Tips for Grazing Rotations and Multispecies Grazing
If rancher Dan Anderson has learned any lesson the past couple of years, it probably would be titled, “Give It A Rest.” That doesn’t apply to humans, livestock, or cattle dogs; it applies to grass. By learning to give his grass a rest, Anderson’s ranch is undergoing a transformation.
Anderson and his wife, Sharon, raise sheep and cattle near Meadow, South Dakota, population a dozen or so. The town has the distinction of being the farthest point from a McDonald’s in the continental U.S. No Big Mac’s here, but it is home to flocks of prairie birds and herds of pronghorn antelope and mule deer.
Anderson’s hand grabs the horn of his well-worn saddle as he swings down from his horse, boots creaking in the stirrups. As he dismounts, he explains the ranch’s grass transformation. “When we worked with Ryan Beer at our local Natural Resources Conservation Service office to develop a grazing plan, one of our main focuses was to retain as much rainfall and moisture on this ranch as we could.” It’s working.
“We’re in a fragile environment here,” he explains. Rains vary each year. The ranch usually gets 14 inches of moisture per year, but some years see one third of that. “We have to be careful not to overgraze and lose what little topsoil we have,” says Anderson. “We’re using a multispecies grazing method, grazing both cattle and sheep. There is an overlap of 40% of what sheep and cattle consume, leaving quite a little of what one species over the other doesn’t eat. We try and take advantage of all the stuff we do grow on this ranch to provide income for us.”
Winter grazing is important. The Andersons formerly fed about 2,500 pounds of feed per cow to get them through the winter. That now has dropped to about 700 pounds per animal.
“We try to graze as much as possible through the winter, but it all depends on Mother Nature,” says Anderson, looking out over the prairie. “We used to feed six months out of the year; we’re now down to two and a half months. The sheep get only a little corn supplement during the winter months, so they graze all year. The reason we can do that is because we give the grass a rest, so it can regrow and produce more forage for us. It’s amazing how much we can stockpile by giving the grass a rest and not overgrazing. We stop animals from taking second, third, and fourth bites out of that plant when it’s trying to regrow.”
Big white dogs, a cross of Great Pyrenees and Akbash, walk through the flock, almost perfectly camouflaged among the sheep. Their job is to keep the flock safe from predators, mainly coyotes. Anderson watches them weave in and out of the flock.
“We were at six pastures when we started; we’re now up over 60. We give the plants more rest, thereby developing more root systems, all to help get our subsoil moisture at a higher level. We always give a pasture 45 to 60 days rest before we graze the next species. That way, we’re utilizing grasses that one species or the other doesn’t use,” he says.
Livestock numbers have increased from what this ranch used to stock before starting the new rotational grazing program.
Anderson sums up his philosophy on his new grazing methods this way: “By doing what we’re doing, by increasing our numbers and increasing the production of this land, we can afford the next generation a chance to produce food for the world.”