How rotational grazing helps in a drought

The Rohrbach ranch split 2,000 acres into 18 paddocks and increased herd size.

Jonathon Rohrbach (right) implemented a change-up in his rotational grazing plans on his Edmonds County, South Dakota, ranch and made a few happy discoveries in the process.  

When he split up three basic pastures that comprised the 2,000-acre spread into 18 grazing paddocks, he was able to increase his herd size from 175 pairs of cows and calves to 240. He also noticed that his operation was now much more resilient during drought years, and his biodiversity of plant life was increasing, benefiting the nutritional health of his herd, wildlife, the soil itself, and his bottom line.

It all started with that first fence

“That first fence is always the toughest to put up,” says Eric Rasmussen, soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “That fence was never there before, so it’s a change, and change can be hard. But it only takes a short time to notice a difference.”

It seems counterintuitive to take cattle off pasture when you still have grass in a paddock, explains Rasmussen, but that leftover grass gives a producer the opportunity to graze it right away next season. “It’s like free grass,” he says. “That’s how you know you’re going to have grazeable acres in the spring. One of the harder things for a producer to do is to leave some for next year.” It’s a take-half-leave-half-type of deal, he explains.

(Watch a video on the ranch here.)

In 2006, the ranch suffered a severe drought. Rohrbach enrolled in an EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) program sponsored by NRCS. The ranch put in 25,000 feet of water line, split pastures, and – through the new system of paddocks created – they were able to rotate cattle.

“It was a much more aggressive rotation than we used to have,” says Rohrbach. “My dad always had a three-season rotation. Cows went into one pasture in the spring, they’d get moved to another in summer, and into a third in the fall. In 2006, when we started the rotation, we did about a two-week-per-paddock rotation, then we’d move them on to the next one.”

In conventional grazing, cattle typically eat the plants they like first, leaving other plants untouched. This creates a patchwork of consumption in a pasture, and some areas get overgrazed as a result. With cows only in a paddock for a week, the cows eat most standing plants and the grazing pattern is more level and even, which give all plants in that paddock equal recovery time once the cows are moved. 

Now Rohrbach has 18 paddocks for the cows to rotate through, with seven days in each paddock before they move. “The grass has time, even with limited rainfall, to recuperate and be able to grow,” he says. “It also cuts down on flies, because the incubation period of the fly happens after my cows have moved on. They’re out of those pastures and are usually two pastures away before those fly eggs hatch out of the manure patties left behind.” Some years, he doesn’t use any insecticides.

Native species benefit

“The native species have been able to recover quicker now,” says Rohrbach. “You can see the big bluestem and other forbs. Now there’s a big variety of plants and vegetation for the livestock to choose from." 

Rohrbach’s grandparents started the operation in 1923. Today, he ranches with his wife, Sheena, and their son, Jadon. 

“We cherish and enjoy seeing the grasslands, the wildlife on it, and how the whole environment benefits from the grasslands,” says Rohrbach. “Ours is a little bit rougher ground, which makes it a little difficult to farm. My dad always said the cows are what bought most everything on the farm – not the farming!” 

ranch-potholes-cattle

Rainfall is always a challenge in their pothole area of South Dakota. “By maintaining our grass cover, we can hold what moisture we do get longer than we would if it were tilled ground,” he notes. “The native species that are in the ground with their deeper root systems make them able to hang on to that moisture that seeps down. Even after severe drought, with our rotational grazing system we have enough for our animals to eat without having to reduce the herd. I have had to purchase some hay for wintertime, but as far as my summer grazing goes, I’ve been able to maintain my livestock herd even with the lower moisture.”

The livestock are pretty good at balancing their diet with the variety of vegetation, he explains. “They’ll pick the plants that they need at the time."

Calving changes

The Rohrbachs used to calve in March, with cow-calf pairs going through the barn. “No matter how well we took care of them, they always seemed to contract scours or some other kind of sickness,” he says. Now they calve in late April and May on grass, and the calves stay healthy. With the rotational system and calving later, they leave the calves on the cow for 10 months, weaning calves in early February.

“They’re able to graze with the mother cow. I get them on cover crops in the fall and early winter, supplementing with just a little hay,” he says. They incorporate bale grazing in the winter if the family wants to travel. “All someone needs to do is check the water supply or just put several bales out for the next few days.”

It was a mind-set change that got Rohrbach on board with a new way of thinking about managing his acres. As an enrollee in the EQIP program, one of the requirements was attendance in a grazing school. He showed up as a student at a South Dakota Soil Health Coalition grazing program in 2007 and saw firsthand how those practices were going to directly benefit him.

His father asked why he wanted to move cows so many times. At the time, the program was paying Rohrbach to move the cows, so he figured, why not? After a few years, he was a believer. “After moving those cows the first few times, they figure it out,” he says. “They want to go to the next pasture. A lot of times when you drive out there they’re already headed toward the gate wanting to go into that next paddock. They kind of move themselves once they learn the system. There’s very little effort to move the cows through the system and be able to get them on to the new grass.”

The hardest thing for most producers to understand is the fact that there’s a benefit in moving the cattle while there’s still grass available in that field, he explains. When it’s been seven days, it’s time to move regardless of what’s there. “You learn that you’re not wasting what’s left there. That grass benefits the biology and enables the plants to effectively regrow, giving you even more when it comes back. The shade that’s created by that longer grass cuts down on the evaporation of what little moisture you do have to work with.”  

During his attendance at the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition’s soil health school, Rohrbach was able to see how plants work together. He learned about the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi, a mutualist fungi that helps colonize plant roots, providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities and how it benefits not just planted crops but native species as well. 

He also learned, via YouTube videos, about Gabe Brown and the regenerative farming that he promotes. “It really does work if you allow it,” says Rohrbach. “Every operation is different. We are fortunate that our operation is all contiguous land, so all our property runs together. Some people don’t have that luxury. They may have to haul their cattle to other pastures, but I believe that there’s still a way that they can do a rotation that would benefit them.” 

It takes infrastructure to get your fencing set up, he says, but the fresh water in all paddocks benefits the cows. “I’ve noticed even the calves are healthier now that there’s an ample supply of fresh water,” says Rohrbach. “It’s an initial expense to start, but the benefits definitely pay off in the long term.”

The local NRCS office helped him decide what cover crops to seed and what financial assistance was available to get started. In the rotation system, you start small and then expand. Rohrbach plans to split his paddocks a second time to be able to rotate through in four or five days instead of seven. That action alone gives even greater time for grasses to recuperate with little investment in infrastructure. 

By preserving the native grasslands, the increased infiltration allows the water to stay on your land, he says, looking out over the waving grasses on a hillside. “By not overgrazing it, you don’t get runoff like you would if were overgrazed or farmed.” He points out that water in his sluice has stayed the same size and the roads haven’t suffered from erosion like they have in other areas.

Eric Rasmussen explains his role in this process of change. “I have a lot of farmers and ranchers come in inquiring about what services we provide. Those end up being great opportunities to segue into some of the management strategies that we promote as an agency. I learn about their operation, talk things over, and it ends up leading to projects. Then we try to determine how a change in management practices is going to benefit the landscape, be it their grass species that they’d like to promote or maybe even initiate a change in utilization.” 

He says the Rohrbachs now have an insurance policy on drought. The increase in warm-season grasses has improved late-season grazing. In a drought, the rotations allow grass to put more growth into the roots, making the roots go deeper. 

Water distribution is key, says Rasmussen. In stages, Rohrbach added pipeline and tanks in his cross fences. “The cattle don’t have to walk very far. You don’t see a trail in the pasture. He’s got really good distribution. If your grazing distribution is low, you see a lot of clumpy areas; that is showing the cattle are favoring some grasses over others, letting the other grasses go. His pastures show a nice even graze. That’s the target that you go for.”

The cattle can use the natural potholes, which hold water in the wetter seasons, as they’re grazing. But if cattle are left in a pothole area for an extended period of time without providing rest to those potholes, the cattle’s hooves disturb the edges of those potholes, muddying up the soil and causing an influx of weed growth.  

“Those weeds can spread out and move out away from those potholes,” says Rasmussen. “You want to keep potholes in great condition so there isn’t any bare ground along the edges. The grass outcompetes the weeds.”

The wetlands, when mismanaged, with either heavy livestock pressure or farming, expose the natural salts in the soil, explains Rasmussen. As soon as that soil gets uncovered, through evaporation and high water tables, those salts make their way to the surface. They sterilize the soil to the point where even grasses can’t grow there. If you keep those areas covered, and the roots stay there, you keep the salts down in the soil profile. If you let the salts take over, you lose grazing value. Once that grazing value is gone, the wildlife value is gone, too. The water alternatives with pipelines and tanks provide a more preferable and cleaner water source for the cattle than utilizing those wetland areas. 

He sums it up. “Like I said, that first fence is always the toughest and once you get that going, it will work.”

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