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Cattle lessons learned from the drought

When little rain came last year to the Center of the Nation Cattle Company at Newell, South Dakota, the dry weather found a place well prepared by lessons learned from past drought.

In particular, a dry spell lasting from 2000 to 2008 taught ranch owners Steve and Kay Smeenk, son Jeff, and daughter-in-law Kim how to shore up defenses against dry weather. The family’s safeguards helped their rangeland come through last summer’s drought in good health.

“Our grass is certainly shorter than I’d like it to be,” says Jeff. “I do feel good about the grass reserve we had going into winter, especially in light of the fact we had hardly any rain and very little new grass growth all last summer. The root systems of the plants seem healthy and should respond to whatever rain we do get this growing season.”

Ranch activities are split between two locations: the rangeland and the headquarters. Cows winter on the headquarters, where the land comprises 750 acres for growing forage crops. Irrigated acres number 450; 300 acres are dryland. Winter feed includes forages such as alfalfa, oats, and sorghum sudan.

Calving starts in late February, early enough so calves are of some size and strength by the second week in May. Then, the entire herd is trailed 17 miles from the headquarters to 7,300 acres of native grasslands for summer grazing.

The native grassland is mainly western wheatgrass, gama grass, and green needlegrass. Buttes and rough country define the topography.

Because of terrain and distance from the headquarters, grasslands must support cattle without a safety net of farmable acres for alternative grazing if native forage runs out.

Lessons learned from drought led the Smeenks to implement a series of range-conserving practices. In recognition of their work, they were named regional recipients of a 2011 Environmental Stewardship Award sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Following are their seven conservation practices.

1. Adjust rate to conditions.

“A manageable stocking rate for us in good years is 250 cows,” says Jeff. “But we recently sold some, so our present number of mature cows is about 200. By the end of the drought in 2008, we were down to 180 pairs.”

2 Install pipelines.

Drying up of stock dams during earlier drought led the Smeenks to establish new watering sites.

With cost-sharing from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, they installed a 10-mile network of underground pipes fed by well water purchased from neighbors. A 20,000-gallon storage tank ensures a constant water supply. Serving as water tanks are 12-foot rubber tires.

3. Cross-fence to rotationally graze.

Rangeland is cross-fenced into six pastures. Each spring, the Smeenks start the grazing season in a different pasture, so from year to year, all pasture grasses achieve varying stages of maturity before being grazed.

Five of the pastures each provide four to five weeks of grazing before cattle return home around the end of October.

4. Rest one pasture each year.

Annually, one of six pastures receives a full year’s rest. During the 2012 drought, the standing forage in the pasture that was rested during the previous growing season contributed significantly to overall grass reserves. Standing forage more effectively conserved the small amount of rainfall, enhancing the soil’s efficiency of moisture use. As a result, new grass grew readily.

“We were able to graze cattle in the rested pasture 10 or 11 days longer than in others,” says Jeff. Because of that, they were then able to get a full season’s grazing from the entire rangeland without overstressing pastures that hadn’t rested.

5. Take half, leave half.

“Our goal is to build healthy root systems in the grass. So our rule of thumb is to graze half and to leave half,” says Jeff. “Because we managed the grass like that in previous years, our grassland went into the drought in pretty good shape. It was still in pretty good shape when we ended the season last year.”

Grazing more than half jeopardizes a plant’s ideal ability to regrow using leaves for photosynthesis. Without leaves, it uses energy reserves in the roots to produce regrowth, and this results in loss of vigor in the roots.

“If you leave half of the plant ungrazed, the vigor and health of the plant is optimal; it’s able to meet its productive potential,” says Mitch Faulkner, rangeland management specialist with the South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“When you remove a lot of the plants’ above-ground material, the roots start to die back,” Faulkner says. “This is harmful, of course, because having deep, healthy roots is what lets a plant draw moisture and nutrients from a broader area. Plants with healthy roots are more productive and more drought-resilient.”

6. Restock slowly.

After the prolonged drought ended in 2008, the Smeenks enjoyed three years of good moisture. In spite of rapid grass growth during that time, they rebuilt their herd slowly, letting grasses restore energy reserves in roots before being grazed more intensively.

7. Establish sites for monitoring.

With Faulkner’s help, the Smeenks annually evaluate range conditions, forage height, and species composition at fixed-point monitoring sites.

“Typically, when rangeland is stressed by overgrazing, the desirable plants become less competitive, letting less desirable and less nutritious plants compete for moisture,” says Faulkner. “In spite of drought, the productivity and plant-species composition of their rangeland is healthy. A lot of productive, desirable grasses show their good management from the past. If the drought continues, they will have the benefit of resilience in their rangeland.”

The Smeenks also keep an eye on long-term goals. “We do what’s best for the grass,” says Jeff. “That, in turn, benefits cattle. In the long run, doing what’s best for both helps us continue building a viable future for our family and the ranch.”

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