For this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, rancher John Egleston shares how he’s found success in twice-over grazing systems and expanded his grazing months.
Nine miles outside of White River, SD, John Egleston is a 4th-generation rancher on the land that his great-grandfather homesteaded back in 1912. “We would say, ‘Okay, half of the grass is gone’, at whatever point that was, depending on the year. And then we'd move into another pasture. And we might come back, we might not, depending on how long, how good, how much of the grass lasted, how long it lasted. And that was the management, probably, for 30+ , 40 years, something like that.” Since 2015, however, John has gone to a twice-over rotational grazing system, and it’s a system that he has come to love. “The main economic benefit we've seen is the extended grazing nutrition in the grass. So, if you look into the research and you've seen any of the numbers, grass starts to lose its goodies in August, somewhere in there. And with this system, with the way we stimulated the first time through, you can maintain your nutritional requirements until October 15th"
1) What’s one thing have you done that's been the most important thing to the success of your operation?
Probably the most important factor in the success of our operation is learning how to manage the grass. We talk about pounds from an economic standpoint, but really that starts with how you manage your grass. We're grass farmers, it’s what we are, and we put cattle on it to make that grass marketable. But you have to look at the healthier grass in your land to get a marketable animal and more pounds on a marketable animal.
2) Can you recall a moment when the light bulb went on for you? Where you decided to change your grazing on your operation?
The light bulb went on in 2011. I was in a class, for lack of a better term, called BeefSD, where we went around and toured different ranches and different feedlots and all kinds of things. It was a rancher education thing, where we went all over and I went to a ranch in Mellette County that had already implemented the twice over rotational system and looking at what they'd done, where they started, and where they are now. It just clicked that this is the way, as it were. That was probably 10 years ago. That was probably the moment that everything turned around I guess you could say.
3) What surprised you the most when you changed the way you were grazing?
What surprised me the most when we changed what we were doing was probably the recovery that you can get out of this year, or a dry year. So, a lot of pastures, even some of ours, they look not great because the grass just isn't growing. But in 2012 we hadn't really implemented this stuff. The recovery that we got then versus the recovery we've got now is significantly more in this type of system.
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 people have of a twice over versus a traditional grazing system is probably, I don't know how to put this in a nice way, but most people's mindset is just, “that's the way we've always done it”. So, they don't know a different way of doing it. They don't think there's a better way because that's the way it's been done in the past. Well, there is a better way of doing it, and so there is a wrong way to do things. We were in that boat, we were doing it not correctly, not managing the grass the way the grass should be managed. So, I don't want to put anybody down, but the way we've always done it has worked in the sense that it paid the bills, weaned the calves, so on and so forth. But very few people have tried other ways to know that there is something better.
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?
Yeah, there's a lot of things that I would like to do to improve what we've already got. As far as the grazing system itself that we have set up, I think it’s going in the right direction, as far as how we're doing it. I'd like to integrate more acres that we have into that system. We still have calving pastures and winter pastures that I would like to graze and go to a different way of wintering cattle; not wintering them on our native range land and having less of an area to calve in. The other thing that we haven't talked about yet is the research from NDSU on the twice over system that Lee Manski did. There is May grazing and that's on crested or brome. We've done a little bit of that, but I'd like to increase that to get better grazing out of May grazing rather than having to feed hay.
The other thing that is part of that system as well is from October 15th to November 15th. Grazing either a Spring planted Winter Cereal Crop or a Rye Grass to increase because after October 15th, there's no system where native grass can supply your nutritional needs. It just doesn't happen. You can't do it, but some other options are there to keep putting on pounds before weaning. Whereas if you're grazing out on natives till November, you're not gaining any weight on those calves, even in the twice-over system, after October 15th. The juice, as it were, is out of the grass. So, yes, there's quite a few changes I'd still like to make to fully implement the system.
6) What advice would you have for someone who is considering changing the grazing system to one that's better for building soil health?
Advice I'd have for someone who is thinking about changing is just to do it. It's not super complicated. There's a lot of resources to help with the planning of it and things like that. It really isn't necessary to change your whole operation significantly. The pasture we're standing in now is in this rotation, we didn't change any fences or add any water. We didn't have to change anything. The fences were already there, and the water is still out of dams, but the pastures were set up enough we could graze twice through and we didn't change anything. So, moving cattle is really the only change we've made in this system over here. There's not a great deal that, as far as cost, that you necessarily have to put out.
7) When you walk across your grasslands, what do you look for as indicators of healthy grassland and healthy soil?
Just looking at it from the surface, you want to have enough litter or soil armor, whatever you want to call it, dead plants from last year to ground cover. You want diversity as far as different species of plants, and the mix of cool seasons and warm seasons. You would look at your height of your grass when it's done grazing as far as whether you're over grazing or underutilizing what you've got. I think those would be the three main things.
8) Is there a change that you've made that you thought at first wouldn't work?
I don't think there's really anything that I thought wouldn't work...kind of optimistic maybe in that sense that I don't. When it doesn't work, then I'll decide that it doesn't work, but I'll kind of try anything to a certain extent to see if it worked, because nobody knows if it does or not. I can't think of anything that I thought “well, that will never work”, because if I didn't think it was going to be work, I probably wouldn't try it. There's not too many things that I won't try at least once.
9) What are the signs that your land is resilient and what does resiliency mean to you?
I think the signs of resilience that I look for is that recovery between the first two grazings, between the first time through and the second time through, and that recovery and regrowth there. That resiliency is...I don't know if it's the most important thing, but it's very important to the system because in a season long, or more traditional system, that recovery isn't there. Generally, you put the cattle out there, they eat what they eat and then that's it for that year. That's all. So, I think that's probably the difference in resiliency between the two that I can see from above the ground.
10) 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?
So, this is probably a non-answer. I wouldn't say one is more important than the other, but maybe rotate is because if you don't rotate, you don't give it any rest and you don't get any recovery. So, if you were to put them in a hierarchy rotate would probably be the most important one because the other two aren't there without that rotation.
11) Based on the grazing management choice you’ve made, how has the system helped your good soil organisms?
It's basically that we're creating more habitat for them, and what I mean by that is your roots go deeper into the soil. That soil is more crumbly. The farther down you go versus a traditional system where it is maybe three to six inches of that soil aggregates and that soil crumbliness. If you want to get it down to a foot or even deeper than that, so your root systems can break up the soil, you'll get more infiltration of water and a better habitat for your soil bugs, which help your plants grow better and you produce more grass.
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