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Finding Balance for the Land
Chad Schooley keeps an eye on the past, but his rough farmer’s hands work in the present. His boots tread ground plowed by his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. With a mind on the future, he walks the acres of his Cabin Still Cattle Company in the rolling hills of Hamlin County, South Dakota, and looks for balance.
Sitting on the end gate of his pickup truck, young son Beau beside him, Schooley says, “I’m not a firm believer that we need to turn everything back into pasture, but we need an equal balance. If our farming practices continued like they were when our great-grandfathers were farming – where we plowed all the land every year, were losing topsoil, and had no trees – we’d be in a worse situation. We have turned the corner. We’re building the soil back up, and we’ve got our soil headed back to where it once was.”
The Schooley farm grows grass for cattle, oats for feed, corn, soybeans, and wheat. Cover crops are grown after small grains are harvested for winter grazing for cattle.
Schooley started converting tillable ground to warm-season grasses more than 15 years ago. Two years ago, he added cool-season perennial grasses as pasture for spring calving.
Learning the limits
There was a learning curve in developing the grazing strategies. “Once we started rotating cattle through the different paddocks, we could really tell we were stretching the capacity of the grass,” says Schooley.
They extended stocking rates by doing rotational grazing, and now they have three rotational grazing systems with up to eight paddocks in each one.
The native grasses he established show more promise than other varieties, with a better rate of gain for the cattle and a better fit for maintaining and improving soil health, he says.
Schooley’s plant community was previously diverse, but nonnative. He’s recently reintroduced up to five species of native grasses on what was tillable ground. Even when compared with very diverse native rangelands in western South Dakota, where over 200 species may thrive, he’s noticed more nesting habitat for waterfowl and pheasants.
“Practices we are using are becoming widespread across the country as more people are finding the benefits,” he says, leaning on a corral gate.
“One of my landlords let me convert his tillable ground to grassland. He appreciates the fact that we’re taking care of the land and making it better. For him, it’s not all about the economics. His land is marginal land, and now it’s doing a better job in grass than it was in tillable. We are getting close to the same monetary results as we were by tilling it.”
He says that when converting tillable land into grass, there can be lost revenue at first, but up-front costs are not as intense. Once grass is planted and established, costs go way down.
Water quality is another important subject. It’s tied to a healthy population of wildlife of all kinds.
“On our grazing system, one of the paddocks won’t get grazed late season and will have more cover going into the winter,” Schooley says. The leftover tall grass provides shelter and feed for wild birds.
“The riparian buffers are areas we no longer farm, so there are cattails coming into the creeks. Deer and pheasants live there all winter,” he says with a big smile.
Schooley no longer waters cattle out of the sloughs. He uses a central watering system instead. “That keeps cattle out of the wild bird nesting areas, so undisturbed nests produce flocks of young birds,” he says.
A buffer runs adjacent to a waterway, and a minimum width is 35 feet, with a maximum width of 180 feet on each side to qualify as a riparian buffer zone.
Water from a recent rain pours through a wetland area, making the waving grasses dance beneath the waters’ bubbling surface. The water runs clear as glass.
Schooley scans the marsh, noting his planted trees and shrubs that line the edges of the waterway. Most of the water runoff in the area goes into the Big Sioux River, the water source for Sioux Falls.
“There’s a big push to keep water quality better for their metro area,” says Schooley. “It’s their main drinking water source.”
leaving it better
Schooley is on the conservation district board for Hamlin County.
“I get to try to help make this land better than when we received it,” he says. “I help the next generation continue to be viable and keep farming this land.
“I wish everyone understood how many things are involved in grasslands, from wildlife to cattle, to bees, to water quality, songbirds, butterflies, insects, and the whole ecosystem.”
His is a fourth-generation farm. “I have two sons very involved in the farm. My hope is that they can come on board and be a viable part of it,” he says.
He watches the herd of Black Angus cows and calves grazing. “Our farm has been in the family a long, long time. My mom’s dad was a conservationist. He planted trees on contours and tried to conserve the soil. My dad bought the land from him, and now I’m buying it from my father. We are using new practices that take us in the right direction for the next generation.”
It doesn’t take long to plow up grass and plant corn, he notes. “What does take a long time is to reestablish grass and make good rangeland for cattle to thrive on.”