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.


Lack of ideas, not so much.

It has been a long time since I have actually posted here myself, so I thought I better before you all thing I don’t do anything around here.  I’ve enjoyed delegating the website journal to the interns but I don’t have any here now, so it’s up to me.

In an industry as steeped in tradition and history as ranching, you might think not much changes from year to year.   That may be true on some levels, but in many ways it is false.  For our operation, there are constant changes.  We are always looking for new and better ways to do things.  Innovation and adaptation to the environment we do business in is as important to ranching as it is to any other business.

“Lack of money is not an obstacle.  Lack of ideas is an obstacle.”
Ken Hakuta

“Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”
Albert Szent-George

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”
W. Edwards Deming

These quotes, and others similar to them, have rolled around in my head a lot this winter.  I have some new ideas we’re trying out this year.  Here’s a few of them.

Tire feed dispenser
Last week I cobbled together a rolling grain feeder to supplement some corn and soybean hulls to the young cows.   They are still growing themselves, plus feeding the calf in utero, so they could use a little extra feed.  You can see the feed dispenser in the photo below.

Every time the tire goes around, a small pile of grain is left on the ground.  The cows clean it up very well.  The “feeding frenzy” where I feed with this also helps break down the old dead grass, allowing those nutrients to cycle and feed the new grass coming up.

Breeding Heifer enterprise
An new venture we’re trying this year is bred heifer development.  We’ve always done our own, but this year we are doing it with the intention of selling them.  Since we don’t start breeding until July 15, our bulls are unemployed during the month of June when most other ranchers are breeding their heifers.   I bought a load of heifers to breed in June, which will then be sold as bred heifers this fall.  This allows us to pull double-duty from the bulls, spreading their cost out over more heifers.  It also allows us to better match our forage supply with our cow inventory.

Wagyu genetics
This spring I’ll be calving out a group of heifers bred to Wagyu bulls.  It’s the first year we’ve done this.  The calves will be destined for white-tablecloth restaurants and the Japanese market.  These calves will be fed for about 500 days after leaving here in the fall to maximize their meat quality.  Over 95% of them will grade USDA Prime (about 3% of cattle grade prime normally, although our Angus calves have done up to 20%).  The immediate benefit to us is they are very easy-calving.  This makes it easy on the first-calf heifers and easier on me, not having to help as many deliver their calf.

Double-cropping forage & grazing
The slim (or negative) profit margins on some crops has caused me to try an alternative plan on one field.  We will plant oats and peas in the spring, cut it for hay in June, and then plant a multi-species grazing crop immediately following the hay crop.  Assuming we get enough rain, this second crop will provide high-quality forage next fall for our young bred cows.  It will feed the soil as well.  Multi-species cover crops help sustain a diverse population of below-ground organisms, which in turn keep the soil healthy and productive.  I’ve seen this done successfully on other progressive operations, so I’m optimistic it will work for us.


Not everything I try works out.  I could do a multi-part journal series on those ideas that didn’t.  But I always learn something – even if it’s just what not to do.  That’s still a success in my mind.

I’ve survived so far.

“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Edison

New innovation will make your haystacks grow!

Have you ever heard of a rancher giving his cows all the hay they will need for the entire winter on December 1?  Of course not, they would waste way too much of it.  Instead, cattlemen will spend lots of money to be more efficient at feeding harvested feeds.  It bothers us ranchers to see cows wasting a bunch of hay in the winter.  That's because we worked dang hard getting that hay put up, racing the thunderstorm to get it baled before the rain.  Then we had to fight the cold weather and the gelled-up tractor to get it hauled out to them, and now they are just pooping all over it and standing at the gate wanting some of that second-cutting alfalfa they know is in the yard.  Ungrateful cows!  So we buy bale rings, bale processors, feed wagons, feed-efficient bulls, etc in order to cut that winter feed bill.  Some solutions are cheap(er) such as bale rings (but the "haysaver" bale rings cost more, of course!).  Others are expensive to buy, and expensive to operate, such as grinders and processors.  And yes, these things help efficiency.  But none of those things make the haystack actually get bigger.  Few of them make the cattle healthier or gain weight better.  All decline in value over time. 

There's another "innovation" out there to increase feeding efficiency.  This innovation has the potential to do the following:

– decrease feeding losses by up to 30%
– increase animal performance
– increase the size of your feed pile (yep, you read that right!)
– make your feed stocks less suceptible to drought

Before I reveal this ground-breaking innovation, how much do you think that would be worth?  INCREASE the size of your hay pile?  That's crazy talk!  Less affected by drought?  30% less feed waste?  What kind of miracle machine or tool are we dealing with?   Where's the nearest dealer?

The tool is a really old one.  It's called "fence" and "water".  (Ok it's really two tools.)

Let's go back to that dumb rancher who gave his cows the whole winter's worth of hay on December 1.  How short-sighted of him!  Yet, how many neighbors do you have that do the exact same thing with their summer "feed"?  You see, the same rules apply – plus a few new ones. 

Fence and water allow you to restrict what cattle have access to.  Controlling the availability of forage the cattle have access to makes them eat things they might not otherwise.  This is akin to only feeding your cows a day or two's worth of hay during the winter.  You want them to "clean up" their plate before you give them more.  Same thing applies on pasture.  Season-long grazing averages around 20-25% harvest efficiency (that means the cow actually only eats 20-25% of the production).  The rest gets over-mature or pooped on.  That 20-25% probably comes from the same plants being grazed over and over again, weakening their root systems.  More intesnive grazing systems can have harvest efficiencies of 40-60% without damaging the plants being consumed.  The reason is that the plant has adequate time to recover before being eaten again, unlike the plant that is bitten off over and over again in the season-long system. 

Fence and water also allow us to place cattle in the right place at the right time, and keep the cattle from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  By allowing pastures adequate rest between grazing events, the quality of the feed goes up.  There will be less overly mature, unpalatable grasses.  The amount of feed increases as well, because the plants are able to develop more extensive root systems.  (This is where your "feed pile" actually gets bigger!).  When the grass has a chance to rest, it can compete with weed pressure better as well.  More developed roots allow them to weather droughts better, and absorb more moisture in wet years. 

Fence and water tanks decline in value over time too, just like other feeding equipment.  However, they increase the value of the land by helping the rancher to grow more grass and to harvest it more efficiently.  And they can cost substantially less than winter feeding equipment.  I would argue that a dollar wisely spent on summer "feeding equipment" could return ten times more than the same dollar spent on winter feeding equipment.

I hope more cattlemen start viewing their summer grass with the same attitude they do their winter hay.  It has the potential to be a real game-changer for many operations.