Six-Part Series: Drought-proof your Ranch
Part 5: Mentor Ranchers and Rangeland Events Improve Adaptive Grazing
Ask a rancher how they reduce stress and improve their grazing and rangeland health, and they’ll quickly cite talking to other ranchers and attending grazing improvement events.
“Ranching For Profit’s Executive Link program, the South Dakota Grassland Coalition’s Grazing School, NRCS Range Cons and great help from ranching mentors all helped save my ranch as I’ve shifted from conventional grazing to regenerative grazing,” says Dugan Bad Warrior, who runs Zuya Sica Ranch near Dupree.
“These schools shifted my paradigm about managing grass, developing profit targets, running scenarios, dealing with stress and just opening my mind to ranch diversity opportunities,” he adds.
Dugan Bad Warrior quickly learned that returning home to implement a regenerative grazing practice wasn’t easy. “I failed miserably when I began in 2016, but thankfully a tour at Pat Guptill’s ranch along with his visits that helped improve my paddocks kept me from not quitting and set me on a better path with less stress.”
Now in his sixth year of holistic management as a grass farmer, Dugan Bad Warrior cites continued grazing improvements thanks to NRCS and Executive Link mentors. His written grazing and drought plans, paddock map and water development, grazing charts, and A-B-C animal classes to ease culling decisions under drought have led to year-long grass rest and recovery.
“When animals change paddocks now, I try to leave 1,200 lbs./acre behind to rest for a year, and I may increase that to 1,500 due to the drought, so the grass recovers quicker,” he adds. And I can’t thank Pat and Bart Carmichael enough, along with other fellow South Dakota Grassland Coalition board members, for being great mentors—and helping educate many ranchers.”
Ranchers helping ranchers
Emily Helms, NRCS State Rangeland Management Specialist, says their rangeland management specialists are great mentor examples. Ranch visits provide clues on how to build healthy pastures and paddocks to achieve healthier grass overall.
“Dugan Bad Warrior is a great example of a rancher who used mentor resources to build rangeland focused on the three R’s (Rest, Rotate, Recover). His efforts continue to improve soil health and water infiltration and bring back more warm-season grasses for long-term benefits,” Helms says. “Now, Dugan has come full circle as he is mentoring other ranchers and sharing his story at the grazing school.”
Another Grassland Coalition board member, Jim Faulstich of Day Break Ranch near Highmore, came full circle decades ago and now enjoys giving back by mentoring ranchers and learning from each other. “I’m also envious of today’s ranchers due to all the available grazing schools, events, mentors and resources that were lacking during my early years,” he says.
Faulstich’s early 1970s ranching experience saw him on the financial ropes, knowing he had to make a business model change. “Fortunately, I hired a retired NRCS range con who did a ranch inventory study and made recommendations that opened my eyes. It was my first exposure to a mentor, and it started me down a successful path to building a network of like-minded people who gave me great strength to turn our operation around.”
Changing old ways
This different thinking led to a complete shift in philosophy. Faustich converted some hayland acres to grazing use. He also began improving rangeland health by spring-grazing specific pastures that could deliver more native warm-season grasses, legumes and forbs. “Instead of moving animals based on convenience and pounds of beef production, we took a holistic approach based on natural resources,” he says.
Attending Ranching for Profit school solidified his new philosophy to make profitable decisions instead of actions based on inputs without looking at all resources. “As we added paddocks and water to increase grazing intensity, the added rest and recovery improved our rangeland health, which brought in more wildlife that began causing damage. This issue led us to start a few hunting enterprises to reduce damage, which really moved our profitability forward,” Faulstich adds.
Other practices that help make this adaptive grazing holistic system work are the flexibility of paddock sizes with electric fence and moving to May calving on grass instead of March. “Management flexibility is critical because you can’t outguess Mother Nature. For example, we sent the yearlings away this year as we were in a complete drought management phase. Then we literally went from drought in April to good grass in May and June, only to lose a significant amount of our grass to hail on July 5th.”
Benefits of cropland
Along with his cow-calf and yearling business, cropland is another enterprise diversity. A long-time no-tiller, Faulstich grows corn, sunflowers, oats, alfalfa, cover crops (short and full season) and occasional wheat acres.
“We seed numerous cover crops on cropland to keep our soils healthy and covered year around. And we’ve converted some marginal cropland into season-long cover crops using warm season natives for valuable winter grazing,” he says. This added diversity and flexibility takes the pressure off our cool-season pastures to stimulate the comeback of warm season natives, adding to overall profitability.”
Faulstich credits his success and profitability to ranch diversity he’s learned and implemented thanks to countless mentors and ranching schools. “Being on the board of the Grassland Coalition is a valuable network. Our grazing school has helped many ranchers, and I can’t say enough about the importance of NRCS being a frontline partner in financial and technical support,” he adds.
Find your group
As these ranchers prove, seeking like-minded mentors is invaluable. Faulstich recommends the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition list of rancher mentors by topic and the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition’s list of farmer and rancher mentors. “Along with the schools mentioned, don’t forget the power of networking at various pasture walks, the Leopold Conservation Award tours, livestock and crop groups and many wildlife organizations—both in-state and surrounding states,” he adds.
For further inspiration to drought-proof your ranch, check out “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” and “Pray for Rain, Plan for Drought.” In addition, 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.’
This feature is the fifth of a six-part series of articles showcasing how many ranchers have moved away from season-long grazing in a few pastures to a more adaptive and productive grazing system. Understanding the steps in their journey–– along with grassland specialists’ recommendations––can put you on the path to a less stressful, more profitable operation.
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