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Mastering Drought: The Sustainable Secrets of a South Dakota Rancher

On this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, rancher Robert Boylan of Butte County, SD talks about the importance of water distribution in rotational grazing and working with nature even when she gives you drought.

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“I wanted to wear a hat, so I had to buy cows”, jokes Robert Boylan, a rancher and wildlife supporter in Northwest SD. Robert is the first to acknowledge that ranching is a constant learning experience. “I’m no expert. I’m not perfect. I’m not even, I may lose everything yet, but I’m doing what I can the best I can.” Through these constant learning experiences, Robert has developed a drought philosophy that sometimes requires cutting his number of cows but has led to a more successful, sustainable, and natural grassland operation.

Robert Boylan
Robert Boylan


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


Probably the most important thing that I've done to economically survive ranching in this country... I'm going to say water distribution. Selling hay machinery was right in there, and calving later to work with nature more, I guess would probably do it. But [like] this year, it's hard to do anything if you don't get rainfall. I got a grass ranch and there's just not much rain.


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


I believe it was 2012 maybe, that I realized the importance of rest and rotate, because we just didn't get to use some pastures because there wasn't no water. I realized how early we could go back into them the following year when we did get water. It just dawned on me, that was what nature needed. Grass needs to go through a full cycle every so often to seed and do just what it was made to do. Buffalo didn't camp on these pastures all year round. Look at deer, they pass through here and then leave it.


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


What surprised me most was the workload and the profitability of it all, actually. It took a year or two. It's hard to get into the situation. You got to have numerous pastures, [but] bar none it's the best thing you can do for grasslands. I know that you can get by; I still got neighbors that go in the same time every year and they get by, but they've never increased their numbers. I don't think that soil's that healthy, I guess. It's expensive to do the first few years probably, but it really pays dividends in the long run. The workloads are way easier. The care of the fences and the health of the livestock... It's all good.


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


Well, I ain't judging anybody to how they do anything. I don't know the economics of everybody's place, but I do know that I've still got 13 years of land payments. I've purchased everything, never been out of debt. And I know that it's making my payments, and they're fairly good size payments, by doing what we're doing. Boy, I think if they'd try it on part of their place, they would never go back to anything else. And if they ever calved later, I don't think they'd ever go back to anything else either. Some ranches are made for hayin’; this one isn't. But, yeah, everybody's situation is different. I don't judge anybody.


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


Yes. I would like to try to improve stuff by introducing some yellow flowered alfalfa, some different forages on this thing so it my might come at different times a year. I never want to take away from the native grass. But if I could find something that I could interseed with it that's feasible to do and increase grazing capacity, I would sure do it. To me, it's all about the grass. These cows are going to come and go no matter what you do. Your best cow will raise the best calf. One year, she'll be gone. And if you take care of your grass and your ranch, that's what you got to do to stay in this business, I think.


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


As I'm walking across the grasslands looking at stuff, I look for grasses that have got to run their full cycle and go to seed. I look for thatch or mulch that's left over. That breaks down into nutrients for everything, stops erosion. Crop covers are a big problem on this ranch with all the drainages. I'm always looking for invasive weeds or something, especially if it's out away from where it should be. But I love the land. I really do. I get up every day, happy.


7)    What change have you made that you first thought would never work?


One of the things I wasn't sure was going to work probably was cross fencing. I didn't feel there was a necessity for it to begin with. Because we run pretty good numbers, so we try to keep them in kind of mobs to rotate and rest. So, we split some pastures, and they’re not small. We're talking down to maybe 1,200 acres or 2,500 acres, but I wasn't sure that would return much by doing that when we got started rotating and grazing. It has. In my situation, that's as small as I want to go. Other people might have smaller places and smaller paddocks would work. But for this ranch, that was one of my concerns, I guess. I wasn't sure it was going to work very well.


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


Resiliency to me is... I guess, producing at least as much beef production as it did the year before. Nature in itself is resilient. You look at stuff that's happened years ago and I think, "God, it [grew] back and it's healing up." And I guess I don't know... It does most of it on its own if you give it a chance. That's probably the biggest thing.


9)    Out of the three R's, what do you relate to the most? What do you think helps the most? Rotate, rest, or recover?


They all go hand in hand, but I'm going to say the resting part, probably. You can rotate too soon and not do any good at all, I would say. I know every time you open a gate for livestock, if it's rested a month, they're going to go on to gain weight. But there, you're only looking at the economics of it again. Long-term, you want your grass to be better, so you need to let that grass, at least half of it, run its natural course. And if I can afford to do it, I'm going to let big pastures rest for a complete year. If you rotate too quickly, I don't think you gain anything really. You're making money per se, but you ain't helping the grass.


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.

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