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Resilience Rodeo - Mark Hollenbeck - The Transition to Sustainable Ranching Operations

Mark Hollenbeck chimes in for this week’s “Resilience Rodeo” on not being a “professional fencer," but learning to enjoy ranching with his family through better management practices.

After starting out in the hunting and tourism business on Sunrise Ranch near Edgemont, SD, Mark Hollenbeck and his family soon realized the importance of range management and the resources the land offered. To respect and foster these resources, they transitioned into an organic grass-fed beef operation alongside a now seasonal hunting enterprise.” All of our grass that we have here, all of our ranch is native. Very little of it was ever plowed under, and anything that was plowed under was probably plowed under 80 years ago. So, ours are very native grasslands. We've been working to improve that.”

John Egleston on his ranch
Mark Hollenbeck with his family

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

Far and away the one thing I did for the success of this operation is I married right. I have a fantastic wife that supports all my crazy ideas, and she has been the mother to four fantastic kids. I guess with all the biology we talk about and all the neat things around here that we've seen, my family's the most important. That's really why I ranch, is to raise kids. That's my number one product from this place.

2) Can you recall a moment or time when the light bulb went on for you to change the way you were grazing?

My “aha” moment in grazing was when I went to a class of Johann Zietsman in Billings, Montana. We went to the class, and went out in the field and we saw, I think 2,500 steers moving on two or three acres twice a day. That country looked tough, but we did the calculations and they were getting twice as much utilization as I was on our land. And my land looked twice as good as theirs! So, basically, they were doing four times as good a job managing as I was, and I came home and started building electric fence.

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

I guess I think the biggest surprise to me was just the diversity we started getting and how fast warm season grasses started coming back. As soon as we started giving a rest to our pastures and subdividing where cattle weren't coming back and going to same places every day, we saw much improved diversity and the warm season grasses started thriving.

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 is that we're professional fencers, and we don't get to enjoy ranching, and nothing could be further from the truth. We do fence, but when you put up good quality high tensile electric fence, it is extremely easy to maintain. You see the results and your pastures are more resilient and you get to see your cattle more often, because you're not out fixing barbed wire fences and haying all day because you ran out of grass.

5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't done yet to improve your soil health or grazing system?

Yeah, about a hundred times as much as I already have. I mean it. Every time you do something, you realize you can do it better and I just have never reached, on any part of this place, I have never reached where I want to be. I've made great improvements in a lot of it. Some of what I haven't [done] around the buildings here is tough to manage. You got your saddle horses, and you got every sick animal and milk cow and 4-H calves and everything else. That stuff's hard to manage, but every place on the ranch, I know I could improve.

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

The advice I'd give someone that's looking to improve their soil health is do it. Start and do it. And the sooner you start, one cross fence helps, two cross fences really help. The more you put in, the more you get back. And building high tensile electric fence is easy, temporary fence is even easier, but start it and do it. When you start seeing what it'll do, it's really impressive.

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

Look down, not out. When I walk across my pastures to see how they're doing, when you look out, it looks great. But when you look down, you see the real story. When you look down, you don't want to see bare soil, you want everything covered. You want a thick stand of grass, and you want a good cover on your soil. So, when you're checking your grass, look down, not out.

8) What change have you made that you've at first thought would never work?

I think maybe the thing I was most reluctant about was electric fence because I had done some electric fence with cheap wire and cheap chargers, and something would run into it and it would break down and be on the ground. My first attempt was on a summer pasture and every time I went out there, the fence was on the ground because I'd used cheap insulators, I think steel T-post and soft wire. When I went to a real charger that had zap and started using fiberglass posts and high tensile wire, it just becomes super easy. Using the cheap stuff, everybody has steel posts around, they use steel posts, they put an insulator on them, first animal through knocks the insulator off that swings back and it grounds out against the steel post and then everything's gone. So, get an electric fence charger that will knock you to your knees when you get ahold of it and that livestock doesn't like to be zapped any more than you do. They'll learn to respect it fast.

My electric fence charger cost me $1,200. My good one. And the deal with a good electric fence charger is it's got a remote control that comes with it. So when you're out working on something, you can shut it off. You can fix your short and you can turn it back on and find out if you have another short. You don't have to go back to the barn or wherever your fence charger's at to shut it off, to come back out and work on it. So get the good stuff. If you're going to buy a tool, buy a good one.

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

I think the sign that the land is resilient, maybe more than about anything, is the amount of runoff you're getting. If you have a good stand of grass and good thatch on it, your runoff is really minimized, and it should be pretty clear. And then the other thing is, even during dry periods, because if you capture that rain, you're going to still have some green grasses.

There's some of these species that are dang tough and will green up with almost no moisture. Your resilient pasture lands will have that, and they'll also have a good mix of legumes. That was one thing we didn't discuss much today, but the number of native legumes I've found is quite baffling because when I walk out there, I'm going, dang, we don't have clover really, we don't have a lot of the stuff that the Eastern guys have, where they get rain. We can't go plant red clover, white clover and get it to grow. But as you look at the scurfpeas and the prairie clovers, and some of the other deals, we do have a lot of native legumes. But you got to leave them alone and let them grow, otherwise the livestock will buzz them off and then you're without nitrogen.

10) Which of the three R words, do you relate to most? Rotate, rest, or recover?

Well between rotate, rest and recover, I guess rest and recover to me are really close to the same deal out here because we're typically not able to go through pastures twice. But it is the rest period that allows those plants to recover before something hammers them. My summer place is 1800 acres in one pasture. Now we're up to 12 pastures and hopefully next year we're going to go to 15. But it was amazing when you could just get the cattle off, graze it for a week or even 10 days, which is still too long, but it still made an amazing impact on it by not letting anything go back there for the next 90 days, for the rest of the growing season. 10 days is too long of a grazing period, but it's still infinitely better than 180 days. So, even when you do it poorly, you have improved performance. I mean things improve and a good friend of mine says, "If you won't do it for all the right reasons, do it for the money." I mean, because you will have more grass, you can run more cattle for longer periods of time. If you don't do it for the right reasons, at least do it for the money.


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