Cows and climate change

Recent stories on my news feed have made bold declarations about how cattle are even bigger contributors to climate change than they previously thought (they already thought they were bad).  Their conclusions are mostly focused on greenhouse gases – how much methane cows produce, and the carbon implications of raising cattle.  I’m not a scientist, so it would be presumptuous of me to offer my opinion of the data or research they are using.  I think I can, however, point out some data points that are absent from virtually every anti-cow article I’ve ever read.
Should cattle be removed from certain regions, namely those which historically have had large grazing ruminants like the Great Plains, what would the impact be on the other species that depend on their presence for ecosystem function?  Is it logical to believe that removing cattle would not have a negative effect on these environments?  What will be done to fill the hole left by cattle?  They provide biological and mechanical services which are critical to a healthy prairie ecosystem.  (Bison and elk, which occupied this role prior to European settlement in the Great Plains, are both ruminants, so the methane component would be similar to cattle.)  And there are other aspects of climate change that would be impacted by an unhealthy prairie – less plant growth (less carbon sequestration), higher soil temperatures (less below-ground biological activity & more evaporation), poor water infiltration (more erosion and poorer water quality downstream), to name a few.
Speaking of bison and elk, I have yet to hear someone opposed to cattle for environmental reasons say that the vast herds of bison and elk that grazed North America prior to European settlers were ever a problem, and their near-extinction was actually a good thing.   If the methane cattle produce is so terrible, would the bison not have been equally as bad?
I would agree with those who oppose cutting down rainforests to make room for cattle.  Wholesale change of an ecosystem by man is something that generally has consequences.  For those who wish to critique modern beef production, there is room for that discussion.  However, to completely write off all beef production as detrimental to the planet’s health demonstrates a lack of critical thought and understanding of how different ecosystems function.
There has to be a balance.  Any rational person believes this.  Unfortunately, the cows and climate change debate is as polarized and dogmatic as any topic you’ll find.  But really, it isn’t rocket science.  When man makes drastic changes to an ecosystem, it’s generally a bad idea – whether that be putting cows where they don’t belong, or removing them from where they do.  We need to become observers of nature and mimic what it does, rather than believe we have all the answers.  We might find a more nuanced approach is the right one.

Are You Wasting, or Building?

The simg_1323un comes up later in the morning and sets earlier in the evening, there are a few deciduous whose leaves are turning from green to the numerous colors they transition to. I’ve started wearing silk neck scarves in the morning and evenings when I’m working and sweaters and my hooded sweatshirt tag along with me everywhere. If you sum up what I just said, you can conclude that fall is coming. Another sign that fall is approaching, would be the South Dakota Grazing School put on by the Grassland Coalition. Before I get any farther I just want to make sure I say thank you to the Perman family for encouraging me to go.   I could write an entire journal just about the grazing school and my experiences and what I took away from it.


The students-when I think of school, I think kids but I can’t call people with gray hair kids can I?- were broken up into 5 predetermined groups that we worked with and discussed workshops with. One pupil stated that he had been approached by a neighbor who said he was wasting grass by implementing a rotational grazing system. Another student then said “are you wasting grass, or are you building land”? And that statement got me to thinking. Could you smell the smoke last week? Don’t worry; it was just the gears in my head burning the cobwebs out.


In a previous journal, I explained a “take half leave half” method of grass management taught to me by Dr. Smart during my time at South Dakota State University. I’ve learned that roughly a third to half of the root mass of a plant dies every year, and that that dead plant material is what becomes what we call organic matter in the soil. We need to leave some plant material above the ground so that the leaves can catch sunlight and develop new roots. So the rest of this journal I’m going to give you the 22-year-old explanation of why I think that the statement is right on point.


The New York Times wrote an article in 2002 about how the United States loses 2 acres of farm ground per minute due to urban sprawl. The trend lately has been that when a farmer wants more farm ground or loses some due to things like that, they find new ground to raise corn and beans on that shouldn’t raise corn and beans and other crops. I have personally witnessed the lost of almost 200 acres of grass when a neighbor burned a pasture, then broke it (used a tillage tool to break the sod and expose black dirt for cultivation). I wasn’t a math major in college, but I know that we lose a lot of land everyday and that there is something scary about losing that land. There isn’t any more land being created.


As a young man who wants to become the best land manager that he can, I know that I have to do everything I can to preserve the land I will operate on. My passion will always be horses and cattle, and they need grass. And as long as I need grass, I’m going to leave some. Everyone who manages land needs to keep conservation in the back of his or her mind. Whether they leave the grass for plant vigor and building land, wildlife habitat, or they want cover to catch snow, we need to all help conserve the land. Conservation is how we are going to ensure that my generation and generations to come will get their chance to live off the land.


Just some food for thought.


Keep your cinch pulled tight.



Thoughts from the Tractor Cab

Our regular readers were probably wondering, “When is that Rob kid going to post again?” Well folks, I’m back. And yes, Luke asked me how my journal post was coming along as an extra driving aid to get this journal done. To be honest, I had a pretty difficult time brainstorming ideas for this journal; and yes, I followed my high school English teachers’ suggestions of writing the intro last. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the tractor recently, and most of this was thought out in the cab while cutting or raking hay. So I hope this is enjoyable for you guys to read.


I’ve spent almost two and a half months here at Rock Hills Ranch now, and it would take me several journal posts to write and start explaining everything that I’ve learned and observed here. I’ve learned about range monitoring, different ways to plan out grazing systems, and a more. I wrote a whole journal post on observations, and there’s more than what I wrote about then. Some of the things have been brand new to me and some are good refreshers to my mind.

I was cutting hay down in what we call the flats-I told Luke and Lyle it’s more like you’re in a boat on the water with how the tractor rides-and I thought to myself “ What would the old time cowboys think about all the stuff we do here? I mean, what would they think of cross fencing, rotational grazing, how we run around to the different herds on 4 wheelers instead of horses, range monitoring and everything else we do?” and that made me sit and think. Why do we do all this stuff? So here’s Rob’s explanation of why we do what we do.

Cross fencing. If you ask just about any person my age what their least favorite part about cows is, 95% would say fencing. Fencing can be no fun at times. It’s hot, you’re swinging a post pounder driving in posts trying not to hit a subsurface rock, and you only have half mile more of posts every 20 feet apart. Old wire is brittle and doesn’t bend the right way, the new wire is a spring ready to go everywhere if you don’t take it off the spool the right way. I look at it as “if you’re gonna have cows, you’re gonna have fencing to do.” Here at RHR, I’ve been told that we have somewhere around 60 miles of fence and almost half is interior cross fencing. Why? Part of it is previous owners who divided it into smaller pastures and a big reason is so that we can keep the cattle in a certain area so that we can have a better utilization of the grass. On the other side of that thought is that we can keep cattle out of certain areas for different reasons.

Rotational Grazing. Luke and I move groups of cattle every week. Out of one area and into the next. Why? Grass. We move the cattle through the different pastures at different times for the grass. We know that certain species are more palatable at certain times of the growing phase. We run the cows in a big enough group that they shouldn’t be able to pick and choose what grasses to eat, instead they have to get a mouth full of everything out there. This is better for the grass because then one species isn’t taking all the abuse. In one of my range classes with Dr. Sandy Smart at SDSU, he compared and contrasted rotational grazing to season long(turn cows out in spring and don’t move them until fall) using two circles drawn on the white board. Both circles were divided into half, and on one side of both circles, Sandy wrote leave. He then explained how many land managers use a “take half, leave half” approach. Leaving half of the grass that is available allows the grass to have a chance to regrow healthily, provide habitat to ground nesting birds and small animals and a few other reasons. He then went to the season long grazed circle and drew a line dividing the half into two quarters. In the top quarter he wrote “trampled” meaning that of the half of grass you take, half of it will be stepped on, lay on, anything but ate. The last quarter he wrote “throat” meaning that only 25% of what grass was available, was actually eaten. The rotational grazing circle the 50% that was taken was divided into two unequal parts. For an example, we’ll say that instead of 25% being ate, you can increase it to 35-40%! This is because the cows aren’t allowed to be picky about which grass to eat; another 10-15% could be a lot of grass depending on the ground!   Rotational grazing also helps cows with more consistent weight gains, keeps nutrition more equal which plays into reproductive performance. The number one reason of why cows leave the farm is reproductive status according to university studies. There are more benefits to rotational grazing, but I’m just going to highlight a few.

4 wheelers and range monitoring. Anyone who knows me knows that I would pick a horse over a 4 wheeler just like the old time cowboys. The truth is, sometimes I have to get 5 miles down the road right now to get to the hay field. I also know that when we take mineral and salt to the cows, I’ve had several hundred pounds of it strapped to the ATV, or when we move cows, we pull a salt and mineral feeder sled behind the ATV and they can weigh a lot. And blah blah blah.. Enough on 4 wheelers, and more on Range monitoring. Each time we move cows, we do range monitoring. We use our handy dandy grazing yardstick, and head out. We try to find a place that is a good uniform representation of the whole pasture and take a picture. We then use the grazing stick to measure the height of the key species in the pasture-this is where Rob struggles because is this Kentucky Bluegrass? Is it Green Needle Grass? Side Oats Gramma? I’m getting better though!- We take these pictures and use them for record keeping. These records are used in grazing recording and planning, it is used in conservation programs that we do, and it helps them know what condition they have left the range in. We care a lot about the land and we want to make sure we aren’t abusing the resource we have.



Why do we do what we do? We do it to take care of the land. When we take care of the land, it takes care of us. Lyle and Garnet have taken care of the land so that Luke and Naomi can be here. I know that they are doing their best to take care of the land so that the kids can have a chance at taking care of the land. That’s what everyone involved in family ag operations do. They take care of the land for the next generation.

Why do we do what we do?

It’s not for us, it’s for them.


Keep your cinch pulled tight.