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Resilience Rodeo - Frannie Fritz - Resilient Soil Takes Time

On the “Rodeo” this week, long time cow-calf operator, Frannie Fritz, doesn’t hold back in sharing her opinion that generating resilient soils is a process, and that you have to understand that it takes time to make things right.

Frannie Fritz is a cow-calf operator south of Iroquois, South Dakota. After studying animal science and dairy production at SDSU, Frannie returned to the family operation and has been there ever since. Much of her land she has seeded back to grass, but she is always open to seeding new things simply to try them out. To Frannie, health below ground and the health above ground mirror each other, and she knows that you cannot have one without the other. Frannie is also an elected chairman for the Beadle Conservation District and represents South Dakota in the National Association of Conservation.

Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Frannie Fritz

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

Make doggone sure that I have fresh water in every single pasture. Water is the most important nutritional need for my cattle. That’s the most important thing. Rotational grazing and fencing, planting everything to grass, that’s all important, but making sure I have fresh water is the most important. And it took me years to do. That’s one point I want to make about all this. Planting grass is a mindset completely different than a corn and soybeans mindset. Producers that are into corn and beans, their mindset is that you plant a seed, it comes up in maybe ten days. But if you plant grass seed, it might come up in three years, depending on the conditions. It’s a mindset. And if you’re not willing to change your mind, you can’t change your system.

2) Can you recall a moment in time when the light bulb went on for you that you realized soil health practices makes sense or that you should change the way you were grazing?

There wasn’t a moment, and I don’t do things ‘right’, I do things the way I have to do them. I want to do better, everybody wants to do better, but not all conditions are perfect. I think there wasn't a specific time that the light bulb came on, it’s a process; working with all of these guys, gleaning information, learning from them, being around them. I wouldn't say there was a light bulb moment, I would say over the years it was just a gradual learning process. I’ve been trying to change things at my farm since probably the 80’s, and I’ve been in it too long to pinpoint the moment it all changed. Every year things change, every season things change.

3) What surprised you the most when you started to change the way you grazed?

The amount of time and work that it takes, and it does take time and work. Anybody that tells you that some of this stuff does not take a lot of time, they either got way too much time on their hands or they really don’t know what’s going on. But I’m a single operator, I’m out there by myself, I don’t have help, it’s just me.

4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their grazing systems for soil health and resiliency?

Those guys are out of the business, pure and simple. Those who are stuck to their misconceptions are out of the business. This isn’t nice to say and I’m ashamed to say it, but it’s greed. A lot of improper farming is greed.

5) Is there something you’d still like to do that you haven’t yet done to improve soil health on your land?

I want to get some more fences in. I want to reduce numbers. The water systems are pretty much done, there’s a few things on my mind. Fences mostly, and there are some grasses I’d still like to try.

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

Start small, ask all the questions you can, and don’t jump in whole hog. Don’t decide “hey, I’ve got this quarter, I’m gonna change the whole quarter”. Don’t do that. Just go slow, very slow. Ask questions. Go on tours. Get yourself as versed on the material as you can. I’m lucky, over the years I’ve gone into enough places, I know enough people that I can pick up the phone and call somebody when I have a question. I’m lucky in that respect. But, yeah, start small, start very small, just take twenty acres. It’s gonna take time. Get yourself in the mindset that things are not gonna happen this year. They may not even happen next year. It may be five years down the road before you see something. That’s just the way it is. It’s gonna take some time. It’s not going to be fast.

7) When you walk across your land, what do you look for as indicators of soil health?

I see soil health when I see diversity. Whether it’s the little wild iris that I see that I didn’t know existed, or when I stumble across a doe with her brand-new fawn, or when I can go out and see the cows and calves all content. And everybody, whether it’s a little pheasant or a doe or my livestock, can walk up and get a fresh drink of water.

8) Have you made a change that you at first thought would never work?

I came home to farm. Most people gave me a year. Said I’d be out of there in a year. That was in 1978. I was even apprehensive that I could make it in this. I made it out of college, but the one thing colleges do is they put rose colored glasses on kids, and you have to take those rose-colored glasses off to see what’s really going on. I had a choice back then of either coming home and trying, or mom was going to sell the farm. Pure and simple, that was it. If I didn’t try, I wouldn’t have known if I could do it. Humans like to be together, they like to be a part of a crowd. When you invest in soil health, you step a foot outside of the box. And when you step to the outside of a group, you’re taking a chance.

9) What does resilience mean to you and what signs are you seeing in your land that it is getting more resilient?

Being there tomorrow, being there next year, being there in ten years. I used to do a lot of traveling, and I’d be driving along and all of a sudden see this cloud of dust; well it turns out it was soil blowing, in just a little breeze. My mother and my grandparents on my mother’s side farmed during the dirty thirties so I say there’s a lot of the dirty thirties in me because of what they had to do to survive. And they survived. Maybe not the way I am, maybe not the way their parents made it. But they made it. Resilience means being there tomorrow, being there next year, being there the year after. And every year is different, every day is different. You just gotta keep trying.

10) Between the principles of Rotate, Rest, and Recover; is there any particular one of those that sticks out for you?

Rotate. Just keep them moving. I’m not where I should be with my operation, it’s a work in progress. But I would just say rotate because I’m renting a piece of ground right now to the GPA (Game Production Area), and it hasn’t had livestock on it for years– I’m talking many years. And there’s such a deep thatch on that thing that it’s actually snuffing out the grass.

11) How do soil organisms help your livestock and your pocketbook?

If you don’t have them in the ground, you won’t have anything out on top. Many, many years ago guys used to fertilize with atrazine. And I believe the little earthworms didn’t like that. I was asking these guys about it and was apparently too stupid to understand. I said, ‘That’s killing the earthworms.’ They’d respond, ‘You don’t need them.’ You don’t need them? God put them in the ground for something! So, if you don’t have the livestock under the ground, you don’t have the livestock on top of the ground. Pure and simple.


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