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Resilience Rodeo: Larry Wagner shares how to extend the grazing season

On this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, rancher Larry Wagner tells us about how utilizing both grasses and cover crops extends his grazing seasons and helps keep moisture in his soils.

About 20 miles South of Chamberlain, SD, Larry Wagner has 1500 acres of mainly warm season grasses that have mostly been converted from farmland that’s typically seen in the area. When asked why he chooses to keep the land in grass vs. cropland, Wagner answers “I don't like messing with the chemicals, and there's so many more benefits with range for the wildlife, for people in general. You don't have the runoff with range land that you do on farm ground. To me it’s a better quality of life.” Larry’s management style and improved diversity have resulted in the Audubon Society counting 32 different bird species in his pastures, “the highest count that they’ve seen in this part of the world”.

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

Probably my most important thing to my operation is my grass and going to a lot of different seminars and different things. And being a member of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition has taught me a lot about grass and the benefits of it.

2) Can you recall a moment in time or when a light bulb came on for you, that kind of made you change the way you're grazing?

The reason I've changed my grazing was, just like I stated before, going to tours and stuff. The results of doing that is you learn, and the actual scene is better than somebody telling you that “yeah, this works”. That's really made a big change for me. I guess probably the biggest thing is just seeing how high you can increase your production without any expense, so you have more profit.

3) What surprised you the most when you changed the way you were grazing?

The thing that surprised me is how you can increase your production even in a dry year. What a difference it'll make. It's a lot to do with the soil because, as your soil gets better you have more organic matter, you retain more moisture. That's why it gets you dryer years better.

4) What would you say the biggest misconception is with people who are not managing their grass properly?

We're all farming, and I don't know if this is the place to get in my soap box about the farming thing, but the problem with that is, so they get a bill for seed and fertilizer and fuel and insecticides and crop consulting. They get all these bills. So, they really concentrate on their row crop, and they don't on their grass. I'd like to bill them people for mismanaging their grass. If they got a bill that you're doing wrong out here for so much an acre, they'd probably change their ways. But the misconception is, “Well, it's just grass, it'll always grow”. Well, it always grows. It always gets green, but how much does it grow? And they said, “Well, there's no production out there and I'm going to sell my cows because there's no grass out there. I don't have enough grass.” Well, yeah, you don't have enough grass because you didn't take care of it.

5) If you could give any of those people some advice on where to start, to maybe change their mindset toward a better grazing system, what would that be?

Probably one of the first things I'd do is send them to the South Dakota Grasslands Grazing School and learn about grass. And if they would go on some of these tours and see that stuff, see how it can be improved and really how easy and how cheap it is. There really is very little cost to doing the improving.

6) Looking at your current system, is there anything you'd like to do that you haven't done yet to improve your soil or your grazing system?

Probably not a lot on the soil. The grazing system, I've planted it all to grass. I'd never do that again, because I think you need a cover crop in your rotation to extend your grazing later on to either fall or even winter grazing.

7) When you walk across your grasslands, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy grasslands and healthy soil?

Well, you look at the soil, look at the armor on the soil. See if you got new species of grass coming. To me, one thing is really interesting in grass species, of their ability to predict weather. Some years you'll have a species that you got a lot of. Wetter or drier year, you probably don't see that as much, but then that year there's some other species of grasses growing good. It just always amazes me what a weather predictor they are. They know when they should be growing and when they shouldn't be growing.

Also, a lot of birds.

8) Can you talk about any changes you've made that maybe at first you didn't think would work?

Probably some of my biggest mistakes was my fencing. Went with like a four-wire fence, when you could just get by with electric fence. That's probably one of my biggest things. Because the rotational grazing is not a- you don't just start out in the spring and say, well, I'm going to do this, this, and this. The cows are going to be here and there this day, and this day, and this day. It's all based on weather, and you never know your rainfall, so you might want to change your pasture sizes. And if you have permanent fence, you don't change it.

9) What are the signs that your land is resilient? And what does resiliency mean to you?

I guess what resilient means to me is probably like this year, when we're in a dry cycle, that still I have a lot of good growing grass. That the soil is healthy and has used all the moisture that we have received.

10) We have a number of words that begin with R, but three that we've settled on, Rotate, Rest, Recovery, that are really key to healthy and resilient range land. Which one would be your favorite and why?

Probably recover is my most important because the less time they're on there all your grasses regrow with photosynthesis. Well, the more grass you leave, and the more time you have, the more recovery you'll have. Use that for the next year or later that year, you get your recovery back way faster. That's probably the important thing.


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