Remember the R’s: for Higher Profits, Healthier Soils, and Resilient Grazinglands
Editor’s note: First in a 6-part series recommending ranchers break down grazing management principles to memorable “R” actions that lead to resilient grazinglands on South Dakota farms and ranches.
“We try to save every drop of rain we get,” says Pat Guptill, a second-generation rancher near Quinn. Guptill and his wife Mary Lou have a cow calf operation, custom graze yearlings, and grass finish cattle—a combination that gives them the flexibility they need in a drought.
“We don’t run our yearlings over on grass in a drought and we adjust the numbers on custom yearlings,” Guptill says. “We don’t need to take all that grass off. One of our goals is to leave a minimum of a thousand pounds of grass per acre behind after grazing—the drier it gets the more we manage the cow herd in a way we can always try to leave that ground covered, leave that armor on the ground. If you can cover your ground in a drought and leave it covered, as soon as it rains, within 30 to 45 days it’s ready to go again. But if you bare the ground it may be three to five years before it recovers.”
That’s one of the most important changes the Guptills have made in their operation—leaving enough forage after grazing to feed soil microbes. “That’s a big thing,” says Guptill, who serves on the board of directors of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. “That and letting our land rest. We might be grazing on a piece of land a week or sometimes only a day, but then we don’t touch it for a full year so it has a lot of time to recover. Rest is important, but rest alone isn’t the answer. You have to have enough moisture during that rest so the grass can recover—there’s no set or magic time frame for how long it takes a pasture to recover. It’s important then and all the time to armor your soil and let your roots and your grass recover.”
The Guptills figure their change to intense rotations and later calving have lowered input costs significantly, and helped them grow more forage, grazing through the winter in some years. On some land, they more than doubled their soil organic matter in a span of six years—that’s critical for water infiltration and water storage to deal with droughts. They’re among a growing number of South Dakota ranchers who are learning to manage grasslands for optimum forage production and profitability by keeping a keen eye on the health of both their grass and their soil.
Easy to remember grazing principles
“I don’t think you can build healthy grassland soils without applying sound grazing practices, or get the most production from your grasses without applying the principles of soil health,” says Tanse Herrmann, state grazinglands soil health specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in South Dakota. NRCS has 17 indicators of rangeland health and grazing plans can get complicated because every pasture is different and weather is variable.
“But you can simplify that some and do pretty well by keeping the most important grazing and soil health principles in mind,” Herrmann says. “One simple way to keep the best of the grazing principles in mind is to remember the r’s. That’s rotate, rest, and recover, along with proper stocking rates and maintaining healthy root systems,” Herrmann says. “If you do those things well, like the Guptills, you’ll also meet the guidelines for healthy soils,” he says. “That includes armoring the soil with a protective grass cover; managing for a little, yet optimal soil disturbance; mimicking nature’s plant diversity; and keeping living roots growing in the soil as long as possible.”
“It would be ideal if all of those things could be captured in a manager’s decision-making every time a piece of ground is going to be grazed,” Herrmann says. “It’s difficult to do all the time, but we need to realize the more we deviate from those principles of soil health, or in remembering to use the R’s, we should expect lower returns from our grazing system.”
Rotating pastures is the grazing management technique that enables pastures to be rested. This period of Rest after grazing, in turn, allows time for both plants and their roots to Recover. This recovery time, when enough moisture and other favorable conditions allow regrowth, promotes natural diversity in grasslands. Optimum stocking Rate matches the amount of expected forage to numbers of livestock, helping ensure grasses will not be overgrazed. Giving plant Roots time to recover after grazing is critical to long-term plant health, as well as to feeding soil microbes that build healthy soils able to infiltrate and hold rainfall. Keep the R’s in mind to set the framework for resilient soils, grasslands, and ranches.
– USDA/NRCS, Conservation Districts of South Dakota, and the Grasslands and Soil Health Coalitions of South Dakota
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Aim to rest pastures much longer than you graze them for optimum production, more resilience, and healthy soils