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Resilience Rodeo - Jay Hermann - the importance of seeing positives & negatives to guide producers

This week’s “Resilience Rodeo” is with SD NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist, Jay Hermann. Jay understands the importance of seeing positives and negatives in-person, and he uses those experiences to guide management suggestions as he walks pastures with producers.

An Area Rangeland Management Specialist for South Dakota’s NRCS, Jay does not ranch himself but rather has seen and experienced the successes and failures of many ranchers in his area and uses those experiences to guide others to better management practices. When it comes to soils, he loves seeing structure and root mass to indicate successful practices. “This is what’s going to build our resilience, because these roots can go down 12, 15 feet into the soil and look for water in them dry years. It’s also bringing in nutrients and it’s allowing infiltration to happen.”

Dominic Harmon in a field with grass and cows, livestock

1) What’s the one thing that you believe is the most important thing to the success of SD ranchers?

The one thing that I want to get through a continuous grazers head is that they need to look at their grasslands differently. They look at that resource as grass; “it's feed for my cows”, and that's all it is to them. They need to look at it as a system, as an ecosystem. And that ecosystem needs to work for them, and not them working for that ecosystem. They're putting way too many inputs into these things right now that they don't need to. If they have a healthy ecosystem, they have a healthy rangeland, they don't need those inputs that they do on tame grasses or anything else. They really need to change their mindset.

If I can have them just look at that resource from the raising of the grass or growing grass, rather than growing cattle, I think I got the first step in there. From there it takes off on its own. Then they start asking different questions. They start asking the right questions. And then they start seeing things differently.

2) Talk to us about a moment when the light bulb went on for you as a rangeland management specialist?

When I was younger in my profession, we kind of went through the steps as a conservationist and stuff like that, but the light bulb was really dim then. It started really getting brighter as I started working with better producers that really took the time to kind of sit there and go, this is why I do this. This is why I do that. When I sat down with those people as a young professional, they taught me things. After I learned those facts and those ways of looking at things, then it was much easier. This is the way we need to go. This is the way we need to do things. Then as I matured in my profession, I got to see what the soils are doing, what the roots are doing. How does that react with the environment that we're in? And it all comes together then. So, it takes some time. It takes learning.

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

The most common misconception is that it takes a lot more time. They don't have the time to do this. If you really talk to these people that do this a lot, and they've been doing it for a number of years, they'll say it takes way less time to move my cows, to rotate through my pastures, to give it that recovery, to give it the rest, than it does just to throw my cows out there. They're not fighting the disease problems, they're not fighting hoof rot, they're not fighting pink eye.

Conception rates in the herd improve so they're making more money. The economics are there. They're spending less money on the land. So, in less time, basically. I mean, these cattle will adapt. Even buffalo will adapt to being moved. When it's time to move, they'll let you know it's time to move and they'll move within a few minutes. Basically, only thing you're doing is opening and shutting the gate. So yeah, one of the biggest excuses or misconceptions is the time and the labor. And it's not there. There is some, I'm going to not lie. There is some at first. You got to set it up. You got to do some thinking, but once it's there, it's ready to rock and roll.

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

What I would recommend to ranchers starting out down this path is educate yourself. And don't take my word for it, go to the people that you know that are already doing this and talk to them. See how they're doing and how they like it. Go to some workshops, go to grazing schools, or other workshops that are around and educate yourself on this stuff. The last thing I want to do is be the guy that says, “you got to do this”. No, I don't want to be that guy. My job is to put the ideas in your head and help you get to where you want it to go. But you’ve got to set your goals and you’ve got to do some education on your own too. Figure it out, how you want to do it. I'll help you get there. I will tell you the pros and the cons of it. But yeah, let's go from there. Educate yourself.

5) When you walk through pastures and grasslands with producers, what indicators of healthy grassland and healthy soil do you look for?

When I'm out with a producer on a pasture, I'll show them what the cattle are grazing right now. I look at the diversity of the plants, and then I say, now look and see what they're grazing. A lot of times we'll walk around with them, and I go, “look, we got big bluestem this short, we got little bluestem this short”. A lot of our natives are just down right to the ground. They walk around a lot of these cool season grasses that are tall, but they're brown at that time of the year, and they still think they have forage out there. Well, they don't. The livestock are not eating what you think they should be eating. They're eating everything else. And so just to point that stuff out to them and start to get them down that other path of thinking, that's what I look for. It's got to have that diversity to it so that that can be pointed out to them to get them to realize really what's going on out there.

6) What are the signs that grassland is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?

If I walk out and I see a really good native piece of ground, especially in a dry year, that's where it stands out the most. You go out there on a good native piece of ground in a dry year, you'll see good plants that are still healthy, and green, and alive, and growing. Then, across a fence or across the road you look at a degraded rangeland piece, or grassland, and you'll see a lot of dead dying plants or dormant plants. And you just look at the difference there. That's a big plus right there, the water is still infiltrating in them. The soil is alive. The plants are healthy. The cattle are happy. You go across the road where you have a degraded piece and the cows are mooing. They're standing by the fence or reaching through the fence, looking for any green nuggets growing. Those resources are struggling.

7) When we talk about the importance of grazing management, we often refer to the Rs. Of the words rotate, rest, and recover, which one sticks out to you the most and why?

Out of the three R's, the rest, rotate, and recovery, the one that stands out to me the most is the recovery. And when I'm looking at recovery, I'm looking at if my stand of grass in that particular unit is coming up the way I want it to. Am I getting the plants that I want to see? Am I getting my native grasses back and my forbs and my shrubs? The diversity out there is that all recovering because I did the rest and the rotation. That's to me is the most important one of the three.

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.

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