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Resilience Rodeo - Shaun Grassel - Land Management is an Evolving Process

Shaun Grassel weighs-in on this week’s “Resilience Rodeo” about how his experiences as a rancher, farmer, and wildlife biologist for the Lower Brule Sioux tribe have taught him that land management is and will constantly be an evolving process.

As a former wildlife biologist for the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, Shaun Grassel sees the importance of grasslands and how they’re disappearing. He’s used this perspective to shape his land management practices so he can reverse that trend on at least a small piece of ground. “To me, cattle are a tool to get the landscape and pastures kind of the way I think they should be in terms of species and soil health” says Grassel. These practices are changing his landscape, improving his ranching operation and wildlife, and helping him reach his goal of leaving the land in a much better condition than when he started on it.


Levi & Crystal Neuharth and family on their rannch
Shaun Grassel

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


The one thing that I've done that's been the most success or added the most success to my operation is probably putting some of this crop land back to grass. It just provides more area for cattle grazing, it's added wildlife habitat to this area, and it's eliminated the need to add more fencing around it to keep livestock out. I just like coming out here and looking at the diversity of grasses. So, from the aesthetics part of it, that's really important to me. So yeah, I think it would have to be just putting a lot of this stuff back to grass.



2) Do you recall a moment in time or like when a light bulb went on that made you go, oh, I'm going to think about changing my grazing?


Quite often on a Friday night, I'll get on my computer and I'll start up the Our Amazing Grasslands video series (https://www.youtube.com/user/NRCSSouthDakota/videos), and from watching a lot of those videos and hearing some of the stories that those ranchers and farmers have told those are some of the times where I've had the “a-ha” moments like, oh, that's really smart and that's something that I would really like to try here. There's a lot of things that have influenced what I've done, but some of those “a-ha” moments have come from that video series.


Also, there's a fella out west, I can't remember his name, but I think he was using mob grazing to try to get use out of an old CRP stand, but then also to kind of restore the native species that are in that area. I remember him saying that he keeps his barbed or his electric fence fairly high. So that allows the calves to go on the other side so if they're bunched up, the calves can get away from the bunch, they can access fresh grass. And so that's something that I've always tried to do here is keep electric fence really high. So calves can go through it. He has some really unique ways of making sure his cattle have water. He's got a portable trough and things, and I don't have that here, but I remember thinking that was really smart. The way he kind of designed his portable, movable, trough, and waterline; he had like a reservoir system. That's one that's always kind of stuck with me.



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


I guess what surprised me the most when I changed the way this area was grazed was just the condition of the pastures at the end of the grazing season. I was running as many cattle as the guy before, but at the end of the grazing season when there weren't any cross fences in here, when he was done grazing, you could tell cattle had been in here for six months. I mean, you could really tell. At the end of my grazing season, cause I had rotated and kind of used each piece of this area differently, you could barely tell, I mean, just a really light touch. What that did was that allowed me to basically use this area year-round using some areas just for very short periods of time, and then during the winter, opening it up and letting cattle go where they wanted to go. So, I was able to basically double my carrying capacity on this piece of ground.



4) What would you say is the biggest misconception that people have who are not managing their grazing systems for resiliency and soil health?


Well, I think one of the biggest misconceptions is the amount of time that it takes. I mean, don't get me wrong, it does take time, but to move an electric fence and to put up a new electric fence really doesn't take that much time. Your cows get used to moving so it's not like you have to come out here with a bunch of people and start hooting and hollering and pushing cattle through or around, they get used to you being out here. Once you get that electric fence up or opened up part of it they just come walking right through. It takes cattle very little time to learn that. It does take time to put up fences and things like that, but not as much as one would think you put up one fence, and you're going to use both sides of it so it's not like you have to keep putting up every new fence every time.


So, I think the time involved in it, especially when you think of like the cost benefit kind of thing, the amount of time that you're putting in moving those cattle is relatively small compared to the benefit that you're getting back from it.



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


Yeah. There's one other thing that I would like to do that we haven't done yet. My cousins and I have a much larger pasture further north. We're in the process now of cross fencing it and adding more water out there. It is 5,000 acres and never had a single cross fence out on it, cattle have access to the river. The areas along the river tend to get hit the hardest and they get overgrazed. We have one new fence up there this year so we'll be able to keep cattle off the river at different times.


We're creating four new pastures in that area, a total of four pastures, and we're adding water, but to take that one step further off of those four pastures, so that there'll be four new cross fences there I'd like to get that down into a smaller area. So, each one of those four pastures, break that up into smaller cells, something similar to what I'm doing here with electric fence. It'll all have to be kind of based on where the water is and things like that, but I think that's something that we'll probably try at some point in the future.



6) What advice do you have for someone who's considering changing their grazing system to one that can help build soil?


My advice would be, when it comes to changing grazing rotations or changing your grazing management is just to experiment, not necessarily think that you have to do something that your neighbor is doing. Experiment with different sizes and different shapes and lengths at a time and seasons and things like that and see what works. Things like this, you don't have to be locked into a certain system. I tell people often that I need to kind of just get settled into a program because every year I'm changing what I'm doing, but on the other side of that, it's being able to change and being flexible, change the way that cattle are using the pastures and how the pastures respond. Just keeping an open mind and experimenting.



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


When I walk through and I'm considering, or thinking about healthy soil, healthy grasslands, I'm looking for diversity and I'm looking for many species of grasses and native grasses, many species of forbs. I just really think that having a more diverse pasture gives you a more diverse insect base, more diverse wildlife base. And of course, the cattle love it. They don't have to rely on just one species of grass at different times of the year. They can kind of pick and choose. But yeah, just diversity is what's really important to me.



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


That's a good question. I don't know that I have made a change that I didn't think would work. I don't know. I don't know if I have an answer to that one.



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


When I think resiliency in this area, I think this year is a great example. We're in the middle of a pretty significant drought, and yet we have grass that looks like this. My big bluestem that we saw down the road looks great. The sideoats, even though it has some issues the plants themselves look great. Being able to have healthy looking grasslands at a time where, middle of July, we've only had around three inches of rain, and it looks pretty good. To me, that's what resiliency is all about, being able to overcome those kinds of challenges and keep moving forward without having to make big, significant changes to your operation.



10) When we talk about the importance of grazing management, we often refer to three R’s. They are rotate, rest, and recover. Of those, which can you relate to the most and why?


Out of those R’s, I think the rest. Resting land. I really think grasslands evolved with grazing and so they need grazing to keep them resilient, but they also need rest. They need that time period to regrow, to get themselves reestablished, to heal basically, and to keep doing what they're doing. So, I think that's the thing I can probably mostly relate to.


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