Lessons Learned South Dakota Style

I’m having a hard time trying to organize my thoughts for this journal entry.  I was told to write about what I have learned and gotten out of this summer.  But it shouldn’t be just about work.  I was told, “For example, maybe write about what it was like to live an hour and a half from the nearest Walmart.   People like to hear personal stories.”  When thinking about what I have learned or experienced, Walmart never once popped into my mind.  But here are a few things that did.

I learned that even if everyone says tick season is over, it never actually is.  I’ve been hearing this for the past couple of weeks, and two days ago I pulled eight off in one day, and one a day for the three days before that.  I have yet to get Lyme disease, but that is only by the miracle that no ticks have made it up into my hair where it would take shaving my head to find them.  I’ve also experienced my first chigger bite, or I should say my first dozen chigger bites. 

Just yesterday it was reinforced that I could do things on my own even if I have never done it before and if I felt like I couldn’t.  I went out to record the different species of plants that were found near the creek that runs by the driveway using something called the step-point method which is where you take a predetermined amount of steps in one direction and at the last step you look at what plant is touching your boot tip.  My plant ID has gotten better than when I first started here, but I still didn’t think it would be sufficient to name the plants I saw.  Another problem that presented itself was that the method I was using would have worked better in much shorter vegetation.  When I stepped what ended up touching my boot was a bent over piece of grass instead of the base of a plant.  I ended up trying to dig around to find exactly what plant I needed in order to be as accurate as I could, which was time consuming.  It was also frustrating when I couldn’t find the plant in the ID book I had with me.  But lo and behold, I completed my task and what didn’t get identified I took home for a second look-through with the book.  I’ve had many similar cases throughout the summer where I think to myself, “Luke honestly thinks I can do this alone?”  And most of the time it turned out that he was right. 

Most everything I did here probably took me at least twice as long as it takes Luke or Lyle to do, but it was all a learning experience for me.  I knew it before this summer, but it was reinforced that if you want to do something right, you may need to take extra time to do it.  And the extra time will be reflected in the output and its quality. 

Along with taking the time to do things right, asking questions is strongly encouraged especially if the answer will speed up your project.  I remember the first or second time I had to roll up the temporary polywire and something went wrong (actually something usually goes wrong when I roll up polywire, but that’s a whole other story).  Instead of calling the house and figuring out how I could do it faster, I rolled it up by hand which seemed like it took 2 1/2; hours, which it very well could have.  When I got back I showed someone the spool that wouldn’t turn for me, and easy enough they showed me how to make it turn which could have saved me an hour and a half. 

I learned to be prepared.  If I get sent out to do something on my own chances are that I would forget some critical piece of equipment.  Whether it was a spare pen to write things down if I lost the one I had (which happened more than once) or if it was a post pounder that I forgot I needed because 5 1/2; foot steel posts don’t just drive themselves into the ground.  Many times I was far from the thing I forgot, so I had to waste more time going back to get it.  Needless to say, I have been getting better at double checking my equipment before I leave the yard.

There is more that I learned, but I don't want to bore you all in one sitting.  Stay tuned for another exciting post about my experiences in South Dakota.

To be continued…

A Grazing Experiment

One very important aspect of running a ranch is knowing how much forage you have available to your animals and how much they will need.  I devised an Excel spreadsheet that uses these two things along with how big a pasture is to give an estimate on how long the cattle can stay in a pasture without overgrazing it. 

This came in really handy when we decided to do a little more intensive grazing with the heifers.  They got moved into a set of pastures that wasn’t grazed at all last year so there was an abundance of food available to them.  The goal was to try to get them to utilize more of the standing forage and trample the rest which would speed up the nutrient cycle and make more nutrients available to the plants next year. 

We wanted the heifers to stay in each small paddock for approximately three days.  I measured how much grass was available to the heifers by using a grazing stick.  It looks like a yard stick and it is used to measure the height of the grasses.  Then you take into account how much the grass weights per inch based on the type of grasses that are in the pasture, and how efficiently the cows will use this grass to come up with a number that tells how much grass will be available in the pasture. 

The next step is to take the number of cows that will be in the pasture and figure out how much they will eat in one day based on their weight.  Lastly, I knew that we wanted to keep the cows in a small paddock for three days, so using how much they would eat in three days and how much was available to them I was able to determine how many acres of pasture they would need.  It turned out that the heifers needed about 3 ½ acres for three days of grazing. 

We first moved the heifers to this pasture on July 3rd.  We wanted to make a paddock large enough to hold them for six days because we did not want to have to move them over the holiday weekend.  I built the temporary fence while Luke brought them over in the trailer.  We gave them range cake (pictured below) which is a large pellet-like treat for the cows.  If they get used to getting this treat you can use it as a tool to move them from place to place.  The goal is to get them familiar with the sound of the cake rattling in a bucket and then they will follow the person with the bucket because they know they will get a treat.  The first day we didn’t need to get them to follow, but we gave them cake to get them used to the taste.

On July 8th the cows needed to be moved.  I set up another temporary fence to create the south boundary of the second paddock, and the first fence that I put up would be the north boundary.  After that I had to herd the heifers into the penned in area by the water tank so I could put up a little lane that they would use to get back to the water tank and which would keep them out of the areas that they had grazed already.  Well, they weren’t yet as used to the cake as I would have liked, because they did not follow me.  In fact, they went the complete opposite direction.  I remembered that Luke told me once that cows will move better if they think it’s their idea to move.  So I let them go where they wanted because they would find a fence in about 500 feet or so.  So they wandered to that fence which was the farthest they could go in the wrong direction.  When they found out they couldn’t go any farther they slowly turned as a herd and went the other direction.  I then walked behind them and slowly but surely we made it back to the water tank and I was able to give them some cake and lock them in by the water so I could finish building my fence.  The whole process of moving them probably took me 45 minutes.  I’m sure it would have taken Luke 10. 

The picture below is of the first grazed paddock on the left and an ungrazed pasture on the right.


This is the first grazed paddock on the left and the second ungrazed paddock on the right.

These are the same two paddocks, just on the opposite sides.

I fenced the second paddock to allow for three days of grazing.  On the third day Luke and I went out to check the heifers and we realized they still had enough grass to graze one more day.  The next day I came to build the third fence, extend the lane, and take down the first fence.  I built the third fence which was now the south boundary for the third paddock.  I shortened the east and west sides by 25 feet in the hopes that it would cut the grazing time back down to three days rather than four.  The plan was to move the cows into the third paddock by unhooking one side of the temporary fence and then herding them to that corner where they would easily walk through the gap.  Not surprisingly, they did not want to go where I wanted them to.  So I let them go where they wanted like the last time hoping that they would get to the far side and then turn around.  About half way across the pasture they decided they wanted to go through the fence that was up.  The fence was not energized because I was working on it, so they did not get shocked when they went through it.  Another failed move. 

This is the second grazed paddock and the third ungrazed paddock.

This is a closeup of the trampled and eaten grass in the second paddock.  You can see that there is a lot of dead brown stuff, which is what we call litter from the plants last year.  This litter was not able to break down as well as it would have if there had been cows grazing it last year.  By stepping on it and adding natural fertilizer from the cows, it increases the speed at which it breaks down by getting it closer to the soil which contains all of the beneficial microorganisms that break down organic matter.

Finally on the third move I got it right.  By this time they were used to getting cake.  Several in the herd would eat it out of my hands, so I would lure those few in the direction I wanted them to go using the cake as a reward when they came my way.  Soon the rest of the herd was left behind, and being a herd animal, they didn’t want to be separated from the rest.  So eventually they all followed me to where I wanted them to go.  When we got everyone into the next paddock I gave them all cake as a reward. 

This is the third and final grazed pasture next to the ungrazed rest of the pasture on the left.

The pasture was big enough to make several more small paddocks, but Luke was going to be out-of-state for a week, and I was going to be gone for two weekends and for a Monitoring Workshop.  So we decided to turn them into the rest of the pasture, and then next year Luke could look at the differences in regrowth between the small paddocks the rest of the pasture.  

This is a view of the second paddock in the foreground, the third paddock in the midground, and the last ungrazed piece of pasture in the background. 

The next picture is a closeup of the area where a temporary fence was.  The cattle wouldn't graze under it because they could get a shock if they got too close.


Off the Ranch Learning Opportunites

I have to say a big thank you to Luke and Lyle for letting me out of work to go to three neat events throughout the summer so far. The first was the Summer Grazing Tour in Nebraska put on by Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition and Nebraska Cattlemen, the second was the Bird Watching Tour put on by South Dakota Grassland Coalition, and finally the third was Rangeland Days which was put on by Jackson and Haakon County Conservation Districts, SDSU Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Summer Grazing Tour in Nebraska was a great opportunity to learn about the different approaches conservation-minded ranchers can take to preserve and improve their ranches. The Gracie Creek Ranch grazes all year round and supplements the cattle when grass quality is lower than desired. This reduces their need for bales which saves them a lot of time over the summer months, and they actually graze their hay fields as if they were pasture land or sell it for a little extra income. They recently enrolled the entire ranch is USDA’s Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program to ensure the land is treated the right way for years to come. One thing they do exceptionally well on is drought planning. Every year 25% of their pasture is left to rest, or is deferred, during the growing season to ensure that there is always a good supply of grass for the coming year. They are not a traditional operation in the regards that they do not have cow calf pairs. They buy yearlings in the fall, feed them for a year, and then sell them the next fall. The heifers are spayed so they can stay in the same group as the steers. The yearlings are then divided into three size classes: the chicos, medianos, and grandes. Each group is moved to a new pasture every 1-2 days and each pasture gets grazed twice per year. A “take 1/4, leave 1/4” approach is used in their grass management because they believe it is better for the plants’ root systems which are essential in a dry climate. In the winter they can take a bit more when the grasses are dormant because it doesn’t hurt the roots as much. They use special software called “The Grazing Manger” that helps them determine when and where to move each of the three groups of yearlings.  The picture below is of some of the people who attended the tour.  There were approximately 250 attendees.

The Shovel Dot Ranch was the next stop on the grazing tour. Members of the Shovel Dot have attended holistic resource management schools which emphasize looking at the ranch as a whole, including the plants, soil, water cycle, cattle, and people, and they are employing these ideas of all of these things working together on their ranch. The Shovel Dot has turned to calving their cows later in the year which ultimately is good for them financially. The cows are able to get the best quality grass when they need it and the calves are able to get out on grass right away rather than waiting for it to green up. They have fenced out one mile of the river that runs through their property so the cattle do not damage the riparian area and water quality, and they have worked with the Nebraska Game and Parks Department to introduce geese and otters to the area. They are also focusing on pheasant and goose habitat on their land.  The picture below is of one of their pastures.  You can really see how sandy the Nebraska Sandhills actually are.

The University of Nebraska Barta Brothers Ranch has been used by students and staff of the University for research projects since 1998. The big research project that we heard about on the tour was plant, soil, and yearling weight response to different grazing systems on sub irrigated meadows. Some of the preliminary results showed that mob grazing created more trampling which incorporated more organic matter into the soil quicker. This is important for the soil’s ability to hold moisture, and can also reverse desertification. This study had been going on for three years now and so far there hasn’t been any differences in regards to soil carbon levels and soil microbial activity between the three grazing system treatments which were mob grazing, simple rotational grazing, and continuous grazing.

On the way back from the tour Lyle saw a rattlesnake sleeping on the highway.  I have never seen a rattler so we stopped, threw it into reverse, and looked at the snake.  Lyle wanted to know if I wanted my first rattle.  When I realized that meant killing the snake I said I could do without one.  Lesson of the day: you have to be in a pretty lowly populated area to be able to reverse on a state highway without any cars in the way.

The Bird Watching Tour was held at Rosemont Valley Farm near Montrose, SD, which is an operation that raises cattle and grows crops and vegetables. Most of the farm is composed of native pasture land. What I learned on this trip was how to use distinctive features of a bird to help me identify them, such as their size, shape of their body, flight patter, color, call, and what kind of habitat they are in. I learned that the major causes for grassland bird decline are habitat loss and habitat fragmentation which is mainly due to grassland being converted to cropland and exotic species being introduced. Another possible reason for their decline is that their entire population migrates to South America where the birds can be seen as a nuisance and are sometimes poisoned. As of 2009 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Breeding Bird Survey showed that 46 species of grassland birds were showing a decline.

Along with habitat fragmentation comes an increase in brown-headed cowbirds. The cowbird has been found to be increasing because it lays one egg per day in another bird’s nest and kicks out or pokes holes in the other eggs already in the nest, and then the original bird feeds the cowbird babies. They have been called “the mafia of the bird world”. These birds have also been found to destroy a nest that their egg has been removed from so that another bird will have to build another new nest. Cowbirds are especially attracted to shelterbelts and other wooded areas which is twice as detrimental for grassland birds because it is not the habitat they prefer.

Another topic of the bird tour was research. We were shown how to find nesting birds by having two people dragging a long rope between them. The birds would then flush up and by watching where they flew from you can then find the nest and count how many eggs are there and then come back to see if the nest was successful.

There was also someone there who had set up mist nets to catch birds as they are flying. The nets are very thin and hard to see and once the birds fly into them they usually can’t get out. I saw one bird that had flow into the net and that was then measured and banded as part of a research project. The bird was a trails flycatcher which is a small bird. The man banding the bird took its weight, approximate age, and gender and then put a small metal band with an identification number around its leg so if anyone ever caught it again they would know where it had been before. Before the bird was released it was laid on its back. This is not a natural position for the bird to be in so it just laid there calmly without so much as trying to wiggle a toe.

Along with talking about birds on the bird tour, we also talked about grassland conservation. There was an entomologist there who talked about dung beetles which I learned are extremely beneficial to any ranching operation. When many people think of dung beetles they imagine a bug rolling a ball of manure. That is correct, but incomplete. The female dung beetle waits by her designated area while the male can search up to 100 yards away for a dung supply to make a ball from. He then wheels it over to his lady and she deposits one egg into the ball and then drops it down a hole. She can lay anywhere from 50 to 100 eggs and the male she picked has to go fetch her a dung ball. But the poor male, if he is not fast enough “forever and always” doesn’t mean so much. She will pick a new man if she gets tired of waiting around. A dung beetle herd is said to follow so closely behind a cow herd that within a minute of the patty hitting the ground there are dung beetles nearby ready to harvest it. Now, not only are the dung beetles using the manure as a pillow for their eggs, but they are also fighting against flies at the same time. When a patty hits the ground, flies are on it almost instantaneously and laying eggs. When the dung beetle comes and starts making tunnels in the patty, that drastically lowers the temperature and humidity levels where the fly eggs are laying. This then delays them from hatching for up to two months, and then by that time there are so many other factors that come into play that the fly eggs may not even be viable anymore. Finally, the dung beetle is great for soil health as well as being a natural insecticide. When the beetle digs the hole to drop the egg and dung ball into they are recycling organic matter and incorporating it further down into the soil. This speeds up the nutrient cycle which allows the plants to have more nutrients available and the soil to be able to hold more water.

The last trip I have been on was to Rangeland Days. This was a good experience for me because I have never had the opportunity to learn how to judge range conditions. It was interesting as well as practical. I learned how to calculate a similarity index which involves knowing what kind of landscape position the site is on, and what kinds of plants are there. Then you compare the plants that are there to what could grow there under optimal circumstances. This then gives you a number from zero to one hundred. A higher number means that more of the site is considered to have the optimal kinds and numbers of plants. I also became more familiar with range plants which is beneficial for me here on the ranch. There were some plants that I have seen before because we have them in Wisconsin, but many of the plants were brand new to me, so it will take a little while for me to be able to remember them all.

The NRCS put on a demonstration at Rangeland Days and at the Bird Tour called the "Runoff Simulator".  Someone goes out and collects several different chunks of dirt and vegetation.  These chunks fit into a pan that is two inches deep and approximately 15 x 20 inches and the soil and plants are not broken up or disturbed once in the pan.  The different samples they took were conventionally tilled soils, conservation-tilled soils, native rangeland, and rangeland with introduced vegetation.  Then they "make it rain" by turning on a rotating nozzle.  Any runoff would be collected in a jar and any infiltration would be collected in another jar.  

The results were pretty astonishing.  Of course the conventionally tilled soil had a lot of very dirty looking runoff and little infiltration.  You could also see the erosion happening because the backboard of the contraption was white so you could see it gradually turning browner because the raindrops dislodge the soil particles.  The conservation-tilled soil held much more water and had very little runoff.  The picture below shows the difference between these two soils.  The conventional tilled soil is very dry while the conservation tilled soil held much of its moisture.

Another interesting result was that the pasture land with introduced vegetation did not hold as much water and was more prone to runoff than the native range land even though their plant densities were similar.  This could be because when non-native plants are introduced they are not compatible with the native soil microorganisms which therefore die off and contribute to poorer soil health.