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Rooted Resilience: Candice Mizera's Journey to Nurturing Native Grasses & Reinvigorating Ranchlands.

Candice Olson-Mizera’s family roots have been in a North-central South Dakota ranch just west of the Missouri River for decades. The fourth-generation rancher from McLaughlin now firmly believes the key to keeping those family roots intact is to nurture the deep roots of grasses native to her ranch.


Candice Olson-Mizera standing in a field
Candice Olson-Mizera

In the last two decades, Candice made it a point to understand her pastures better. She educated herself on how to work with nature to make the most of native rangelands. The changes she made on the 4,000-acre operation were bold––adding the fencing and water needed to divide the four pastures when she took over to rotating through over 20 pastures. The bold moves have doubled the carrying capacity and literally changed how she views the ground beneath her feet.


She admits she didn’t know what to look for, below or above the ground, before she began looking into management ideas like intensive grazing and the need to rotate and allow pastures to rest and recover. She didn’t know in detail what was in her pastures. “Well, 15 or 20 years ago, I’m not sure what the pasture was composed of because I didn’t know the differences; even today, I still feel don’t know a lot, there's just so much more to learn. I knew we could do better, be more resilient and more profitable, so we needed to figure it out”

While the new management ideas helped the ranch progress as a whole from the changes made, there were still some problem pastures. “Some of those pastures, they're kind of on the farther end of the ranch. We kept having trouble with our neighbor’s bulls getting in with our cows and so on, and we'd have calves earlier than we wanted to. So, we started kind of babying those pastures and letting them rest too much. So they would never get grazed early in the spring. I remember there being more of a monoculture; it just seemed like it wasn't doing as good or the cows weren't doing as good when they'd go up to those pastures, and it would just dry out too fast.”


All about the roots


What Candice learned was grasses like western wheatgrass and big bluestem could he overrun by cool season invasives like Kentucky bluegrass, crested wheatgrass, and smooth bromegrass. While those cool-season invasives may be able to grow in abundance during the early part of the growing season, they tend to smother the native grasses.

Because of their shallow, turf-like root systems (and lack of a mycorrhizal relationship to prairie soil microbes), the cool season invasive grasses soon become unpalatable and dried out as the season progresses, leaving a weak forage base by the time it gets warm and dry. If the deeper-rooted and better-adapted natives are smothered out in rank growth and thatch layers, they slowly begin to disappear, further degrading the forage base and the soil’s resilience.


As Candice became more educated through organizations like the South Dakota Grassland Coalition and the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition and worked closely with Ryan Beer, a conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, she began working on a plan to combat the Kentucky bluegrass.


Part of this plan required her to graze more than 600 cows in a quarter at a time. This intensive grazing helped break through the Kentucky bluegrass thatch layer that shaded out natives and repelled rainwater. Still, sometimes, grazing was not hard enough. “And then we were only in that pasture, probably, I think it was 12 to 14 days. And then we moved to the next pasture. Ryan [Beer] came out and looked and actually, we hadn't hit the second pasture enough. So he thought we should let the cows back in there. And that really worked out well.”


The plan was not always easy to implement. Instead of using yearlings, they turned to their cow-calf pairs. Matching momma cows to calves, finding calves that were bedded down, and moving from pasture to pasture were labor-intensive activities, especially during calving, but Candice’s eyes were on the prize. “In the end, it was just more babysitting,” Candice says. “Our biggest objective was tackling the Kentucky bluegrass problem and improving the rangeland.” As time went by, Ryan Beer suggested they leave the gate open for a day after a move; this solution seemed to work for the pairs. “We found that worked the best,” Candice says. “Even now when we rotate in the summertime, we open the gates and call them and they want to move and come back the next day. Then we shut the gates, and make sure the pastures are cleared out.”


While the operation was labor intensive and there were kinks that needed to be worked out, the reward was significant. “We had a lot of big bluestem come in that same year. We couldn't believe the difference and the diversity that came, it was awesome and beautiful!” Candice says. “And I was really happy with the response. It made me a believer, I guess as far as management intensive short duration––get them in, get them off, let's have some hoof impact, you know.”


She employs a metaphor to describe the therapeutic and aggressive nature of intensive grazing to control invasives, one we can all relate to: “It’s kind of like getting a massage. Sometimes you have to have a little bit of pain to feel better.”


PODCAST LINKS:

From this story with Candice Mizera.

With Justin Thompson on Adaptive Grazing

With Dr. Allen Williams on Adaptive Grazing


OTHER LINKS:

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Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:

1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts and more.

2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.

3.Follow Growing Resilience on social media:



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