Joining us on the “Rodeo” this week is rancher and SD NRCS State Resource Conservationist, Jessica Michalski. We’ve previously heard from Jessica’s husband and son, Darin and Cutler, about the importance of diversity on their ranch, but here, Jessica speaks to the importance of support from both peers and the NRCS when it comes to starting your own journey to more resilient grasslands.
Jessica and her husband, Darin, have been ranching in North Central South Dakota for 22 years in addition to her role as a State Resource Conservationist at SD’s NRCS. Her experience in both of these roles has taught her that “you need to be looking down, you need to look at the species the cattle are grazing, you need to look at the waste of the cattle to see what that manure looks like, you need to have a shovel and you need to dig a hole and see what that soil looks like”. Focusing on the ground and what’s below it has created amazing changes on her ranch, and she wants others to find that amazement on their own grasslands.
1) What’s one thing you have done that's been the most important thing to the success of your operation?
The one thing that I think my husband and I have done to contribute to a successful ranching operation is really a different mindset. It's really to start thinking about the grasses that we're growing above ground, it's thinking about the health of our soils underground, thinking about infiltration rates, thinking about having diversity out on the landscape. My husband and I have seeded back approximately 500 acres to native rangeland and we're really proud of the contribution that we've been able to make to the health of our grazing lands by really thinking about it as a whole system dynamic and not just a pasture-by-pasture basis.
2) Can you recall a moment when the light bulb went on for you?
When the light bulb went on for my husband and I was really when we first got married. My father actually had already started doing some rotational grazing and seeding cropland back to native grass. So, we really looked at what my dad had done on the operation that I grew up on. It was just one quarter of ground. He seeded all of it back to native grass, big bluestem, switchgrass, a lot of cool season species as well. And we really looked at that at his operation and were able to, in turn, look at what seeding those native grasses could do for our operation as well.
3) What surprised you the most when you changed the way you were grazing?
What surprised me the most about our operation when we started seeding warm season natives back was the improvement on our cool season grasses. We already had a lot of smooth bromegrass pastures and what we were really missing in our grazing operation was the native warm season component. What we saw was the difference that it made on our cool season grazing land. So, for example, we started really hitting some of our smooth bromegrass pastures hard in the springtime, and then letting them grow back. And through that, we saw the amount of native warm season component that really did exist in our existing pastures that we wouldn't have known that had we not been able to provide rest for those pastures.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people who are not managing their grazing systems for resiliency and soil health have?
I think the biggest misconception out there with certain ranchers are that their land is good enough, or they're raising enough grass for the animals that they have so they don't really see why it would make a difference to rotate through pastures. But I do think as they start learning more and maybe visiting more other ranchers and discussing the opportunities that come along with improving the health of our grazing lands, I think it's pretty clear that they can learn fairly quickly the differences that they can make just by making small changes. And it takes time; it doesn't happen overnight. You have to be willing to make small changes before you make big changes. I think producers that can learn from other producers and if they’re willing to go see other operations, go on field tours, they can learn a lot in a short amount of time and really just start with the small stuff. And then the big changes can come later.
5) Is there something you'd like to do on your place that you haven't yet to improve your soil health or grazing system?
One thing that my husband and I would still like to do is to try some more interseeding and improvement in some of our existing grassland. We did seed several acres back to big bluestem, Indian grass, and some sideoats grama. We went back in with those in those areas because we were seeing some weed pressure and we interseeded some legumes into that. And now we've seen kind of those legumes take off a little more than we would like to see so we're trying to manage that by timing our grazing to really focus on utilizing those legumes and then making sure that our native warm seasons have that ability to regrow. So that's something that we would like to do is continue to interseed, to improve, and to really time our grazing to then promote those species that we decide to interseed.
6) What advice would you have for someone who is considering changing the grazing system to one that's better for building soil health?
What I would recommend is really visiting with a Natural Resources Conservation Service professional. We have so many great individuals. We have wonderful range management specialists with South Dakota NRCS. And they can really come out and do a comprehensive review of your land and help you determine what the best practices would be. Every operation's different. The goals of every producer are different, and until we determine what the goals of a particular producer are, we don't really know how best to assist you. So, the first step I really think when you're considering this journey is to visit with your local NRCS field office and have someone assist you in really coming up with a comprehensive plan for your grazing land.
7) When you walk across your grasslands, what do you look for as indicators of healthy grassland and healthy soil?
What my husband and I look for when we are out on our land is a really diverse, different kind of view of our land. First of all, you need to be looking down. You need to look at the amount of grass that's left. You need to look at the species that the cattle are grazing. You need to look at the waste of the cattle to see what the manure looks like out on the landscape. You need to look at the infiltration, or if there are certain areas of your landscape that are holding water, that you really are kind of surprised to see versus that water infiltrating into the soil. You need to have a shovel and you need to dig a hole and see what that soil looks like. Does it have a good granular structure like we want to see? Are the roots going down versus going sideways? You really need to make sure that you're looking at it comprehensively.
And then you need to look at your cattle and the way that the cattle look. Are they happy? Do they seem to be getting the material that they need from the grass? Are they ready to rotate? When they're ready to rotate, you'll know. You'll know it's time and making sure that you leave the right amount of residue so that you have good regrowth is critical. My husband and I have over the past five years or so really started increasing more of a mob grazing mentality, or at least, higher pounds per acre on certain pastures. And we've seen improved cattle health. We've seen a reduction in pink eye in our cattle because we're really focused on grazing the grass at the right amount of time and at a density that really encourages improved grazing land health and improved cattle performance as well.
8) Is there a change that you've made that you thought at first wouldn't work?
One thing that I never thought would work is to time grazing and to have grassland that you think only has one species like smooth bromegrass, for example. And when you really time that grazing, and all of a sudden, you see an abundance of big bluestem for example, which is by far my favorite grass species and most cattle as well. But when you really time your grazing and are able to focus on removing invasive cool season species and see those native warm season species come back by doing nothing other than timing grazing. I didn't really think that was possible 22, 23 years ago, but it's amazing the changes that we've been able to make, not only on land that we own, but land that we rent and have rented for many, many years.
9) What are the signs that your land is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?
So, what we've seen so far on our land as resiliency is that we've seen not as many small ponds of water or areas that water is sitting that it really shouldn't be for very long. Obviously, we still have some dams. We still have some dugouts on our property. We do utilize pipelines and tanks and have seen where the cattle will really stand in the dugout and then come out of there and drink out of a tank, but we've seen less water just sitting. We know our infiltration rate is better. We've seen where we don't have those issues, especially as I mentioned before, in some of our pastures that were predominantly smooth bromegrass, and we've improved the grazing management. We're getting plants that are sending roots down deeper than what our cool season invasive species we're doing. We've seen where the infiltration rates have gotten better because that water isn't sitting and then we might go a few miles from our place to a neighbor that maybe doesn't have that type of grazing management and their pasture would be flooded in certain years where ours, just a few miles away, would look green and healthy and we know that the water is infiltrating.
10) When we talk about the importance of grazing management, we often refer to the three R’s. Of the words rotate, rest, and recover, which one sticks out to you the most and why?
Between the three Rs of rest, rotation, and recovery, I think the one that sticks out to me the most is probably recovery. And the reason for that is because I think it's probably the one we don't think about enough as grassland managers. And it's very variable depending on the year.
One particular year, a pasture might not need as long to recover and I think that's something that producers need to continually think about is, "What do we have out there for moisture? What has the moisture been in the past? What is the forecast in moisture? How much recovery does this particular pasture need or is there another reason that a pasture might need recovery? Has it been overgrazed for several years in a row? Do we need to think about resting it for a full year? Do we need to think about grazing it particularly hard in one part of the year and then letting it recover?" So, I think recovery is one that more grassland managers probably need to think about and to think about it comprehensively, not just getting some cattle out of a pasture and then, "Well, I'll give it 20 days or whatever." We really need to think about it from a comprehensive level.
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