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Turning Marginal Cropland Into Productive Grass

Ranchers Candice and Dean Lockner might be called explorers – explorers of grasslands on their own prairie, one they brought back from marginal cropland, one that used to be home to millions of migrating buffalo. It all comes down to healthy soil.

Candice, arms outstretched, joyfully recalls their morning trip through the swaying grasses to monitor their herds of cattle. “We were surrounded by a barrage of butterflies, yellow and orange. It’s not just the butterflies, it’s the insects, as well, and all the birds. These are all indicator species of a healthy ecosystem.”

Dean chimes in, “We have seen an abundance of bobolinks, dickcissels, and meadowlarks, all grasslands birds, some that we had never seen before. They started showing up after we seeded our farm back to grass.”

Used to be Tilled

The Lockners raise cattle near the small town of Ree Heights, South Dakota, in Hand County. Their ranch is all in grassland now, but 25 years ago, when they took over, half those acres were tilled. Even though average rainfall is only about 16 inches, there were big problems with erosion.

There are 4 miles of gravel road that run the length of the ranch, and during high rain events or spring melts, water would run over the road in up to 14 places, says Dean. “Our topsoil was running away in the ditches. I wanted to stop that.”

They planted those acres to grass and have not seen the erosion since, he says. The grass acts as a sponge, and the water infiltrates the root systems and into the soil instead of running along the surface, taking topsoil with it. Big bluestem, for
example, has roots a foot deep.

The Lockners had limited knowledge of grasses when they made the original switch, so their first plantings were a monoculture of switchgrass.

“In the following seasons, other plants like bluegrass and brome grass – which are usually considered invaders – moved in,” says Dean. “That told us that the land does not like a monoculture.”

Since then, the Lockners have done some inter-seedings of common alfalfa, western wheatgrass, cicer milkvetch, and more.

“We’re trying to improve the plant diversity in the fields,” says Dean.

They move cattle out of pastures that hold a lot of switchgrass and big bluestem to give the plants time to grow and develop.

“We’re putting pressure on the grasses we don’t want, and we’re trying to increase the grasses that we do want,” says Dean. They use electric fencing to control how long cows graze each paddock.

There is always a plant that is at its peak nutritional value all through the grazing season, says Dean, and that leads to more productive animals.

“For instance, brome grass is a food source in the spring, but by mid- to late summer, the cows find it unpalatable. That’s when big bluestem is at its peak of palatability. It is the cows’ favorite,” he says.

The new prairie is also more resilient to drought, says Dean. “You should have seen this prairie just a week ago. It looked dried out and brown. We got a small amount of rain, but it all stayed on the prairie. You look out there now and it’s all recovered, beautiful and green already.”

Later calving

The prairie rebirth also changed the Lockners’ calving season from March and April to May and June. The change came about for three main reasons, says Dean.

1. It’s a lot easier to calve when you’re not in the middle of a spring blizzard.

2. A cow’s highest nutrition needs are right after she births her calf and is lactating the heaviest. “By mid-May, when the grass is growing at its peak, we have high nutrition from those grasses meeting the cows’ needs,” he says.

3. Instead of vaccinating calves for scours every year, they rotate the cows to different pastures during the calving season. “I treat only one or two calves a year for scours,” says Dean.

They’ve also reduced their use of insecticides on the cows. “Those pesticides go through an animal’s system and end up getting deposited in their manure,” says Dean. “You’re killing dung beetles and bugs that eat the manure and break it down. Killing the dung beetle is killing our ally in the war against flies.”

They are now in their third year of no fly control. “The cows are not bothered any more now than when we treated them,” he says.

It takes Patience

Working a farm into grass might not be for everybody, Dean explains. “Many times, with these native grass seedings, it can take two to three years before you start to see results. Now that we’re five to 10 years down the road postseeding, with some of these acres, the results are incredible. If you don’t have the patience that nature has, you will be unhappy. You need to change your frame of mind.”

Once perennial plants get established, you don’t have to reseed them annually, says Candice. It’s patience short term and payback long term. “You have healthy soil, healthy plants, insects and birds, and healthy cows.”

A lot of birds and pollinators are dependent on the habitat the plants of a native prairie provide, she explains. The ever-changing species of blooming native plants is the key to the survival of pollinators. “Around 84% of the crops we eat need pollinators, so they’re important to us,” she says.

The Lockners use biological control, including stem miner weevils and gall flies, on Canada thistle. 

“We’re seeing a significant success with just biological nonchemical weed control,” says Candice.

“It’s a natural innate human need to connect with the world around us,” she says. “When you can touch the soil, smell it, feel it, and see what it can do, you know that soil feeds and nourishes us to be strong and vibrant. The whole circle is healthy or not healthy based on our management decisions. Our contribution to soil health is incalculable.”

The Lockners saw what the land was like when it was farmed: The topsoil was in the ditch, and the road was washed out. “You see what it is like now – when the soil is healthy, the plants are healthy, the animals are healthy, and the water runs clean,” says Candice. “It’s beautiful.”

She laughs. “The people are healthy, too, because we’re always moving the cattle and the portable electric fence!”

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