On this week’s “Resilience Rodeo," Ray Effling of Britton, SD shares that just because a rancher is making good numbers doesn’t mean that they’re benefiting their grasslands, especially in the long-term.
With two separate herds in Marshall County and Deuel County, Ray Effling’s primary goal in ranching is soil health. “We try to improve our soil health, plant diversity, get the native plants going; and we also look out for the cattle.” Ray, a former high school teacher – turned rancher, has shown first-hand that soil health practices benefit not only the soils on the land he farms and ranches, but also the native grasses, weed control, wildlife, pollinators, and of course, the health of his cattle. He’s found much success from implementing these practices, even in the very sandy soils of Marshall County’s Sandhills.
1) What one thing have you done that has been most important to the success of your operation?
Boy, what one thing have we done? We've done several things; I would say there's two things that are very important. One was grouping the cattle and two was getting the water development so we could group the cattle, get those cattle in bigger and bigger bunches and moving them through. I think that's increased our biodiversity. It’s given us a chance to increase our rest periods on the paddocks and having the water available so that we can do that. And those two things I think have done more to increase the profitability and to increase the soil health on our properties as anything. I don't think I could say one single thing has done it; I would say those two things in combination would do it.
2) Can you recall a moment or time when the light bulb went on for you to change the way you were grazing?
When we saw that we're definitely improving was probably when I took over dad's land; that gave us the opportunity. We always had some pastures, always had some cattle, and we were doing some rotational grazing. But when we took over dad's land, that really did set up the game. Because one, we were set up where we could put cattle to rotate. We could move cattle. Our cattle handling abilities became so much better. Looking back on how we used to handle cattle and how we handled those pastures to the way we handle them now, it's night and day difference. But when we took over dads, that goes back to when we started grouping those cattle, started cutting those paddocks in half. We did the big water development project down there with EQIP and that was really when we started seeing the benefits that we have now.
3) What surprised you most when you changed the way you were grazing?
What surprised us the most? Well, we knew that we should be able to increase the numbers of animals we're using and the rest period. And that probably would be it, and what increased profitability also is that we are able to increase the number of cattle that we had out there. You got to be careful when you do that, because we've gone overboard on that also, and we had to back off. But we've seen benefits. Increasing the benefits that way has helped us quite a little.
4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their grazing system for resiliency and soil health?
From what we've seen of other pastures and even in this area, that they believe that they're doing the right thing. I've had operators come up and we talk about how many acres per animal and yada, yada, yada, all that. And they'll sit there and tell me, "Oh, I'm doing that. I'm doing that." and they're at the same numbers. Granted, every time that we do something doesn't work perfect. But they also tell me, "Well, I'm spraying every year. I'm putting fertilizer down every year." And to me, costs like that are just astronomical. And our pastures still look better, in my mind. So, I think the misconception that they have or believe that "Yeah, boy, we can get the production that you are." And maybe they are, but I just don't think they're benefiting their grasslands in the long run. I think they get overrun with smooth bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass. We have enough of that also, but it's a battle, and I think that we have a greater chance of getting ahead of that.
5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't yet to improve your soil health or grazing system?
One thing I'd like to do or get back to is, one year we did try the daily moves. We were giving the cows three to four acres per day, and that was phenomenal. And I truly believe this, that if we ever got back to that, doing the daily moves, that a dry year like this, we would be in better shape than somebody that doesn't or even better shape than what we are now. Because if that was done properly, we could have rest period. You could give 150 days of rest. You'd graze that acre one day a year and then rest it the rest of the year. I really think that would be a huge benefit, and talk about increasing numbers and profitability! I think you're way ahead of the game when you do that. And that's one thing I would like to get back to if we could.
6) What advice do you have for someone who is considering changing their grazing system to one that's better for building soil health?
Group your cattle. Get your cattle in bigger and bigger bunches, so they're less selective when they're out there eating. Then move them through the pastures and get them some rest, and it could be done. You could do it with a quarter land. You could do it with an 80 of land, but get your water developed and get your cattle grouped together so that they're not eating the same spot every time. We've got cattle, and I can show pictures of it. Well, heck, even today, we have cattle eating some wormwood sage, even mature wormwood sage. And it's not perfect. They're not eating all of it, but they are eating some of it down. So, they're still selecting plants that are less desirable to eat. And it's definitely some benefits to that, and that's what I would recommend.
7) When you walk across your grasslands, what do you look for as an indicator of healthy grasslands and healthy soil?
When we're looking at grasslands, I look for abundance of grass. We also look for diversity out there. I was told years ago, I believe by one of the NRCS people, that, "Boy, you got leadplant out there." And they just thought that was fantastic, I guess. Well, I didn't know that was great. So we looked for that, and we looked for the diversity, the native plants. But the bottom line is I'd like to see a lot of grass out there because that's where our cattle are eating. We see the benefits in that, so we can see that we do have a diverse plant population out there.
8) What change have you made that you first thought would never work?
Oh, every year we do experiments, and I don't know if it was a very good idea, but we were in a paddock and we wanted the low ground chewed down. So we stayed in that paddock probably too long. The high ground was chewed up too hard. We're always doing things like that, where we'll leave them in a paddock a little long for a certain goal to get maybe the big bluestem to come or the native plants to come. And then we move them through. We've worked with Game and Fish, where we've gone into some of their land and just chewed it down to nothing and the big blue and everything else came in.
That's one thing that that's really changed how we do things, that overgrazing is a matter of time compared to too many cattle. And we've put 200 pair in 80 acres and left them there for 10 days. But we didn't come back till maybe the next year, and the native plants have come back. It gave a chance for those plants to flourish. So, we've done things like that, that you would think, "Boy, you're beating it up. You're beating it up." But really, you're not. You got to give it the rest to recover, and mother nature will handle the rest. Give them the opportunity.
9) What are the signs that your land is resilient? And what does resiliency mean to you?
This year, we're in a drought, we're in a dry year. [But] our land is holding out. We looked greener today than I ever thought we would. [Sometimes when] I think it looks bad, Amy, my NRCS girl, will go out and drive by and tell me "Oh, it's not that bad. You'll be okay." She talks me off the ledge. And I worry about that, we're still not perfect. So, it's still not where I'd like to see it, but if we can be drought resistant and if we can still get something, a crop, every year, that's big in our world, to still be here next year.
10) There are three important 'R's’, rotate, rest, and recover; grazing management words important to resilient range lands, which of the three do you relate to most and why?
They're all important. You got to rotate them pastures. You got to rest them. You got to let them recover. You've [also] got to have the root systems. All that. You drop one of them off, you're going to have issues. If you don't rotate them pastures, they're going to graze the same spot over and over and over again. And they're not going to get the recovery in those spots. They're not going to have the root system. They're not going to have all that. They're all equally important, and you need that. I would not put any of them in any more importance than the rest of them.
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