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Native Grasses and Cover Crops Improve Cattle Quality

Cody Jorgensen leans on the hood of his pickup truck on a windy hilltop, surrounded by a sea of curious black Angus cattle. Four generations of his family have managed more than 12,000 acres near Ideal, South Dakota, changing and adapting along the way. Jorgensen plans to keep the improvements going.

“It’s our family’s goal to study and try to understand the native grasslands and try to get all of our farm acres back to their most native state,” he says. “Native grasslands teach us all about soil health and the best methods to implement rotational grazing.”

The family tries to understand what the land can and cannot do, says Jorgensen. “Uncle Bryan is always digging with a shovel in native prairie to see what he can learn. It
really helps to understand what Mother Nature will allow you to do. Trying to get our farmland back to its most native state is the overall objective.”

Jorgensen Land & Cattle Company was founded when Martin Jorgensen Sr. settled near Ideal in 1909. Today, the family’s focus is on Angus and commercial seed stock production, an advanced bull-leasing program, no-till crop production, and a commercial pheasant hunting operation. They built a handsome rustic lodge east of the home farm for the hunting enterprise.

The Jorgensens raise and market 3,500 purebred black Angus bulls annually. The crop production includes feed grains, forages, and certified seed. 

Every acre of land is evaluated in three areas: farming, grazing cattle, and economic entertainment. “If we can do those three things, all with the restoration of the lands’ most native state in mind, we’re going to be viable for future generations,” Jorgensen says.

Cover crops play a part in the plan. “On grazing, Uncle Bryan has instituted cover crops as a mainstay of our operation behind all of the wheat acres,” says Jorgensen. About 800 bulls graze cover crops after harvest. This saves $1.53 per bull, per day vs. what it would cost to keep those animals in a feedlot, he says.

“That’s a direct economic impact that increases soil health, makes our operation more productive, and has proven to be excellent for the cattle,” he says.

semen quality

Unlike many farm-ranch operations, the Jorgensens fence in and bring water to all of their tillable acres. Bulls can graze cover crops over the entire ranch. There’s more benefit than just feed savings. The family has compared semen quality on grazing 2-year-old bulls vs. bulls fed all winter in the feed yard.

“Semen quality was much better on bulls that were out grazing,” says Jorgensen. “According to our veterinarian, bulls grazing can control their own diet and they get a lot more exercise. That’s a tremendous economic savings for us, being in the bull business.”

Changing management practices can be met with some reluctance, says Jorgensen. If you prove an economic value and show a benefit to the cattle, that does the trick.

“Doing what Grandpa or Dad did is good and fine, but there needs to be new things implemented along with old thought processes,” says Jorgensen. “Past generations wanted to be sustainable, but they lacked the tools and knowledge about rotational grazing, cover crops, and animal health.”

He looks out over the vast prairie and the grazing animals. “The people at the Natural Resources Conservation Service were instrumental in helping us develop a true grazing plan,” says Jorgensen. “It takes really smart people to help us implement this. Having the plan will keep our land in the best shape possible. There’s a reason those native grasses are in this area – they are the most productive.”

Rooster pheasants cackle over the ridge as they lift off, flying to tall grass on the next hillside. The family’s hunting operation harvests 2,000 wild pheasants annually.

“There are not many operations that can do that,” says Jorgensen. “The way we manage the property is the reason we have such a good pheasant population.”

The wildlife populations on the ranch have blossomed with the management changes to grasses and cropland, including no-till and intensive grazing, he says.

“Deer numbers are almost out of control. We don’t commercially hunt prairie chickens or sharp-tail grouse, but I’ve witnessed a huge boom in those species populations, too. That’s exciting!” he says. “Our clientele who come for pheasants might be interested in a prairie chicken or sharp-tail hunt at some point. That could also add to our bottom line for that portion of our business.”

The changing of the seasons – spring and fall – are his favorite times. “Spring has the smell of green grass, songbirds, and the pheasants cackling, fighting, and nesting. In the fall, seeing the sunsets through a hillside of big bluestem is just overwhelming,” he says.

It is inspiring to make decisions that will affect the future. “Knowing that we are doing the right thing for the next generation keeps me going every day,” Jorgensen says.

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