For this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, rancher Doug Feltman tells us the importance of controlling Missouri River’s ever-expanding “Green Glacier” through the use of prescribed fire.
About 7 miles southwest of Chaimberlain, SD, Doug Feltman lives on the land he grew up on alongside the Missouri river. He’s seen a lot of changes occur over the years, but none as threatening as the “Green Glacier”; the encroachment of the Eastern Red Cedar up the river and into the prairie. “It just slowly, they got more, and more, and more. And people, the farmers and ranchers didn't realize that, I guess, and they never made an attempt to try to control them. Now, some of the trees are 15, 20 feet tall. They're tremendously hard to control then. When they're a foot and a half or two feet tall, that's when you should control them. And that should be done by fire, prescribed fire. But prescribed fire is a process that all of us are going to have to sell to people.” As a rotational grazer and proponent of prescribed burning, Doug’s ranching success comes from not only managing his livestock and land in a healthy way, but also from combatting invasive species by mimicking natures history of fire.
1) What is the one thing that you’ve done that has been the most important to the success of the operation?
The one thing that I noticed that really changed the grazing practices here is when dad died and we moved back here, he had two pastures. Only divided into two pastures. I started to go to the NRCS meetings and every class I could on grazing and the Grassland Coalition and everything and started learning about rotational grazing. So, I started running electric fence through the pasture. Today, the place is divided up into six pastures. We rotate through those six. If possible, I don't go back into the same pasture every spring to give the cool season grasses a different outlook. I do not, I probably should, but I don't, go through and measure the grass and weigh it and all of that. I just go by sight. But I move them through the pastures that way.
2) Can you recall a moment or a time when the lightbulb went on for you that changed the way you were grazing?
The light bulb for that went on for me when I started going to the Grassland Coalition meeting. They talked a lot about the rotational grazing, and it really seeing the slides and the people that really did the studies with it, I could see the advantage to it. And I started that here and like I say, it's not scientific at all. It's just an old guy looking at the pasture, but it is obvious that that is a great benefit for the range.
3) What surprised you most when you changed the way you were grazing?
I guess what surprised me the most, and it didn't take a long time after I got the pastures divided, was that it was as obvious as it was. We put in a water tank that was not there before. Naturally, the cattle, if they were up on top, had to walk clear down to the river for water. Well, that wasn't working very good. So, with some help, we put in a water tank up there. Now, the cattle utilize the grass up there and they don't eat it down to the, like the kitchen floor, down by the river. That was the most surprising to me, is as obvious it was when you started doing it.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their grazing systems for resiliency and soil health?
I think the biggest misconception of rotational grazing, and I guess I might've been part of that also, is you wondered if it worked. If you went to all the work to put a fence from here to the river, down through the hills, was it going to be worth it? I think that's probably the biggest misconception I would think there would be. And it happened to me too, but I'll tell you straight out, it does work. I was surprised at how obvious it was that it does work.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't quite managed to do yet on your operation?
What I'd still want to do is work on the prescribed fires and get more of the neighbors involved here. That's the only way we're going to control these cedar trees and that's what I want to do, but it takes time. My recommendation to the people here is to really look at your pasture. If you aren't sure about the fire, contact somebody from the [Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn] Association. We'll come up and look at it with you and give you some ideas. You, the landowner, you're still the boss, but we could give you some ideas. And just really look at it and try to change your mindset that it's something that's going to have to happen. Look down the road. If you don't do anything, pretty soon your stocking rate isn't going to be what it is today, because it's only going to get worse. The cedars aren't going to stop.
6) When you walk across your grasslands, what and where are you looking for indicators of healthy grassland?
What I look for is the amount of grass that's there. And like I say, I don't measure it and weigh it all that. But you look at the amount of grass that's there, the different kinds of grass. I don't know exactly how to say it. You look to see if the pasture's healthy, I guess.
7) Can you give us an example of a change that you made that at first you thought would never work?
When we moved back here, I never thought, and I just really never gave it a thought, of a prescribed fire. Since I've been involved with the Burn Association, I have seen that if you write the plan, follow your plan, it will work. And I guess that's the only thing I can say there. I was like everybody else, didn't want fires, but I have seen that it does work.
8) We have a number of words that begin with R, but the 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?
With rotation, rest, and recovery, I guess maybe the one I would think would be the most important would be the rest. The grass has to rest to build the root system to have enough nutrients and stuff. You just can't graze the pastures down like the kitchen floor and keep it at that. It just isn't going to work. That's why the rotation, the recovery, and the rest is so important. And I think probably for me, I think the rest would be the most important.
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