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40 Seasons: How it pays to be an unconventional rancher

Cover crops give Barry and Eli Little more options for grazing cattle – and cutting costs.

Barry Little and his son, Eli, love to talk about soil, cover crop programs, and grasslands. They know their operation, the Blue River Ranch, Hamlin County, South Dakota, is considered unconventional by neighbors.

“It’s definitely not the way everyone else is doing things on their farms,” says Barry. “For instance, we don’t use creep feeders because we believe that a calf should start to eat grass as soon as its rumen is able to digest grass. We wean lighter calves, but we haven’t spent a dime on feeding them anything extra either.”

The Littles leave the calves with their mothers for eight to nine months. “A lot of folks say you got to pull that calf off so the cow can get her health back before the winter sets in,” says Barry. “But the way our cows eat, they actually gain weight right up until that very cold weather hits in January.”

If anyone argues with their methods, Barry and Eli take out pencil and paper and compare costs. For example, they aren’t hauling manure out of the barnyard, because their cows are out on grass. “We’re pretty certain that our cost per day is lower than anyone else’s,” says Barry.

Healthy soil is top priority

Eli and Barry have been farming together since 2013, growing corn, beans, wheat, and cover crops. They raise cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens. “Our No. 1 priority around here is healthy soil that makes for healthy animals and healthy food,” says Eli. With rotational grazing, they’ve seen big improvements in the soil, and a diversity of plant life that never was there before. 

They started planting cover crops seven years ago, and that has given them more options for grazing late summer and into the fall. They can get the cattle off of the pastureland earlier, which allows it to grow better in the spring. They can also do some stockpiled grazing in the winter. “That allows us to build up those pastures and build up healthy soil,” says Eli. “We go out into these cover crop fields and we see so many pheasant broods and deer.”

They plant a seed called Brood Mix, which was developed by Pheasants Forever and the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department. The combo of 15 plants that bloom all summer help more chicks survive, says Barry. Bugs attracted to the plants provide the insects chicks need while they’re growing. “It’s also is a great place for pollinators. We now see lots of bees showing up in those fields.”

Switched CRP to pasture

Barry and Eli attended seminars on grassland rotational grazing programs, and learned ways they could improve their operation. By taking their CRP land and putting it into pasture, they qualified for some NRCS and Game Fish and Parks programs that led to cost-sharing on the installation of water lines. 

They have 1-inch plastic pipe servicing all the paddocks. One water line serves both sides of the fence and one centralized well supplies all the paddocks. “Our animals are drinking the cleanest water there is,” Eli says.

The Littles’ bottom line is positively affected by the changes. Cows stay out on the pastures long into winter months, feeding on cover crops. They don’t come into feedlots. That saves money on spraying weeds, and on fertilizer.

“Regenerative agriculture is the new buzzword we’re involved in,” says Barry, who has a degree in microbiology from South Dakota State University. “It’s all about the microbes that live in the soil. You need to feed the microbes, because when they grow and reproduce, they benefit the soil as well as the livestock that graze on it. There are microbes in the soil and in a ruminant’s gut that do amazing things. If you’re doing a good job of regenerative agriculture, eventually you should be able to stop putting any fertilizer on those fields. That would be a tremendous savings every year for growing corn, soybeans, or wheat.”

When Barry’s dad bought the farm in the 1950s, it was all crop ground. “He struggled for 20 years to farm it,” Barry remembers. “He put most of it into CRP, so it stayed that way for about another 20 years.” More than a decade out of the CRP, the pastureland has better diversity in the plants.

“We get a little more forage out of it every year,” says Barry. “We attribute that to rotational grazing. We try not to have the cattle on a given paddock for more than 48 hours, and then they’re moved. That paddock gets to rest for at least 30 days. We’re seeing a lot of native warm-season grasses show up in pastures that have never been seeded. When I was a child, those species weren’t out there. It’s exciting.”

With the work the prairie plants are doing on the soil, water infiltration is excellent. “We’re at the point where we could take torrential rainfall and it would all soak in instead of running off,” he says. 

River banks into easement

The ranch is in the Big Sioux River watershed. About 14 years ago, the family put all of the land on the banks of the Big Sioux into an easement. That land can’t be grazed or farmed. Fences were moved back 180 feet on each side of the river to reduce runoff. No livestock can go into the river.

“The fact that all the rainfall that comes our way goes into the soil instead of running off, means that the water going down the Big Sioux River is clean coming through our land,” says Eli. “The more farmers and ranchers that change their agricultural methods, the cleaner the water is going to be.”

The mantra Barry learned in grazing school was, “I will not be afraid to waste grass.” That is the toughest thing to overcome when you start intensive grazing, he says.

“If you put 300 cattle in an 8-acre paddock knee-high with grass, within two hours you’ll think there’s a lot of wasted grass out here because they’re just trampling it into the ground. But that is exactly what the landscape needs. It needs the grazing animal to eat half and pack the other half back in the ground to cover it up to be converted into organic matter. Then the soil will not dry out, because the top is covered with a soil armor, allowing the plants to regrow quicker. Everything about it is good for the landscape. But it’s really tough on the rancher,” he says, laughing.  

Since the animals are out in pastures all winter, they stay in good health with the traveling and exercise. The Littles have fewer calving problems than they did when the cows were in a barnyard all winter.

The system also allows more time with family. “Now I get to spend time with the family, which seems a lot more important than it used to be,” says Barry. “It’s wonderful. When I’m gone there might be a legacy here, and it might go on for a few more generations.”

Not bad for a couple of guys who are doing it all wrong.

About the 40 Seasons series: Farmers typically get 40 growing seasons in their lifetime. That's 40 years to hone practices, preferences, and perspectives. This series highlights the connection between farmers and younger members of their operation.

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