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Using Land to its Suitability

Darin and Jessica Michalski wade through big bluestem on a pasture just south of their ranch house near Willow Lake in east-central South Dakota. Bees buzz the tops of the bluestem’s signature turkey track seed pods as the couple’s boots punch through the thick grass wall. A whitetail doe bounds ahead, wheezing at their approach. Blue-winged teal lift off from a slough at the pasture’s edge then circle to land again, strafing the cattails, their wing tips whistling like little fighter jets. 

before the plow

Darin scans the ocean of undulating grass. “What inspires me about this prairie is thinking about what it used to be like.” Their land sits on the edge of the tall grass and short grass prairie in South Dakota. “If I could re-create it and see what it was like before the plow when buffalo roamed here, that would be so neat,” he says. 

The loss of grasslands impacts humans on a global scale, says Jessica. “It may not make the news as does the loss of the rain forest, for example, but the breaking of lands in the Dakotas alone has skyrocketed in the last couple years due to crop commodity prices. We need to remember that this land was native grassland when we inhabited it, and that it serves a huge purpose in our global ecosystem.”

Darin agrees. “Everybody needs to make a buck to keep the banker happy, but we need to look way down the road to see what’s going to be left here for generations behind us.”

Kicking the soft ground beneath his feet, erosion is the topic. “When we get a 7-inch downpour and I look in my ditch and see there’s no mud flowing, the water is clean and clear, that’s a good thing. When we get a 50-mph wind, I just thank my neighbors for their dirt,” he says, grinning. “That’s as close as I ever want to get to seeing what it must have been like in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. I’m not bragging, but our ground looks like it is supposed to.” 

Grass does that

The Michalskis run a 300-head cow-calf herd, weaning calves in the fall and then backgrounding them to about 900 pounds. They farm 1,200 acres of cropland, including alfalfa, oats, corn, and soybeans. They added the oats four years ago for diversity and weed management.

They’ve built up their cattle herd on the marginal land, turning more tillable acres into grassland. They plant several types of cover crops, including rye and oats.

“I’m not afraid to try different things to see if they work,” says Darin. “You really can’t have too big a failure with cattle. If we don’t graze it, I can always cut it for hay and get pretty good tonnage and either sell it or feed it. We are also controlling weed outbreaks, such as water hemp.”

Rotational grazing is huge for the Michalskis. “I don’t push the ground that hard by trying to squeak an extra acre out or put an extra cow on an acre,” Darin says. “I’m not really in it to maximize the grass, to push the numbers that hard. I know what it can handle, and we strive to manage it for the entire grazing season.”

The operation has grown over the years, with help from their progressive-thinking landlords. 

“Landlords cooperate with us by allowing the planting of their marginal farm ground back to native grasses,” says Jessica. “It’s amazing how great that land is now. The tilling of those grounds was not that profitable. Our landlords have been integral in the changes back to grass we’ve made.”

It’s not about the mind-set of how many cows they can graze per acre, says Jessica. “It’s about the health of grass and soil, and the sustainability of the resources. That helped us to improve our operation and bottom line. It’s something we continue to work toward.”

All-day buffet

The variety of foodstuffs available for grazing is like an all-day buffet, says Darin. “I started with a monoculture of big bluestem, which was a good step, but there’s only one thing there for the cattle to eat. Since then, we’ve been planting a lot more varieties of grasses.” 

Their management practices have brought back native plants they didn’t realize were present in the plant community. Wildlife, too.

Jessica looks at the horizon and says, “When we go to the grazing lands, we see duck nests coexisting perfectly with grazing cattle.” 

The natural wetlands on their ranch offer even more benefits to the environment, says Darin. “They’re here for a reason, to act as a filter. The wetlands don’t make us money, but as a natural resource they have a job to do.”

Jessica sees the value in wetlands. “We need to keep the water clean. We see neighbors spending a lot of money installing drain tile to reduce the impact of wetlands, and that isn’t something we believe in,” she says.

The ranch has many riparian areas next to stream channels with native grasses and plants to help filter nutrients and sediment.

Next generation

To the Michalskis, it’s all about their kids. Walking arm-in-arm through the morning light, Jessica nudges her husband and smiles. “Darin and I are celebrating our 18th wedding anniversary with three great kids. We couldn’t run this ranch without them. They do a lot of the labor, and they do a great job.”

They raised the kids to appreciate the land and work hard. “It’s great to take our kids out on the land and show them what the different grasses are, so they see the beauty of this earth,” says Jessica.

The land they will leave the kids is better now, says Darin. “We’re giving them more dirt than we started with. God made these native grasslands, and farmers came in with the plow and changed it all up. This land has been stressed by old practices, but we have better tools now. I want to give them what we had, but better,” he says.

He wants more grass and says, “In my wildest dreams everything here would be covered in grass.”

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