Content ID


How grazing management transforms grasslands

Justin Thompson got his start with ranch managing on his own in July 1998 after moving off his family ranch near Akaska, South Dakota.

He was hired by an absentee owner to develop a bison and quarter horse ranch, but a poor bison market and bad 2002 drought eventually forced its sale. 

“The last years I worked on the bison ranch were so dry that we were nearly every day herding the buffalo into different areas to keep them from leaving,” he recalls. “There was no grass. You could go across that ranch as fast as you wanted to drive, because you could see every hole and every bump. We just didn’t know how to fix the problems that were there.”

Thompson, who was eager to continue ranching, was able to purchase his own land with the help of the absentee owner who gave him his first shot. Thompson, his wife, Micki, and their kids are living the dream, working together on the ranch.

“We’ve been given this amazing opportunity to raise a family while I’m managing these grasslands and be able to make a living doing it with a chance to improve the land that’s there,” he says.

Mitch Kezar

Preserving the Land

Within the sprawling acres of the Thompson Ranch near McLaughlin, South Dakota, are dramatic differences in soil, plants, and water. Taking care of the grass is both a privilege and a responsibility to Thompson.

Ryan Beer, a rangeland management specialist in the northwest part of South Dakota for the National Resource Conservation Service, has helped the Thompsons for close to 20 years.

Together, they have worked on their grazing plans and development of natural resources through cover crops, bale grazing, grazing rotations, plant identification, and more.

“I remember Ryan first coming out and advising us,” Thompson recalls. “There were only three pastures on the whole place, so we started building cross fences and I started attending grassland schools, which I enjoyed. I got really excited about improving the range.”

The benefits of developing the land’s natural resources are not only for the ranch operator, but for the original inhabitants of the land, the wildlife.

“When there’s nothing left there for anything to eat, of course the wildlife aren’t going to stay,” Thompson remarks. “When you rotate pastures, cattle are out of the nests and all the places where we often see deer with fawns. We actually had elk this year that stayed all winter. That’s something that certainly wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t forage there for them. I can’t say we managed for elk, but we for sure see the benefit and really enjoy them here.”

They have also located three leks where prairie chickens dance during the mating season — a relatively new phenomenon.

Water retention and use is another key component to the healthy ecosystem on the Thompson ranch.

“We added pipelines to the wells that were there, following Ryan’s plan to get the most efficient water line to the places that needed it,” Thompson explains. “It was probably 19 years ago that we did the very first EQIP contract to start building a cross fence, adding water lines and tanks, and we started changing our season of use and our rotation.”

Due to these changes, the eroded banks grassed over. They also converted a lot of the marginal cropland back to hay and eventually to grazing acres. That land has volunteer trees and native grasses growing.

“I used to think that this land wasn’t as good of a grass ranch as others. I didn’t see or think the potential was there to do what it’s doing now,” says Thompson. “I wouldn’t say we’re drought-proof, but since changing our practices, we can handle a dry year when before we couldn’t. I’m encouraged.”

One of the more noticeable changes on the Thompson prairie has been the continual lowering water levels on their stock dams.

“All of our dams have water levels many feet lower than before,” he says. “And it’s not like we were getting more rain. We were getting less. But dams aren’t spilling over anymore because there is more grass to stop them. The grass keeps the water in the soil.”

Mitch Kezar

Challenges and Advice

The biggest misconception Thompson overcame was that rotational grazing was too complicated and expensive to be beneficial. “I didn’t think I could do it,” he says.

Beer, who works with many ranchers, says, “My best advice for new ranchers is to talk with people who have already made some changes. At the NRCS, we’re happy to come out and work with anybody on ideas and plans. Building that first fence is usually the hardest, but you see the most benefit by just starting slow, by working your way into getting a good rotation.”

He also recommends the South Dakota Grassland Coalition and in particular, the mentoring program for information about fencing and pasture rotations.

“You get your best bang for your buck with the first fence you build,” Thompson says. “Once you see the results, that excites you, and then you want to get it all done as fast as you can.”

Thompson says that putting the pieces of the puzzle together through observation is most effective.

“When we started documenting grasses, taking pictures, and measuring the pastures as cattle went in and again when they left, we started learning so much more about what’s going on.”

Here is a list of one-liners that Thompson uses to guide his grazing management. 

  • What works in some places won’t work in another. Adapt the idea, don’t throw it out.
  • You can sell grass or use cattle to harvest it.
  • Take half, leave half. Make sure the leaf is there for the solar panel.
  • If you only rotate pasture once, at the least, change the season of use for each pasture.
  • Fence pastures according to species if they are growing in monocultures.
  • Think about how much hay to put up as a moving goal. It’s possible to put up too much and too little.
  • Range management is management, not just manipulating inputs.

Mitch Kezar

Treasures on the Ranch

“I love and appreciate the history of our ranch,” Thompson says.

There is proof in that history of past generations who lived, dreamed, worked, and faded away there. Walking those acres, the Thompsons have found petrified wood, seashells, tepee rings, medicine wheels, and arrowheads.

“We’ve found picket pins, axe heads, wagon parts, mule shoes, a Dutch oven that dated pre-1910, and deep wagon ruts, carved into the landscape from the toils of early times settlers,” he says."

Standing with his kids atop a bluff overlooking the rolling hills, he continues, “There are nine house foundations that I know of here, possibly built with their thought that this would be their forever home, for their children and grandchildren.” 

They’ve also found ridges of fences that were drifted over in the Dust Bowl days.

“We’ve have drilled post holes that hit all 3 wires 3 feet down and found mountains of rock piles. There are rusting threshing machines parked on the prairie in a way to suggest it may have been intended to be only a temporary stop – surely – we will try again next year,” he adds.

The railroad bed that is now their driveway is holding a few thousand spikes, that Justin says, “I am picking up one at a time with our tires.”

Wistfully, he adds, “From those clues I conclude this: We are here for a short time, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, it’s my turn to take care of this grass. The next generation with suffer with the consequences or benefit from the decisions we make right now.”

Read more about

Crop Talk