The economic value of rotational grazing
Lance Vilhauer pops open a fence gate and strides through dew-laden grass into a pasture. He checks his cows and calves as the sun crests over a slough filled with cattails and raucous ducks. He examines grazed grass stalks, rolling them through his fingers. “What really turned me onto rotational grazing was the economic value of it in dollar signs,” he says. He ought to know. Vilhauer is a banker.
“If we do rotational grazing, I automatically should be able to put so many more pairs – cows and calves – on a piece of pasture,” he explains.
Another benefit, he says, is how the grass responds to drought. It was dry in 2012-14 on Vilhauer’s ranch, located less than a mile from the North Dakota border in northeast South Dakota, near Long Lake. “With the rotational grazing system, our grass had a chance to rest and it responded so much better compared with neighboring fields that were grazed during that long season.”
He grabs another handful of grass. “This grass makes the most of what moisture it does have so it will perform better,” says Vilhauer. “By using our rotational grazing system, the grass can rest for 30 to 45 days at a crack before we bring cattle back around to it. They’re getting turned into a pasture that’s got a fully charged battery. When you see that nice lush grass – even during the middle of a drought – you know you’re doing something right. Those cattle are just licking their chops every time they see my pickup.” He laughs. “They know. They’re excited, and I’m happy to see them get excited.”
Vilhauer and his brother bought their quarter of land from Ducks Unlimited in the fall of 2007. His family has purchased several pieces of land from Ducks Unlimited over the years. The land has to stay in grass, with the options to graze it year-round or hay it after July 15.
Vilhauer is grateful for his job as an ag lender at Plains Commerce Bank in Aberdeen. “Especially in some of these tougher economic times, having that nonfarm income is so critical to helping the farm side of things get up and off the ground,” he says.
The spring of 2008 was the first year he calved out pairs and started running cattle up here. Calving takes place on his parents’ main farm operation, near Mina, South Dakota. “I’m forever grateful and indebted to my parents,” says Vilhauer. “If they hadn’t gotten into the farming and ranching business, there’s a very low chance that I would have gotten into it and found myself able to do what I’m doing today.”
His introduction to rotational grazing began in 2012 when he started working with the local NRCS office. He was looking at ways to improve efficiency on pastures and learned about cross-fencing and adding rotational grazing to the mix. “Since we started with the rotational grazing, we’ve improved the grass structure, the production of the grass, and the production and the performance of the cattle.”
Valeree Devine works with Vilhauer in her position as an NRCS district conservationist in the Ipswich field office in Edmonds County. “He’s open-minded and willing to take our information in and learn from it,” she says. “He always is eager to know what species of plants are in his pastures and how they function, how to best utilize them.”
Challenge the grass
Switching up grazing seasons is an important test for species, she says. “We want to see how that grass is stimulated by change. If we do the same thing over and over again, the system can get lazy, the root system gets lazy, and it only grows as deep as it needs to. We want it to perform the way we need it to. By throwing it a curve ball, we see a deeper root system, which leads to more infiltration on our grasslands.”
Seeing her clients benefit in their pocketbooks or on the land with better grass coverage makes her feel good, say Devine. Not every idea pays off. “Sometimes we hit it out of the park right away and see a good response. Sometimes we make mistakes, but utilize those mistakes with clients to learn from them and tell others what not to do. Sometimes our water development isn’t properly placed, and by placing it in a new location maybe we can better utilize the grass,” she explains.
When land expires from the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), she would rather see that land continue into a grass system. She and Vilhauer worked together to put perimeter fence around once such piece of land, with 360 grazeable acres, splitting it in half. It had a working well, so they worked to pump from that system to a central location for a watering system.
“It was pretty eye-opening. Land coming out of a CRP is oftentimes a low-managed system with tired grass,” says Devine. “But within a couple of years that grass took off and responded.” Adding cattle at the right time to trample the grass puts it back into the soil for the microbes and organisms to break it down, she explains. The root systems are able to go down deep, the rhizomes spread out, and the grass flourishes.
Vilhauer grazed it hard for two months and then gave it three months to rest and rejuvenate. “It should be in great shape come next spring,” he says. “It’s exciting to see how it’s going to respond.”
There are many tools in the grazing toolbox, says Devine. “Some clients like to look at prescribed burning, some like to look at changing ways of grazing. When the buffalo ran through here, Mother Nature would throw a lightning strike and she’d burn the grass. What we’re trying to do is to bring natural effects into our system to stimulate growth.”
For example, if there is a huge onset of Kentucky bluegrass, she will put more head of livestock on a pasture early. “We can graze that area hard early in the spring, and then see what kind of native and warm-season grasses show up later in the season,” says Devine. “We try to mimic Mother Nature as much as we can with the use of cattle.”
With high-intensity grazing, Vilhauer is putting more pairs into a smaller paddock to get a more even graze. “They don’t just camp out on their favorite grasses, chew that down, and then leave some of the less desirable plants,” he says. “With more head in that paddock they’re forced to graze their second- and third-favorite grasses more. We get an even graze and don’t waste grass that way.”
Using water correctly
As a skein of blue-winged teal screams over the pond toward a landing near cattails below, Vilhauer watches them settle in. “One of the unique characteristics of this property is the fact that it has a natural spring on it,” he says. “It is worth its weight in gold. The spring starts in that cattail slough, and after it comes up high enough it forms its own little stream, which ends up forming its own little creek.”
He once used it to water cattle, but didn’t like the erosion, so closed it off. “I make the cattle come through on a higher spot of ground just for the aesthetics. Now they don’t muddy up the water in the stream. It makes you feel good when you know you’re doing something that is better for the property to keep it looking more pristine,” he says.
Vilhauer’s ranch sits in the McPherson County Hills, a topographically unique area with large tracts of native prairie. The sandy and gravel-rich soil makes it cattle country. “It is one of the last ecosystems that’s still in its natural state,” he says.
Wildlife flourishes out here. Ducks, geese, grouse, pheasants, jackrabbits, and deer are prevalent. Skunks and badgers turning over the sod in the pastures looking for grubs used to irritate Vilhauer, he says, “but now I realize it’s a sign that if you’ve got good grass, you’ve got good grubs, good worms, and good health below the ground.”
Turning up the topsoil helps plant diversity, he says. “God and the animals, they know what they’re doing. Just let them do their work; they’ve got it under control,” he says, smiling.
Running the numbers
Vilhauer’s banker-businessman side emerges. He can run more cows on fewer acres with rotational grazing. “You take off 0.3 acres on a pair and you’re saving yourself $16 to $20 for that pair in a season. Multiply that times 300 head of cattle, and it ends up being your margin for the year.”
It’s not all about the money, he acknowledges. “Most cattlemen and ranchers feel an emotional attachment to the land they’re on. You can’t help but fall in love with it,” he says, leaning on a pasture gate. “When you see the cattle grazing and thriving, putting on pounds, and the grass responding, you know that you’re doing a heck of a good job.”
His wife and young son and daughter sometimes come with him to check on the cattle. His son has a toy tractor he rides. “He’ll be bombing around nearly buried up to his eyeballs riding through the tall grass,” says Vilhauer. “They love all the wildlife. They go down by the stream and chase frogs, watch the birds, look for fish. It gets them out into nature and away from a screen,” he says. “They get some good physical activity! It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that. It always turns into a family event.”
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