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When I came on to the place, they just bought the ranch. We put it directly into an intensive grazing system, which my goal was to rotate, rest and recover. We basically made three pastures into 10 separate, different pastures. When we go back in every pasture, we'll get at least 90 days of rest and recovery time. The cattle have benefited from it. The pounds per gain have benefited and we've ran, I would say 40% more cattle on a rotation program as opposed to running a season long grazing.
We do rotationally graze with the object in mind that we want to utilize cool season grasses, which we have a predominance of, and rest the warm season grasses so that they don't get exclusively grazed out by continuous grazing. Our management style is probably different than a lot of people because we don't manage for profit. We manage for stewardship and have learned that if you're good stewards that is profitable.
Over the last 20 plus years, we've converted a lot of acres away from crop into grasslands. We have lots of cross fencing. We do rotate our cattle. There'll be times where we use acres more and then maybe for a year, don't use them at all. If I could give somebody some advice, what I would say is go to the people that live and work with grassland conservation and water and all those things. Cause there are those people out there. They're easy to talk to.
We've been developing our water and fences for the better part of 10 years now, and focusing on proper management as well as our hunting business. We're always dry, but part of the reason we have grass is that we have been actively managing for grass. So all these plants that are really nutritious were grazed out and by managing, we're getting those plants to come back. We're getting them to come back by giving proper rest.
We winter a few cows that we own of our own. And then we custom graze. We've done the slow moves we've done. The fast moves. We like them all. Our primary goals when we are moving these cattle is the soil health. Moving the cattle through and letting the plants recover, all our paddocks, we try to give a 60 day rest, no matter where we're at, we've seen where that has really benefited the soil and benefited the cattle.
I remember Ryan coming out and advising us. It was pretty much just three pastures on that whole place. We formulated the plan and started building cross fences. And I started attending grassland schools, I got really excited about improving the range. We started changing our season of use and our rotation. I wouldn't say we're drought proofed but we can handle a dry year now and before we could not.
Duane Beck always told us stop and walk out into nature and just have a look, see what she's been doing. She's been doing it best for way longer than we have. If we can take in what we're seeing, and a lot have to do with the five principles of soil health. If you can take what you learned from mother nature and apply it to what we're doing, you can become more successful and your crops and your grass should be resilient and recover well.
Cattle and sheep out here. Honestly, I think I I've run the cattle so I can wear a cowboy hat. I run the sheep to make the payments. I believe it was 2012 that I realized the importance of rest and rotate. Cause we just didn't get a use in pastures because there wasn't water. We've probably got close to 60 miles of pipeline put in. I've built 120 reservoirs the last four years, got probably close to 80 water tanks on the place. Water distribution is the best thing you can do for grasslands.
We've been on this place since 1964. I guess restoration is in my blood. We restore wagons and, build stagecoaches and I've become more keenly interested in the restoration of the grasslands. It's a value to restore that to its native state. On the production side, as we gain a more native grasses and Forbes, we also see the production go up. So it's kind of a, win-win.
I was recommended to go to a grazing school and that grazing school was a huge, huge part of getting to where we're at today. One thing that I really noticed… been doing a lot of grass testing, sending in grass clippings and the nutrient nutritional value of the grass when you're letting that grass rest for 60 days that top 25% of that grass holds so much more nutritional value than if you continuously graze.
Tyler Moore and I've been best friends for about 20 years. We had the opportunity to rent some grass together. We approached the land owner and told them that if we were given the opportunity to rent the land, that we would rotational graze on it. And they took us up on that. We underbid some fellow ranchers, but we offered a rotational graze and they thought that'd be a better deal for everybody in the long run.
I met a guy in rapid city and he says, ”I'm a grass farmer, how I harvest my grass is through cows.” And that really stood out to me. I was like, yeah, he's right. I've done some rotational grazing in smaller paddocks. When I go for a walk, now I try to look for some of the species that tell me that my grasses or my pastures are healthy. There's always better ways to manage your ground. If you just change your paradigm to see that it can be so much better for you.
And from a wife and a mom perspective, I've noticed a huge difference in the way that my husband is handling the cattle herd. He knows where he's going to put them in why he's going to move that herd into that pasture. At that time, we have two boys. They're full of energy. They're fully aware of the ground around them and their dad is sharing that knowledge so that they end up with more information to make this place better than what they inherited.
My dad and grandfather did a great job setting this place up for rotational grazing. Take half leave half. We have 54 tanks on the place, so our water situation is amazing. Without a lot of labor, we can just put more cattle in the pastures for shorter amount of time and just move them faster. It's amazing how resilient range land is. If you're not continuously overgrazing it year after year, it, it heals pretty fast.
I'm not a rancher by any means, but the cropland is something farmers assess every day. Rangeland doesn't become a priority to a lot of guys, but I learned that we need to make it a priority. …And even with as dry as we've been, the cover crops are just flourishing because of the diversity. And I think if we can make my rangeland more diverse, we make ourselves more drought tolerant, more resilient.
The outcomes are what we're really looking for. We can't get to that outcome with no-till alone, we can't get to that outcome with cover crops alone. We can't get to that outcome, in my opinion, with rotations that aren't diverse. Can I cycle the nutrients without having a perennial? No, I don't think we can. After 20 some years, I have pretty good evidence we can’t.
We went to just a lot of these one-day classes like ranchers workshops and pasture walks, and then we finally went on some bus trips that the NRCS and Extension Service put on, when you're on a pasture walk or a bus trip, you know, you're on the guy's place; You can see if it's working or not. Learning or knowledge is probably the most important thing.
I probably move my cows on average every three to four days. At times everyday… I have three different groups of pastures, and there's several smaller pastures within each group, and I try to rest one group for the full growing season, I feel like it gives some of the native species the full year break to maybe get more established because when you turn the cows out in the pasture that's the first thing they go for.
My great grandfather Charles Schmidt came here in 1910… This is a reservation…And a lot of the things that we do today really are quite similar to what they had developed early on in the 20s 30s 40s… We calve more in sync with nature… rotational grazing and moving your cattle. we try to mimic, you know, our operation on to be in sync with nature… I think that it it gets managed as a holistic operation, and I think that that's kind of where we are today.
Our grandparents homesteaded this land in 1909, my father stayed on the place, and then we took over from there. Our goal for grazing is to always leave grass. We love grass. I like looking out on a pasture that looks good even after we take cattle off. Having an inventory of what's in a pasture has really helped me…knowing how many AUMS are in each pasture is really beneficial.
My dad and I have been farming together basically since I got out of college. We do corn, beans, wheat, cover crops. We have cattle and sheep, hogs, chickens, and we try to integrate everything that that we do and getting cattle out on cover crops and getting them out on all of our fields and trying to improve our soil health. it's kind of our number one priority around here.
We run the buffalo herd all in one large here. We have about thirty two pastures that we rotate them through, so they're only in a pasture five six seven days, and they don't come back to that pasture till the following year, we utilize the pastures at different times every year. It's had a tremendous effect on the vigor of the plants. We've just seen tremendous differences in the pastures as opposed to the way we used to graze them.
I would recommend to a young producer to go with some sheep…you can run sheep were a cow wouldn't even want a be, and they're quite a little cheaper to get into, we don't over stock. we try to keep the numbers at a workable level… And they don't use all the grass, it's kind of real rule take half and leave half, and we try to follow that… Wildlife seems to have something to eat too.
Pastures range from 30 acres to 160 acres. Move cattle sometimes every day, but at least every week. Try to give everything of rest of at least 14 months on our pastures to give it a chance to recover, rest. Trying to graze all year long. Trying to have pasture that can be grazed any time of the year and have a cow that'll do it with the management grazing, we've seen an increase in wildlife and increase in plants.
when we had that terrible drought, we had a new pasture every week in that way we had 13 weeks worth of grazing and every week they have new grass and every time you put them on fresh grass and makes them eat grow better, milk better, look better. Every year you start in a different pasture so that you're grazing at a different time.
Just growing more grass, giving it more time to rest, I think is a big deal and gives us more of a grass bank for a drougth year.
we were talking the other day about how many cattle we're running in a certain pasture we leased, and we've got it split into quarter mile strips now, and we were running about a cow to two acres in the grazing, and now, it's 1.4, so that's a real increase in production with very minimal inputs.
It’s a difficult place to ranch, but it’s ours now and we’re trying to make it better. We’ve gone from the original fifteen pastures to thirty pastures ranging from 25 to 40 acres. When we’re finished we’ll have over sixty pastures. We’ve installed twenty-five miles of electric fence, mostly two-wire. We’ll have another twenty-five miles put in before the end of the project. That type of a system allows the diversity to increase. When we first got here we didn’t have a lot of diverse forage --no nettle, saltbush, or winterfat, and forbs were few and far between. Now there is much more of a diversity in our grasslands.
When we bought this place we could barely run 130 pairs on the whole ranch. Now we’re running 160 pair on half the ranch and the other half is set aside for drought, it’s set aside for hailstorms, it’s set aside for just growing and resting, deeper roots, more litter, shade, less grasshoppers.
Our optimum grazing time is three to five days. We try to be in a cell and out of the cell within that period of time. That’s followed by 750 days of rest. So the rest of that grazing season we don’t go back in a second time, the next year it’s completely undisturbed, and then that third year, we try to shift the season of use.
If the cattle are on the same pasture they’re going to keep eating their favorite plant and those plants will disappear and decrease, and the less desirable plants will come in. You get more diversity with your cool season and warm season grasses as you move your cattle and have shorter duration grazing. With the cross-fencing, with the more pastures, we’ll see warm seasons grasses come in. They may not have been evident for fifty years, but the grass is still there and it comes back. I don’t know how to measure the improvement in the soil, but I’m sure there’s an improvement.
I just got really interested in sustainable practices and how to maintain the land. It’s enhanced our profitability. Rotational grazing worked great. This year we’ve been doing daily moves, just trying to better manage what they’re eating and manage the grass, give it an opportunity to recover
you see how the more you move the cows, the better the cows stay in condition, the better the grass and the ground stays in condition.
We went all no-till and planted cover crops and started rotational grazing here in the last five years. We’ve really intensified our rotational grazing and use of cover crops. The cows are in a smaller area, so the rest of the pastures have all got time to grow. That’s made a huge difference; it’s just improved our lives in so many different ways that time management—and efficiencies and profitability, and just improving the water infiltration and the holding capacity. we’re just trying to drought-proof the farm is what we’re trying to do.
A lot of times we think about crops, we think about regenerative agriculture. Well, there’s nothing more regenerative than the grassland, the biological relationships between the cattle, the grazing, the microbes, the fungi, their saliva, defecating, their urinating, nitrogen cycling, all of these things make just perfect sense. I think this emerging science with that relationship is really going to continue to help people understand that healthy systems need healthy animals, and vice-versa. healthy humans are part of that story as well.
Years ago we used to never really manage our grasslands. They were just left idle and the diversity was not there, it was pretty much a monoculture of bluegrass and smooth brome. We started integrating cattle into our management and we’re starting to see great improvements on our grassland. There’s proof in the pudding if you just come out and look on some of these areas, the diversity in the plants, the birds, the animals. You have a lot better hunting opportunity out here because of the cattle doing what they’re doing on the ground versus if we just did absolutely nothing.
This all fits all right into what I believe in and the way I like to live. I like to hunt. I like to fish. Anything I do with the cattle generally involves looking at it from the conservation side as well. I can still get good benefits, the cattle can still get me where we want to be, and I can still have good wildlife habitat. A long-term success would be having a high diversity of plants; it’s diversity. Diversity in grasses, diversity in the insects, diversity in the birds. If we’ve got multiple species of all of them out there, then I think we’re being successful.
When we’re going out and we’re moving cattle from one pasture to the next, you can just see how it benefits both the grass and the --how much better nutritionally we can offer different grasses to our cattle by letting that grass rest. And see the cows get excited. They want to come. They want that new grass. You can see a very big difference in what some of the more continual grazed systems versus our rotations,—you can see a big difference in your stand of grass, in the healthier cattle, in the wildlife, in all of it.
The last couple years we’ve seeded full-season cover crops just for grazing. The cows are a great recycler. Those deep-rooted brassicas pull up nutrients, and then run them through the cows, we’re not afraid to put up electric fence and we can haul water, too, if we need to. We do that quite a bit for fall grazing. It’s cheaper to haul water than it is to haul feed, so that’s why we really like the fall grazing or the winter grazing, as long as winter will allow.
I come out here practically every day to take care of the cattle or do the rotating, moving cattle. When they see the four-wheelers they come to you and you can open the gate and they will pretty well go through. In the rotational grazing we try and do it about every two to three weeks, depending on the size of the pasture, and that has tremendously helped on the grasses. The cattle seem a lot better, they seem healthier, the calves seem healthier. It’s been a good thing for us to do.
We were counting it up here the other day, close to ten miles of fence and also probably a mile or so of waterlines. And so the water and the fence has helped us reduce the amount of hay that we’ve had to feed, and we’ve moved to using more grass for feeding and can rotate more and stockpile some for the winter, not put up as much hay. And diversity has really improved since we started making the rotations. You’re seeing more of the natives come back in, more wildlife is showing up.
We started out really small, running 45-50 head of replacement heifers and rotating that and, within four or five years I was seeing some big changes out there. I says, “Man, this works. You know, we need to start doing some more of this, the big thing that I think I’ve seen is diversity, but also groundcover. Unless the soil is really bad, we don’t have any bare spots.
And having cattle out on grass, rotational grazing, you know, if you’re doing it right it’s helping the water infiltrate. The water’s actually going in the ground where you want it for grass production. Introducing livestock, getting them out there and aftermath grazing, it just stimulates the soil biology and it’s really, really important to keep us sustainable and productive for the long haul.
The programs that we offer through the NRCS, the main ones, you know, we have EQIP, we have CSP, CRP, we can do practices like waterline, tanks, windbreaks, trees, fences, ponds, seeding, If you have cropland that isn’t producing that great or you want to convert it back to grass for soil health we can cost-share anywhere between 75 and 90 percent cost-share on a lot of these practices. Practices that really help out our area are fences, waterlines, and windbreaks.
We sat down and we made plans where we needed water—we got the water where we needed it with pipelines and big water tanks, and then we went to cross-fencing so we could utilize rotation. The cross-fencing has been tremendous once we got it in place—we can put cows in there for twenty-one days and they’ll utilize more of the pasture, and then you kick them in the next place and they have fresh grass.
"The first years that we were out here our infiltration rates were really not good. it would take fifteen to twenty minutes for that second infiltration rate to go in. And what we just did here a few minutes ago, that second inch went on in twenty-three seconds. that means there’s very little runoff. water is staying onsite. It’s going on into the ground. A lot of it’s being intercepted by our healthy soils that we’re building here."
"To introduce rotating into our operations, that was kind of an eye-opener for my father… I’d turn out the same time dad did, and my calves would always come home bigger because the weaning weights, as far as rotational grazing, is just phenomenal. dad and I partnered up with Ducks and Game, Fish, and Wildlife to do some fencing, and we’ve got 200 acres and 375 acres that are all cross-fenced, ready to roll. And that’s been a significant boost to our operation, as far as saving the grass."
"Everything we do is a partnership. we’ve developed a partnership with US Fish and Wildlife Service because if you have grass and you just leave it alone and you don’t do anything with it, it’s going to diminish. The best thing you can do is put livestock on grass because you have the foot action, you have the grazing, you have the interaction with the wildlife. The best thing you can do is put livestock, especially cattle, out there."
"We know that rest grows grass, and when we’re going through a system twice through we’re taking very little amount the first time through. We’re leaving a lot of leaf area for that grass to regrow. The second time through then we can take our proper use out of that grass and still leave enough residual cover for that grass to maintain its health and vigor. It’s been good for the grass, it’s been good for the livestock, and the cooperator that’s running the cattle out here."
"We keep evolving. I know with the cross-fencing and temporary fence and water we can do a much better job, utilize that, improve—improve the diversity there. We’re also using temporary water, running pipe above ground for temporary moving cattle around. It’s exciting. I can’t get enough of it."
"Grass is abundant. That’s not by accident. When we dig a hole and study the soil. It almost has a cottage cheese type structure. That soil texture allows water to infiltrate rapidly, where water and air can freely move. That plant stand was very, very healthy and the impact of grazing was absolutely beneficial."
"I just grew up rotating pastures and just learning how to read the grass, and a take half/leave half mentality. We try to rotate every two to six days, depending on pasture size and herd sizes. It’s important to get that rest and that rotation going… Those cows love to get to that fresh pasture and love that grass, and they get pretty used to rotating. "
"When I first came home we had two pastures. there’s eight different paddocks now in the heifer pasture. The river pasture, I have that divided into four different sections. My plan with rotational grazing was hopefully that I would be able to survive a dry year by having the pastures in better shape so that I could make it through those dry years. And I was able to make it through."
"We graze only one pasture once a year and then they rest for another year. We move cattle from anywhere from five to ten days.I'm out in a pasture every day checking grasses to see when we should move
We try to leave anywhere from four to six inches of grass standing in the pasture every year."
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*Photos and audio courtesy of the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition. // Distribution paid for by South Dakota's Conservation Districts.