've never done it yet, but I'm trying to figure out the right way to do it. So far, the chemical program does work, it kills the flies, but it's also got to be killing the other bugs that are good for the soil.

6) What advice do you have for someone who is considering changing their grazing system to one that's better for building soil health?

Advice I would have is to talk to someone that has done it, get their information of how to split it. The best way to do it, I would it to say, get ahold of the NRCS program, get lined up with the program first, use whatever funds are available there to help you pipe in the water, pay for the water tanks, help pay for all the fencing that's going to be needed in order to split the pastures and rotate them.

7) When you walk across your grasslands, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy grasslands and healthy soil?

I usually have a spade and I will pick a spot and I will dig down and I will look how deep the roots are. I'll see where the moisture is. I want it to look like chocolate cake. I want big balls of soil. I want air pockets. I want water pockets. And I also, if I can smell that soil, you can tell a big difference of good, healthy soil compared to soil that's been compacted, or soil that's been tilled. I will also pour water; I want to see my water infiltration program. I want that to soak as much water possible. I will clip grass every now and then to see how much pounds per acre I have in my soil that I'm growing that grass on.

8) Can you talk about any changes you've made that maybe at first you didn't think would work?

One of the things I thought would not work would be a two-wire high tensile program on my high tensile fence, and so far, my top wire's hot. My bottom wire is ground and with cow calf operation, if the wire's hot and I do my job of keeping it hot, I will not have cattle get out. And that was one thing when I first saw it, I'm like, "This will never work." And to tell you the truth, it absolutely works. Another thing was the poly wire, when I first bought that and put it up, I didn't think that would ever work. I totally think that high tensile fence is probably better than a four or five barbed wire fence, because they won't even graze, a foot up to it. Where I'll see them on a barbed wire fence reach through and try to get through.

9) What are the signs that your land is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?

I've got through two years of drought and we're sitting here today, and we see lush, green and thick grass where on years like this previous, if it was long season graze and I've had cattle in here since May, there'd be nothing left. All the green grass they'd go hit, they would never get rested to actually grow to actually seed. I have also seen where years of CRP created, or someone planted brome grass. I have seen whole pastures that have turned from brome to mostly native grass that’s come back.

10) Rotate, rest, and recover. Which of these three do you relate to most and why? As far as the words important to resilient range lands.

The rest and recovery have about the same to me, I think it's very important in a semi-arid climate like this to at least get 70 to 80 to 90 days’ rest before you go back into a pasture. I really don't see them fully cover, especially when a July and August could be dry. You're not seeing the recovery that you should be, and I want to see that grass tall. I want to see that grass come up to a point and actually start being mature before I go back into it. I wouldn't want to just let 20 days go by. I don't think it's enough time. I want to see the manure breakdown. I want to see everything come in thick. I want everything up to the water spots to regrow grass. So, by far it doesn't matter how many times you rotate. If you don't give the grass enough rest and recovery time, you're not helping yourself one bit.

11) You’re managing land that’s not your own and are doing things that maybe up front are costing you a little more, but still enjoy taking care of the land. How does this all work for somebody that doesn't own the land? Because if you're a landowner and you're thinking about my great-grandchildren are going to be on this land. So, what's in it for you basically?

What's in it for me, even though I do not own the land or the cattle, it's still my job to pay off the land, it's still my job to nobody really. I figure nobody really owns the land, we're only here for a short time just to manage the land. So, if I can leave this place better than how I received it, which I feel I am doing, that's why I'm here for. That's what drives me every day to do this. It is a lot more work. It's way more management. Some days you think, "Oh, I should just open it up and let them go for two months right out there." But I know that'd be over grazing. I know that for the future generations, I'm not helping the soil.

If I'm not helping the grasses, eventually it's the not even good for the cattle. They need the new pastures. I want to do it, before fences were ever invented, I want to do it how the wildlife did it. Where they rotated constantly every day. How the buffalo did it. How the antelope and deer did it. Before fences stopped them from rotating, they were never in the same thousand acres for 40-50 days. It just never happened. I want to create deep, thick roots and deep soil. The only way you can do that is rotate livestock and keep a living root and green grass growing as long as possible.

12) Can you tell us about when you calve and why?

When I first moved up here in 98, we were calving oh, February, March, and everything was done by March. It was always cold. There was always a blizzard or two. And not only that, when you were done by April, you still might have a blizzard and you still wouldn't have green grass. We were feeding cows and calves every day, and we always had calves and heat boxes. We'd pick them up, take them in the heated shop or into a heat box to warm them up. With the CSP program, they allowed us to move our calving date back.

Now we are calving May 1st and since I've done that, I'll never go back. Every day is fun to calve. You're out there in a T-shirt most of the times, pairing up your calves. The calves are born in green grass and the cows are in good shape. There's no hay in the cattle. It also helps my feed bill, because in January, February your cows aren't five, six months pregnant. They still have all the way till April and May to make up that weight. They aren't eating as much, because they're not going to be calving in the next 30 days. They're going to be calving, they still get April and May to put on their weight. But there's nothing better than calving in May and June when it's 70-80 degrees out, as opposed to -20 and trying to save calves in a snowstorm or blizzard.


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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