Converting cropland to grassland
When Rick Smith took over the family farm near Hayti, South Dakota, after his father died, it was mainly a row-crop and cow-calf operation. The investment in keeping expensive machinery around, not to mention the labor needs during harvest and planting time got him thinking that more grass on the place might be a better option.
“We were about 95% crop ground at the time I took over this place,” he says. “Now we’re down to about 10%. It wasn’t an abrupt change, just every year more and more land got converted into grassland.”
A flock of sheep bleat in concert nearby.
Smith started with rotational grazing after noted grazer Alan Savory took a tour of the farm. “I put up a cross fence and started rotations that week. I’ve done it a long time and I’ve learned a lot. Most of the things I tried early on I don’t do anymore, because I found they either didn’t work all that well or I found something that worked better.”
One early piece of the puzzle came to Smith in the form of above-ground plastic water lines. “When I first started this grazing system, I was trying to figure out how to get a water source to the cattle here and there on the farm. I went to a NRCS workshop and they had this black pipe lying on top of the ground. That made sense to me, because I didn’t want to have to bury pipeline all over. I might change my mind on whether I was going to leave an area in pasture, or plant a crop on it sometime down the road. Plastic pipe was the answer.”
He bought big rolls of pipe and never looked back. “Boy, did that ever change the way I could graze. In a summer grazing system you just roll it out to where you need a water tank and you’re done.”
District NRCS conservationist Jim Dylla has shared technical expertise with Smith over many years. “I would say our NRCS employees have learned as much from Rick Smith over the years as we have probably taught him,” says Dylla. “It’s always easier to teach other producers about things to try when you’ve already got somebody that’s tried things and made them work in the same area. Rick Smith is that guy.”
Walking a piece of the pasture, Dylla points out native plants. “The first thing you recognize when walking this farm is the diversity in plant life on his pastures, both native and non-native pastures. You just don’t see this much diversity in other places. He does an excellent job with grazing management and helping to create diversity and maintain it as well. He’s been able to reduce the amount of pesticides he uses, and with what little commercial fertilizer he uses, he’s greatly intensified his grazing operation.”
The transition to more-grass-less-crops made sense to Smith. “We had some hay fields that were alfalfa and brome grass, so when those fields got toward the end of their life cycle, instead of plowing and planting that ground into corn or oats or other small grains, we’d just fence it and put it into pasture land.”
Smith still needed hay fields for winter feed, so some of the cornfields got planted over time into hay fields. “We started using orchard grass mixed with our alfalfa, and we like that better as a hay crop,” he says. “Eventually we realized that would also make a good pasture crop. It grew at a different rate than brome grass. It didn’t mature as early and we were able to keep it vegetated more of the year.”
Then came big bluestem. “A friend was big into raising native grass seed, and he really liked big bluestem,” Smith says, looking out over his land. “So we planted some, and I got into raising seed. It was a good market, in a good time. It’s a difficult process to get it dried and marketed, but after a few years it turns out there was either an oversupply in the market or a decrease in demand because some CRP programs went away. Then the price dropped and we converted those big bluestem fields into pasture. That pretty much completed what we were going to put into grasslands.”
Now he just crops what the cattle need for winter feed, including corn silage and forage winter wheat. The Smiths run primarily a cow-calf operation, backgrounding the calves to sell them in the spring. When Smith’s three daughters got into 4-H programs years ago, that led them into projects raising sheep. Smith’s wife, a former city girl, really wanted horses.
Wading through tall grass of the horse pasture with a herd of well-loved horses that plod behind him like puppies, Smith explains his move into sheep and horses. “You can’t sell female breeding sheep that have been a 4-H project, so they stay on the farm and become breeding stock. With the horses, we started with some registered POA horses, and wouldn’t you know they had to be fillies, and wouldn’t you know they ended up having to go back to the owner to be bred, and the next thing you know we were in the horse breeding business!”
He laughs as a retired gelding playfully nudges his shoulder.
Presently the sheep market is a little better than the cattle market. “If I were younger I’d probably be increasing the size of our sheep herd and maybe cut down on the cows,” says Smith. “It took a few years, but we learned that the sheep go on our pastures and take out wormwood sage, leafy spurge, and other undesirable pasture plants. We usually don’t graze the sheep and cattle together, but what we do is run sheep all summer on a pasture, where they’ll pick out the broadleaf plants and leave the grass alone. In the wintertime, when we bring the cows back home, we can graze them where the sheep were all summer.”
An unexpected challenge Smith faces is water. “Our lower acres where we raised our crops were obviously the very highest quality land. It’s captured sediment for years and the soils are deep, so it’s very productive. Unfortunately, our water issues have increased and we’re getting more water, rain, and snow. Those lands are now getting difficult to farm, because they’re too wet.”
Smith’s operation sits between crop ground and a lake, so adding drain tile isn’t the answer. All that tile water would need to move through the property.
“Now we’re having real struggles even with pastures,” Smith says. “This issue is affecting a lot of people’s bottom lines. I know that the grasslands are dealing with it a lot better than the croplands are.”
The Smith farm had over 100 acres of native prairie that was never plowed. “We sometimes took hay from those acres,” he says. “It had everything there, but when I was growing up I never remember grass being any taller than the top of your boot.” When rotational grazing practices were implemented years later, things changed. “When we could keep cattle away from our native area during different times of the year and let if flourish, we started to see all that diversity, the different forbs and grasses all started coming back.”
He looks out over a herd of Angus contentedly grazing their way through belly-high grass. “We don’t calve until the first of May, and into June, so that grass hadn’t been grazed since the June before, and when you’re walking out there it’s shoulder-high. That’s where the cows will be next spring when they’re looking for a place to calve. The diversity of what’s exploded in that native area is amazing. You look at a forb and say you’d never seen it before. Well, that’s because the cows were eating it all first. You leave it alone for a while, and all of a sudden you have diversity everywhere.”
Smith scratches the muzzle of a mare. “I saw an aerial photo of this place that was taken about 1940 in the fall. All the fields were black because they’d been plowed under, but the hilltops all were white. By 1940, most of that topsoil had already been lost after having been farmed for 20 years or less. I thought to myself, ‘is that any kind of legacy to leave future generations? Are we going to continue to erode all this land?’ For whoever comes after me, it’s their decision what to do with this land, but for me, I’m going to leave this in as good a shape as I conceivably can. The Good Lord will just have to decide what He wants done with it the next time around.”