This week on the “Rodeo”, rancher Justin Thompson shares the value of having his whole family involved in the ranching and calving operations.
Justin Thompson and his family have gone from bison to cattle, and from 8 pastures to 44 in their journey to more resilient grasslands on their land near McLaughlin, SD. “It was something my dad had always taught me growing up, that we needed to take care of our cattle, and take care of our range, and be stewards of this amazing gift that we’ve been given”, says Thompson of his perseverance in overcoming seemingly endless hardships when getting into the business. “This is an amazing opportunity to raise a family while managing grasslands, and to be able to make a living doing it.”
1) What one thing have you done that's been most important to the success of your operation?
In my mind, God’s Grace and Provision would be my answer to why we are able to still be in operation. I don’t think I can limit my answer to one thing, but I do think it is important to set goals. The proper management of our grasslands has been one of our goals and our passion for many years now. Our attitude has been that we don’t know it all yet, every year is different, and every operation is different, so there are no straight answers.
I don’t know if our operation will be successful or not. When my turn at caring for this ranch is over, I would consider it a success if at least two of our goals in ranching were achieved. First, that the ranch’s resources (water, grass, wildlife, soil, etc.) were healthy and improving. And the other, that my family would have lived a good life while learning to be thankful and see that their work and choices have benefits and consequences.
The many decisions and tasks that come up should point toward those goals. For example, we set the goal to keep cattle spread out on the grass avoiding congestion, if possible. There were a lot of things to change in the operation to keep the cattle out on pastures year-round and spread out. To achieve that goal, wintering, calving, and weaning have to be done with as little material handling as possible. The kids help with the work and are always learning why we are making the extra effort to fence and bale graze, why we wean across the fence couple miles from home, or why sometimes we lose calves in snowbanks calving outside. The work to improve takes mistakes, but the goals should be worth of the cost.
2) Can you recall a moment, or time, when the light bulb went on for you to change the way you were grazing?
I think the light bulb went on right away when we first had an opportunity to start grazing. We were in a desperate situation before the buffalo were moved off the ranch because it had been dry for so long. Because the buffalo are survivors, they knew they had to get off the place and find other forage. So, we were, nearly day and night, herding the buffalo off the fences. So, it was right away we knew things had to change. And when it was our option, and it was our decision on how and what to change, grass health had to have been the first thing on our mind, and getting something to grow.
3) What surprised you most when you changed the way you were grazing?
I think what surprised me most was, I had shrugged off and thought that this just wasn't as good a grass ranch as some of the other ones. I didn't see or think the potential was there, really, to do what it's doing now. I wouldn't say we're drought-proofed at all, but we can handle a dry year now, and before we could not. Before we had to have average rain or more just to pull it off. I guess now I'm encouraged that we can handle, at least, a dry year.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their grazing systems for resilience and soil health?
My biggest misconception before we started working on rotational grazing and grass health was that I thought it was going to cost too much and that there wasn't enough benefit to it. I also was worried that I would do it wrong. So, the biggest misconception is that I was not going to be able to do it. It was going to be too complicated and too expensive to make a benefit out of it.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't done to improve your soil health or grazing system?
There are several things I hope to try. We have converted almost all of the farm ground to hay or rotational grazing. Also, in years past we have extended grazing with cover crops, but I am interested in a perennial such as Russian wild rye. I don’t know much about that though.
6) What advice do you have for someone who is considering changing their grazing system to one that's better for building soil health?
The best bang for your buck is the first fence you build. Or, just try feeding the hay back on a small hay field as an experiment. Use a small field to bale graze. Seeing improvement, no matter how small at first, is really exciting. It makes me just want to do more and more.
7) When you walk across your grasslands, what do you look for as indicators of healthy grassland and healthy soil?
When I walk across the grasslands, I'm looking for healthy plants and healthy soil; I think that you shouldn't see bare ground. I like to see a bitten plant trying to regrow during rest. I like to see invasive tame grasses grazed short and, because the cattle have then been moved to a different pasture, native grasses are growing through and recovering. I like to see uniform grazing of the pasture. I also like pasture walking with a different set of eyes of someone I trust to show me what is a good trend and a bad trend. I have been very blessed to have awesome friends in NRCS. Also, I love to see plants getting utilized that are not used any other time of year like lead plants.
I think that it's interesting to see pasture that was managed well versus one that was maybe not. I enjoy seeing that. I enjoy seeing the species. There's actually a corner of a hayfield that never, ever, ever got grazed, and has a little bit of a draw. And the draw was solid cheatgrass. I mean, it never got grazed, and it wasn't producing. We start grazing that hayfield in rotation, and that draw is where some protection is. And those cattle get down in that draw, and they actually chewed it up. This last spring, I didn't see any cheat grass in that draw, but it took maybe four years to do it. It just shows that letting this land sit without being used isn't the right thing for health.
8) What change have you made that you first thought would never work?
I did not know if it was going to work weaning across the fence my first time. I pictured calves scattered all over the place, and I just didn't think that I was going to be a good enough manager to pull that off. Oh man, did that work? I'll never go back now. It is nice to not have to haul that manure out of corrals, too. A lot of these things aren't easy in the first two steps. But then after that, you think, "That is way easier than I thought, this should have been done a really long time ago." Not everybody is like that. A lot of people will change everything in one year and try to, but I can't ever do that.
9) What are the signs that your land is resilient, and what does resiliency mean to you?
Resiliency means that it will not go backward at its first test, I think. When it's dry and you see stuff growing, it's surprising because you don't expect it to.
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?
Rotate jumps out to me, it has been a major part of our focus. Using pastures at different times every year. Cross-fencing the pastures to make smaller ones. Making use of underused parts of the pastures. We added fiberglass posts and high tensile electric fences in the last couple of years. That has sped up implementation and now it’s so easy to dream big on what you want to try. One of my kids asked me, “Will we ever quit building fences?” I answered, “Maybe”. Truth is, it’s too much fun to stop when you start to see the goal getting closer.
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