Keep the cattle moving
The old brood cow stands peering from the doorway of a long aluminum stock trailer, her black nose snorting, wrinkling, sampling air currents at the top of the ramp. She stamps her hooves on the edge, testing. Sensing safe passage down the chute with a clear view of an expanse beyond, she bounds down the ramp and plods cautiously into the alley. Sensing freedom, she makes a break from the corral to the pasture beyond, bucking and kicking up her heels like a month-old calf. Her bulky frame sways side-to-side as she slows, trotting deeply into the green smorgasbord, ripping mouthfuls of lush growth as she waddles into the scattering herd.
Bill and Pennie Slovek watch as the last animal makes the trip out of the cattle truck. “About every week they get a Thanksgiving-grade meal, and they do better because of it!” says Bill. The last cow leaves the ramp and walks into her summer pasture.
“I like to move our cattle before they need to be moved,” says Bill. “We like to move them every nine days or sooner. You’ll start getting regrowth about then, and the worst thing you can do to the grass and its root system is to eat the regrowth off right away. We want them gone before regrowth starts.”
The Slovek ranch sits near the continental divide in southern South Dakota, north of the Badlands. Part of the ranch is located in the Cheyenne River drainage area, and the rest of the land is located in the Bad River drainage area. How’s the weather? “We have too much rain or not enough rain,” says Bill. “Winters can be challenging, but it’s good country, good people, and a good life.”
The Sloveks started rotational grazing in 2000. They never used the practice before, but Bill’s father tried hard to never over-graze the land. Bill began rotational grazing after attending some Grasslands Coalition seminars and ranch tours. He took information he learned and tried implementing some practices on his operation.
Today he rotates his beef through 67 pastures. If they are using three pastures, the other 64 are getting rest. It’s important to track how long you rest the pastures, he says. Resting 95% of the pastures at any given time helps in the dry years, says Bill.
The Sloveks maintain about 30 miles of pipeline that service 120 tire tanks strung out over the ranch. “We’ve got a really good water system,” says Bill. Much of the water system on the ranch was made possible with guidance and assistance from the NRCS’s EQIP program, where ranchers can get advice and some financial assistance in setting up a full-ranch watering system. “We wouldn’t have the watering system even close to what we’ve got today without that EQIP program,” says Bill.
Up to five times a year, the Sloveks take grass samples and send them in to be analyzed, to see what they might be missing. They work with a nutritionist to determine what they need. That helps them “nail it from a mineral aspect,” says Bill.
Bill and Pennie run the ranch with son Bo. Pennie also teaches art in a nearby town. Bo has his cattle and Bill has his, but they agree on rotational grazing.
Bill and Bo wrestle a home-brewed mineral mix into tubs out on the prairie, near a watering tank. The cows see them working the tubs, and try to be first to get a nose into the concoction. “We’re always experimenting with things,” Bill says about the mineral mix. They add garlic for fly control. “I think it’s working,” he says. “If you look at our pastures today, all the cattle are strung out and they’re not bunched up in the corner fighting flies.”
In wet weather, ergot fungus can be a problem. If it gets in western wheatgrass, bromegrass, and crested wheatgrass, it can cause pink eye and foot rot. “We got some special stuff from our nutritionist and we’re mixing that in with the supplement and the salt too,” says Bill. “If you don’t try something new every once in a while you never advance”
Bo chimes in. “We get the supplement made up for what the grass does not have. It’s just like taking a multi-vitamin for people.”
Herds of antelope follow the grazing patterns on the ranch, says Bo. “You can watch them come in after the cattle leave a paddock and feed on the regrowth. We also have a lot of grouse, because we leave more cover for nesting.” He says he’s seeing more pheasants every year due to cover crops. “In one pasture you can find grouse, pheasants, whitetail, mule deer, and antelope. It’s fun to see that. I like to hunt and I pay attention to the deer and how their antlers are growing.”
A few years ago, the Sloveks purchased some land next to the Badlands and the White River. It’s intertwined with deeded land and government land, and it’s a whole new process for the family. “We have no government land up here, so there’s been a big learning curve,” says Bill. “The government land is very under stocked, so you’re always going to have pretty good grass, even in a poor year.”
Pennie sees the benefits. “The grass there is a little different from what we have here, so we’re still learning about the place. It’s beautiful, with cedar trees and the river water and views of the Badlands.”
Bill wraps it all up. “Doing new things on the ranch keeps you going and gets your heart rate up. It makes it easier to get up in the morning and work a 12-hour day. If you don’t do something once a year that makes the neighbors wonder what the hell you are doing, you’re not trying hard enough. I’m going to keep trying to do things a little bit different.”