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Drought-proof your ranch: Build Pasture Health by Mastering Rest and Recovery

By Kurt Lawton for Tri-State Livestock News

Congratulations if you’ve not experienced multiple years of slow pasture recovery after a drought. You’ve avoided overgrazing by adapting stocking rates and rotation schedules, or you’ve built up enough soil health and water holding capacity through years of rest and recovery practices.

Finding your soil and rangeland health mindset (see Part 1 story) to manage pastures beyond season-long grazing is a critical first step to realizing the potential of your ranch. The following steps that lead to higher pasture productivity involve understanding how plant and root diversity bring soil biology to life and how grazing animals are a management tool. To build a successful perennial ranch system that stabilizes soil structure, ranchers follow the five principles of soil health: 1. Cover the soil, 2. Limit disturbance, 3. Maximize diversity, 4. Living roots year-round, and 5. Integrate livestock.

Dig holes in pastures



Never leave the shovel in the truck is a motto that Jay Hermann teaches as he shows the critical difference between shallow-rooted, cool-season grasses and longer-rooted, warm-season grasses and forbs. That same shovel opens minds when comparing soil structure under healthy pasture versus compacted high-traffic areas, says the NRCS Area Rangeland Management Specialist from Redfield, SD.

“Healthy soils produce healthy plants and healthy livestock, which begins with a good inventory of plant varieties that work together to build soil microbiology, organic matter and water-holding capacity,” Hermann says. “Pastures that lack enough native warm-season plants and are overrun by bromegrass and bluegrass take longer to recover from a drought due to shallow roots, especially when overgrazed.”



Jay Hermann. Kurt Lawton
Courtesy photo

Newell, SD rancher Dave Ollila learned to overcome poor clay soils by re-establishing plant and animal diversity and adapting differently to the environment. “If we manage for our environment, we can consistently establish predictable outcomes in our production. For example, we sold a lot of cows this year because we knew our pasture would be short of grass. So, we replaced them with heifer calves that consume half as much grass,” he says. “I’ve learned that I don’t need the highest yields, just predictable yields and keep my inputs at a level that provides profitability.”

To increase forage production, plant species diversity and nutrient value to fit his cattle and sheep grazing diversity, Ollila interseeded some shorter grazing alfalfa. The goal is to armor bare soil and diversify pastures invaded by smooth brome and some crested wheatgrass.

“Alfalfa is a legume, producing nitrogen to help support the grass surrounding it. Using animals instead of swathers, they add manure and urine to feed soil microbes in a more diverse plant and root community,” he adds.

Better soil stores more water

Having quadrupled forage production, Ollila intensively grazes to replicate the act of haying. He rotates animals to the next pasture after removing 50-60% of available forage to keep from over-utilizing the plants, so roots continue to grow. “The added protein from alfalfa provides excellent nutrient cycling back into the soil, since 80 to 85% of what goes in a cow or sheep comes out the back end, improving our soil organic matter (OM),” he says.

His regular soil tests have shown a 0.5% to 2.5% OM increase in his managed pasture and irrigated cropland over the past five years. Research shows that for each 1% OM increase, water holding capacity of the soil expands by 20,000 to 27,000 gallons per acre.

“So, from an irrigator or rancher point of view, if soils contain 3 to 4% OM, I can at least hold enough water to produce a year’s crop of grass or alfalfa,” Ollila says. “If I have 5 to 6% OM, I guaranteed myself a crop year in and year out, regardless of climate conditions. Our goal is to achieve resilience and increase annual forage production consistency.”

Dave Ollila. Courtesy photo

Another benefit he discovered after adding alfalfa was that he made better use of his pasture. “When cattle or sheep fill up on protein, they desire cellulose and will eat mature clumps of crested wheatgrass that they wouldn’t eat another day,” he adds.

Although many successful rotational grazing cattle ranchers on native rangelands ‘take half, leave half’ of their grass and let a pasture rest for a year, Ollila will rest a pasture for at least 45 days or longer. His goal is to achieve adequate root and leaf recovery and reduce alfalfa nutrients to prevent bloating. “Managed grazing gives us the potential to harvest/graze the same managed tame pasture three times a year,” he says.

This strategy delivers more animals, too. For example, Ollila has increased his lambing percentage from 150% to 190% by having better nutrition longer into the sheep breeding period, thanks to this pasture species diversity and a vigorous plant and root recovery.

Hermann cites an example of a rancher he’s worked with who changed from continuous grazing to moving cattle weekly. “They follow the principles of prescribed grazing and see the benefits of bringing back native grasses and forbs they never knew existed,” he says. “They follow a plan that won’t graze the same place at the same time of the year, moving every week or so and not returning to that pasture for a year. Last summer, our pasture walk showed the emergence of switchgrass, buffalograss and more deep-rooted big bluestem.”

Such exciting results have turned these cropland and livestock producers into rangeland researchers. They’re attempting to turn a bluegrass and smooth brome pasture into a native species pasture by grazing it hard, interseeding natives, then giving it a long rest. And they plan to test other pasture areas with prescribed burns to see if they can spur on more natives.

Less drought stress

By understanding the importance of diverse growing roots to feed soil biology, rotational grazing ranchers allow enough rest to enable complete plant and root recovery. “Ranchers that implement a rotational grazing plan and follow a strict drought plan can better withstand a drought due to healthier soil which infiltrates and holds more moisture,” Hermann says. “Guys that had a healthy plant community during last year’s drought were fine. They might have cut back a little bit, but they got through the drought without many changes.”

For further inspiration to drought-proof your ranch, South Dakota offers an innovative look at ranchers across the state who describe their improvement journeys in the NRCS-South Dakota video series ‘Our Amazing Grasslands.’ In addition, the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition has compiled a list of rancher mentors by topic. And the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition has a list of farmer and rancher mentors.

–NRCS

 


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