Find Your Soil Health Mindset to Diminish Drought
How a Pasture-focused Mindset Can Drive Animal and Soil Success
It can be tough to find the positives in a multi-year drought that heaps challenges and stress on ranchers, pastures and livestock numbers.
But there is optimism in the ranching community among adaptive managers who have forged a mindset beyond season-long grazing. Rather than watch pastures completely dry up in a drought, they follow a journey to help soil biology come alive and create more plant diversity that improves drought tolerance. Over time, this adaptive management produces more meat and profit per acre because healthier soils hold more water, increase plant productivity and diversity, and lead to quicker recovery.
The mindset shift
The economic hardship of drought during the mid-1980s led ranchers Lyle and Garnet Perman to begin a journey to totally change the Rock Hills Ranch tradition to survive. “I’m fortunate that my parents instilled a mindset of change in me, based on their successful 30-year journey of ranching with nature instead of fighting it,” says Luke Perman, the fifth generation to make a living farming and ranching in the area with his wife, Naomi.
Luke looks at change as a constant since his youth was spent building fence and adding water tanks as his parents expanded their rotational grazing so more grass could rest and recover. “They taught me a deep appreciation for gaining knowledge from like-minded producers, tours, and conferences. The South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, their grazing school, and mentor network have greatly influenced our operation,” he adds.
Ranching and farming are steeped in strong traditions. But when business as usual isn’t economically sustainable due to increasing weather extremes, an open mind and small steps can provide new life to pasture resilience. “I’ve heard a half-dozen presentations this spring by meteorologists that all discuss trends of warmer average daily temperature and more severe, less frequent precipitation events over the last decade. So, we need to view our grazing lands and the soils underneath as a storage tank for water. And do everything we possibly can by adopting grazing management and soil health principles to make sure we save every drop of water,” says Tanse Herrmann, South Dakota Grazinglands Soil Health Specialist for NRCS.
The mindset of a grass rancher
The Permans evolved from a short-term livestock and crop focus to a long-term holistic management mindset during the late-80s. Experiments with divided pastures and rotational grazing helped convince Lyle that a long-term mission to regenerate his grassland would work. “Plans that my dad started in the 90s, to shorten our grazing periods, continue today,” Luke says. “While nature makes this is a constantly moving target, the goal of resting our grass has not changed. We monitor and manage it more closely to increase harvest efficiency.”
This rest and recover mindset led to nature helping achieve a greater plant diversity with deeper roots that made pasture paddocks on Rock Hills Ranch less susceptible to drought conditions. By grazing a pasture for less than one week per year, that rest allows a lot of time for different plants to emerge and thrive.
“We’ve learned to measure soil health by plant diversity, water infiltration and covered ground,” Luke says. “We’ve seen springs start flowing out of sidehills that were not there 10-15 years ago. In our pastures we’ve managed the longest, it’s not uncommon to find 60 to 70 different plants during our summer range event for local 4-H kids. That plant diversity that helps us take advantage of dry or wet seasons, adding resiliency and quicker recovery.”
Luke is a stickler for resolving issues of open ground in any pasture. “If our ground isn’t covered in an area, we’ll change management on that pasture to resolve the problem,” he says. Herrmann agrees as research shows that soil temperatures can skyrocket to 100 degrees and higher on bare ground, stopping soil biology, plant growth and water holding capacity.
Seek mindset reset mentors
Herrmann encourages ranchers to walk pastures that visibly show better drought resilience and ask management questions. “I don’t know of another state with a better connection among its ag producers as South Dakota. So many mentors across the state are willing to share their ranching or cropland story of success, and admit what not to do,” he says. “The SD Grassland Coalition and SD Soil Health Coalition have excellent mentor networks.”
Shared optimism is a common mindset trait among the community of ranchers that find adaptive management critical to long-term resilience. The Permans are big believers in being around the right people in the right frame of mind. “Generally, they’re not allowing nature or letting markets dictate what happens to them but take things into their own hands regarding the success of their operation,” Luke says. “And they’re excited to share what’s working and what is not.”
Luke relates his mindset for change to the first generation of settlers. “When I consider what my great, great grandfather dealt with when he moved to a different continent, my struggles with small changes in grazing is nothing in comparison. Those were tough guys, no doubt, and I believe we do them some disservice if we’re not willing to make changes to help another generation make a living here,” he says.
– SD Grassland Coalition
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