For this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, father & son ranchers Darin & Cutler Michalski tell us that diversity is very important to the health of their grasslands, but that diversity is not just limited to types of grass.
“Main focus is cow-calf, and we do row crops, small grains, cover crops, alfalfa different types of hay, some millets, and sudangrass.” Says Darin Michalski when asked to describe the operation he runs with his son, Cutler. By not following a set pattern or template and being able to vary and shift practices and paddocks year to year, the Michalski’s have found that regular flexibility and adaptation can be a key to successful weed control, native reestablishment, and ranching in general.
1) What is the one thing that you’ve done that has been the most important to the success of the operation?
Darin:The one thing I’ve done to add to the success of our operation is getting more diverse. Going from a monoculture to more diverse. That has really helped on our grassland side.
2) Can you recall a moment or a time when the lightbulb went on for you that changed the way you were grazing?
Darin:I've probably had light bulb moments and that would just be going to different producers grazing tours. More like fireworks, not like a great big light bulb moment. Just, more like fireworks. Going to other people's places, seeing what they're doing, thinking. Walking in there with a mindset, “I can't do that”, and then figuring out how you can.
Cutler:I guess light bulb moments for me would just be seeing what other producers are doing and seeing what my parents are doing just to kind of help change our landscapes and help change our grasslands, but also just seeing what we have on our own operation and what we're doing with the soil health. Just kind of creates a bigger light bulb every single time as to what we're doing right, and what else we could be doing.
3) What surprised you most when you changed the way you were grazing?
Darin:What surprised me most about the way we were grazing is the resiliency. Like this year, we're in a drought. 20 years ago, I'd have been freaking out about running out of grass. This year, I was comfortable with our grass situation.
4) What would you say the biggest misconception is with people who are not managing their grass properly?
Darin:I don't know if there's a misconception [about] people that continuously graze, I just don't know if they want to take the time to change the way they graze. Boy, when you drive past somebody who's having success with it, and when you're struggling, you would think that would be a light bulb moment for somebody else. I don't get it.
Cutler:I really guess the misconception with other producers would just be almost that they don't have the information, maybe. That they're not leaving enough of their plants to have regrowth. I mean, that they're using up the whole plant and they're not getting that regrowth. They're not being able to use their pastures quite like we are. I mean, so I guess it does come in on an information standpoint and what they know and what they've been taught.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't quite managed to do yet on your operation?
Darin:Some things I'd like to do that I haven't been able to do yet is change my watering facilities, make my paddocks smaller, graze longer.
Cutler:I guess, just kind of coming from a younger generation, I've always looked at is new technology, or incorporating that new technology, that we can use to better our grazing situations. Like using virtual fences or using different management practices for our cattle.
6) What advice would you give to someone who is on the fence, no pun intended, about changing their grazing practices?
Darin:I have given advice to a friend who was on the fence about changing his grazing practices. I said, stick with it. And he did for a year. And then he had a weed flush and went away from it. You just got to be patient. Like I say, go with the flow and handle whatever management situation you have come at ya.
Cutler:I mean, really for me being younger, the advice I was given is just to wait it out, be patient with it. I mean, it all takes time. It's going to take time to get your pastures back to the health that they once were, or to be able to see your new seedlings grow like they're supposed to be doing. I mean, everything takes time and people have to realize that it doesn't all come right at one time.
7) When you walk across your grasslands, what and where are you looking for indicators of healthy grassland?
Darin:Well, after taking a trip with you today, I'm looking at a lot more things of indicators of healthy grassland. I've never really stopped and checked dung piles. And when I walk, I'm looking for diversity, little change in the plant species, maybe. What is invasive out there? What we're doing right or wrong, and the water quality. Clear running streams is really pretty.
Cutler:I guess for me, it's looking at almost what the cattle are doing, what their health is, what they're utilizing on the grasslands. I mean, what plants they're actually using, what native species we're seeing coming back, what diversity we have in other animals. I mean, seeing frogs, seeing field mice, seeing the different kinds of insect species, seeing butterflies, birds, bees, everything.
8) Can you give us an example of a change that you made that at first you thought would never work?
Darin:I'm really a stubborn Polack, so I don't think I've ever made a change that I didn't think wouldn't work. I just had to figure out a way to make it work. Yeah. There's been a lot of stuff that's been tweaked, but I guess I've always gone in full guns and by God, I'm going to make it work.
9) What are the signs that your land is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?
Darin:2021 is a sign that our land is resilient. I've driven by a lot of continuously grazed pastures that looked pretty tough. I'd be nervous. Yes, we've had a good rain. We're still in a drought. I'm comfortable with our normal stocking rates to get through the year.
Cutler:I guess, for the signs of our land being resilient, driving through a town and seeing that the grass is all brown in that town, and then driving out into our pasture and seeing that our grass is not only green, it's actually regrowing. I mean, we were using our resources the way that we can. I mean, the way that we should be. We're seeing that regrowth in our pastures. We're seeing that when we're digging down in the soil, that there's still moisture there, even in a drought, even super dry conditions. So, I guess those are the indicators for me.
10) We have a number of words that begin with R, but three that we've settled on, Rotate, Rest, Recovery, that are really key to healthy and resilient range land. Which one would be your favorite and why?
Darin:Well, I'd have to pick [the] middle one. It would be rest. The longer you rest it, the healthier it is. Boy, you know, the quicker you can get through a pasture and give it just maybe another week, just get a little extra growth, it sure sets you up for success next year or that same year.
Cutler:See, now I'm thinking, he said, rest, just cause he doesn't want to do any work, but I guess mine would probably be rotate just because I like going out there and seeing the animals and watching them do what they're good at, I guess. They're just eating and raising calves. And it's almost like a sign of seeing your money, seeing where it's going, seeing what it could be. And even with rotating, you're seeing those other pastures that are resting, that are recovering, that you're going to be able to rotate to, to use maybe again.
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