For this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, rancher Doug Hansen talks about the importance of native species in the grasslands, and how rapidly he saw them come back with proper, deliberate management.
Born and raised on the ranch, Doug Hansen has learned that there’s a lot more value to healthy ranching practices than healthy grasses and cattle. “It’s an inherited gene of enjoying the ranch lifestyle, and so as my kids now are having babies and I’m surrounded with grandchildren, I see it a huge asset to be involved in the ranching operation again. When I take my grandchildren out across the prairie, picking wildflowers or looking at various forbs and grasses, or riding horses through and moving cattle, they gain a lot of knowledge, a lot of life experiences from doing that. I think that’s very important.”
1) What one thing have you done that's been most important for the success of your operation, if you were to say there was one thing?
Well, I think the one thing that's been most successful to our operation is water. So, that South unit, when we acquired that a few years back and our flowing well quit, I had already engaged with the NRCS on bringing water in, and when that well quit on us, I guess that was the hint that, hey, we better bring water in. So, we put in a couple miles of pipeline, and I think we got about seven water sites on that, and that just gave us the opportunity. Now we can move cattle wherever we want to and not worry. So, water's your biggest thing. If you've got water, you can move cattle anywhere and whatever angle, direction you want to do your layout on. That's number one. Number two, put in some permanent high-tensile fencing, and then, from there, it's just changing your management styles for your resource concerns.
2) Can you recall a moment or time when the light bulb went on for you to change the way you were grazing?
I think the light bulb went on when I started becoming more interested in the native species, and, my brother, Jeff, being a botanist and pointing out a lot of different things. We have an underground house, and I remember when we laid sod over the roof, that we had onions growing on top of the roof of our house, and those native, wild onions. I think the light bulb really got bright though ... For some reason, I went to some grasslands conference over East here, and Gabe Brown was speaking at it and a couple of the grazers. Anyway, then it was off to grazing school and then hanging out with all the people involved in the SD Grassland Coalition. And from that, we then have hosted a bird tour through the Grasslands Coalition, and we've also hosted a pasture walk, and yeah, I love sharing the natural beauty, and I love sharing the practice.
3) What surprised you most when you changed the way you were grazing?
I think the big thing was that the first year I went in and completed an early season burn, then did an early graze on the invasive species that quickly regrew. We pulled out of that area and left it to recover all summer long. There was regrowth of warm-season native species that we've never seen before along with the big bluestem, switchgrass, and indiangrass. It was pretty impressive and quite rewarding to see that.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have, who are not managing their grazing system for resiliency and soil health?
I think the challenge to someone to come into this is, when your mentality is, "Wow, there's grass there. We need to leave the cows in here longer." And so, we're like, we're wasting something, but to get the big picture, you're not wasting something. It's a challenge to talk somebody into it. It's that what you left is where your energy and your solar collection is working for you. I can't help but think of the grassland as the solar collectors out there. If I can clip all the solar collectors off, I have no way to get this energy into the soil to feed the microorganisms. I need solar panels out here sticking up, collecting energy from the sun and feeding that subterranean life.
5) Is there something that you'd still like to do that you haven't done yet to improve your soil health or grazing system, something that's on the horizon?
Yeah, where we have a lot of heavy thatch, from little bluestem for instance, where we see a heavy thatch, that the cattle don't want to go in and graze that. So, I have areas that I think I can improve the soil health and increase the diversity by maybe narrowing in and clustering the livestock in to get better hoof action and such.
The other thing, the battle I'm on right now, is with the cedar trees. I did two burns this spring. I had deferred two paddocks last year, and here, just a few weeks ago, the NRCS helped me do some burns. I did the burns to reduce the cedar tree population but also to enhance the diversity of the plant culture. We’ve yet to see what happens with that, the results.
6) What advice do you have for someone who is considering changing their grazing system to one that's better for building soil health?
If somebody is considering changing their grazing system from a season-long grazing into a managed grazing system, just start small. Start with what your resources are. So, if you've got one water tank and one pasture, split it, and just start small, and you'll start seeing some results on that. Don't jump into it and just change the whole environment because you'll make mistakes. You have to learn along the way. Go slow, but go deliberately and analyze what you see happening. I think, from there, you can start adding water, adding fences, and you can do a lot with polywire that has no permanent impact. So, that'd be my recommendation to give it a try.
7) When you walk across your grasslands, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy grassland and healthy soil?
If I'm either riding my four-wheeler across, maybe doing some spot spraying on some thistles, or I'm riding a horse out through the pasture to go move some cows, my eyes are on the ground constantly. And pretty soon you start developing this, I don't know if it's like a radar, you just start seeing plant species, and you say, "Okay, I've got western wheat. I've got brome. I've got my porcupine, my green needle," and so you're just a rolling inventory.
Once you recognize it, you're just taking this all in, and I think that's part of the monitoring. So, when you're out there to see the changes in the landscape. I use some photography for that, but it's just kind of a mental awareness of what you see change in the landscape; you start seeing all these forbs. We didn't see a lot of forbs out on the prairie today because of the time of the year. But we could see just the pasque flowers. There were hundreds of thousands of pasque flowers out there [this Spring], and you can see they're going to seed now. So, that, eyes on the ground, and just watch the change in diversity.
8) What are the signs that your land is resilient, and what does resiliency mean to you?
When I think of the resiliency of the land, I think that all comes from the diversity of it. The diversity is a thing that I see that makes the landscape resilient. We have an inventory of over 200 species on a native prairie, and that's what's bringing in the resiliency. In order to maintain and grow those species, you have to manage your grazing. If you abandon property, it'll just all go to invasive. If you overgraze it constantly, it'll go to invasive. So, it does take management to grow that diversity and to grow that production.
9) There are three important grazing management Rs; rotate, rest, and recover. Which one of the three do you relate the most to, and why?
I don't know. Of the R’s in the resiliency of the rangeland, I'm going for roots. I want to see root structure. I want to see roots that are 12 feet deep, and to have that, you need to have the remaining Rs. You need the rest. You need the recovery. You need all of that to get roots. But my goal is to have water infiltration and soil health, and that's going to take care of the rest of it. The management is what we do from up here, but what's happened under there, that's really the objective, to get under there, under the surface, under the grass. I want that root base. I want that deep root base.
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