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Best practices for grazing government ground

The Rittberger ranch mixes private land with tracts in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Bob Rittberger (blue shirt) looks over a valley of rolling hills, pine trees, and prairie grass. A coyote yips in the distance. “When buffalo traveled here, it was rotational grazing at its best,” he says. “There were no fences for them. Now we have to make sure the livestock never stay at one spot too long. We keep them constantly moving around for the betterment of the grass. That’s replicating what it was like back when buffalo were here.”

Bob and his brother, John (right), run a cow-calf operation on their homeplace where their grandfather once ran a small dairy. Their grandparents homesteaded this land in 1909. Those milk cows kept food on the table during that era, and after the Rittbergers took over the ranch, they were able to buy more land, and moved fully into raising beef.

(Watch a video about the ranch here.)

Their operation is unique in that their ranch depends on a mixture of its own private land, checkerboarded with tracts of U.S. Forest Service land. About two-thirds of their operation is on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. “Without our leases on the grasslands, it would be pretty tough to make it,” Bob notes.

The ranch pays the Forest Service with animal unit monthly (AUM) fees, so much per animal per month. “We’re one of the few that use federal land and actually pay,” says Bob. “It’s a way of keeping the grass in check so it doesn’t get too long and tall.”

Their grazing management reduces the chances of prairie fires and improves the grass health. The family works within the Forest Service guidelines for land use.

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The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service work closely with the ranching communities in 16 Western states to ensure that public rangelands remain healthy, productive working landscapes; 50% of collected grazing fees that get deposited to the U.S. Treasury get returned to the Range Betterment Fund for on-the-ground range improvement projects. Some collected fees are also returned to the states for use in counties where fees were generated.  

An AUM or HM — treated as equivalent measures for fee purposes — is the use of public lands by one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. The grazing fee was determined by a congressional formula and took effect March 1, 2018. The fee applies to nearly 18,000 grazing permits and leases administered by the BLM and nearly 6,500 permits administered by the Forest Service nationwide.

The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land located primarily in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. The agency’s mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

The Rittbergers strive to see more Western wheat grass become more established, as well as green needle grass on their acres. “We want to leave it better than when we took over, and we want to see that the grass is thicker and more vigorous, replacing a lot of that buffalo grass. We hope to get a better grass cover all around,” says Bob.

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He kicks a boot in the dry earth. “Droughts are pretty much inevitable around here. We just have to expect it.”

From 2000 to 2007, the ranch experienced drought. “That taught us a lesson,” says Bob. “Since then, we try to leave half the standing grass. That practice has given us the best sustainability to get through a drought.”

They did have to sell part of their herd in 2006-2007. Looking into the softly blowing wind, John Rittberger says, “Drought is always on our mind. That never seems to go away. There are far more dry years in my mind than wet years. Drought is the biggest factor that we manage for.” 

Getting water to the cattle on an operation of this size, through hills, draws, and rough, drought-prone ground is a major challenge. They put in 20 miles of pipeline and bought their own trencher, because it was getting so expensive to hire people to do it. The pipelines give them security from drought. They now have water tanks in every pasture, so the cows don’t have to travel a mile or two to get to water. Fortunately, when they started adding water line, the fences were in place, so it was a matter of moving the cows from one pasture to another.

An added benefit to the pipelines for water was that it allowed the Rittbergers to fence off the riparian areas along the Cheyenne River. Keeping the cattle out of those areas led to streamside vegetation improvement.  

“The biggest change I’ve seen is the introduction of willows along the stream banks,” says John. “Even the cottonwoods have moved back in. Our stream banks are much more secure now.”

Looking over the vast landscape, Bob says, “We still have more fencing to do. We could split the pastures up if we can get approval from the Forest Service. Studies have shown that hoof impact improves the grass, so if we didn’t graze it and got into a big lightning storm, this could all go up in smoke. We hope we can do our part to help prevent the fires that will eventually come. Taking some of that grass off to benefit our cattle is where we all win."

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A change over the years in the landscape on their ranch at the edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills is the obvious proliferation of pine trees. “According to my father, when he was a child, there were no pine trees out here,” John says. “There were a sparse few some miles east of here but, pine tree encroachment on prairie ground has come on.”

The cost to control the growth has come primarily in labor. John’s oldest son used a chain saw to thin out trees. “The long-term plan for the forest area is to keep trimming and thinning,” says John. “Years down the line it does open it up for more growth. Our goal for grazing is to always leave grass. We love grass,” John grins. 

“I like looking out on a pasture that looks good even after we take cattle off.”

Shale is a concern in some areas. “We don’t dare overgraze on that type of ground,” says John. They rotate graze through summer and the winter. A lot of the ground is woody, so it is only grazed in fall, winter, and early spring. “We rotate around. Cattle are moving throughout the year.”

John chuckles. “Living out here on this ranch, I can honestly say I’ve never been bored. I might be angry, disappointed, and disgusted, but I’ve never been bored. If I didn’t have to make money at it, it’d be fun!”

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