How to Manage Grass for Forage

Steve Livermont’s rough cowboy hands gently part wind-whipped stalks of buffalo grass as his fingers cradle the tiny lavender bloom of a late-summer’s harebell. He stretches and stands tall as his eyes peruse the waving grasses of his ranch, situated at the north end of the Sand Hills in south-central South Dakota.

He is out checking on his cattle. Which means he is also out checking his prairie.  

All plants – big and small – get his attention. His diagnosis tells him what his cows are eating, how much, and when it is time to give these prairie plants a rest from hungry mouths of his grazing herd.  

When the native prairie plants get eaten down to a certain level, it’s time for the cows to be moved away from that ground to a new untouched section of prairie. This gives the pasture time to rest, regenerate, and regrow.

Rotational grazing is the name of this game, and Livermont is excited about it. With good reason.

“It’s a tool that 20 years ago I never knew existed,” he says, leaning on a hunk of iron in the ranch’s machine shop.

“I was so excited after I started learning about this idea that everybody I talked to, I’d try to convince them to look at this. You can run more cattle on your land and your land comes out better, too, I’d tell ’em!  

“But,” he cautions, “they’ve got to want to learn it. So if somebody wants to talk with me about what I’m doing, I’m there to help them,” he says.

Let Land Rest

The benefits of rotational grazing practices go well beyond the more cattle/better land concept, explains Livermont. “We faced a drought in June and July and we’re still doing well here. There’s good grass out there. In years past, we might have had stressed pastures from overgrazing, but we were able to let that land rest,” he says.

Once you move the herd into the last cell that still has been ungrazed, he explains, you rotate into paddocks that have been grazed once but have regrown.

“As a result, even in a drought, we find our pastures will carry us into December and even January if we don’t get covered up in snow,” he says, grinning at the prospect.

After it snows, he moves the herd into the hay meadow, which was mowed early in the season. That acreage had the rest of the summer to grow back up.

“It’s been a challenge figuring all of this out,” Livermont says, adjusting the brim of his baseball cap. “It keeps your brain going, and you get up in the morning and try to figure out new ways to do things. It keeps you young!”

Getting his rolling hills of prairie to the point of viability for raising beef took a little doing. It was impossible to put 200-plus head of cattle and their calves on faraway tracts without a good supply of good, clean water. He wanted to go to a least-cost situation with the ranch and decrease the workload. That meant he had to graze all acres of the ranch, even the hard-to-reach acres 3 miles away. Water held the key to the puzzle. 

Government Help

Livermont applied for an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Plan) plan through his Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in South Dakota. He learned that if he ran electricity, pipelines and built stock tanks to NRCS specifications, there would be funds available to help defray some of the costs. 

“He was able to get a better grazing plan, which allowed him to bring pastures into the grazing plan that he couldn’t access before,” says Judge Jessop, a project coordinator with the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition. 

“Putting a water tank in one corner of a section of land allowed all four 160-acre parcels to become viable pastures,” Jessop says. “Now the cattle have to walk less than ¾ mile to get water.”

The EQIP plan is instituted when you bring an application to the NRCS. “Once you put up fences, pipelines, and tanks up to NRCS specifications, you’re eligible for a percentage of cost reimbursement,” Jessop says. 

Livermont adds, “You make mistakes along the way. When we put in one pipeline, we decided to go straight up a draw with it. We got a big rain, and the water came down the draw and washed out the pipeline.  We fixed that bad spot by moving it around the hill where it can never wash out again. We learned from that mistake.”

Walking his horses across the corral, Livermont talks about his continuing education. “I’m always reading the latest publications on grass ranching, learning about people trying different things. I attend tours on grass farming, and I come back with ideas. If I go on a tour and learn only one thing, it’s worth attending.

“I don’t have an original idea; I just steal from everyone else,” he says with a laugh.  

“The best way to improve your operation is to see what everyone else is doing. When you think you know everything, you realize just how much you don’t know.” 

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