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Cattle lessons learned from the drought

08/19/2013 @ 9:56am

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.

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