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On this ranch, grass is the crop and cattle are the combines

Ray Effling of Britton, South Dakota, has a unique and effective perspective on grazing, grass and cattle. It involves going big and small at the same time. Big on numbers of grazing animals, for sure, but small on size of the pasture in which he turns them out.

Effling farms and ranches in Deuel and Marshall counties in South Dakota with his wife Marci and their children: Austin, Lyndsey, Carter, Emily, and Olivia, though only three are still at home.

“I used to teach high school and my job brought us to Britton,” says Effling. “I always ran some cattle and one year I needed some pasture. My dad is in Deuel County and he asked me if I wanted to rent that place, so we did. We slowly picked up more land in Marshall County.”

Now, they run two big grass units in Marshall County and Deuel, and they're a hundred miles apart. It’s a challenge, but the Efflings make it work.

The Effling family.
Photo by Mitch Kezar

Soil Health and Grazing

After trying daily moves and some longer moves, Effling settled on large herds in small paddocks for intensive grazing. In Deuel County, the paddocks are about 40 acres each. The Marshall County units are bigger.

When Effling was still teaching, custom grazing fit his schedule and his lifestyle.

“Once school ended, other producers would send their cattle to us and they’d go back home in October or November. The grass is our crop and the cattle are the combines,” he explains.

“At this point we custom graze the majority of our acres and winter a few cows that we own. We get quite a few cows in the summer months.”

The primary goal with this strategy is to improve soil health and plant diversity.

“We've seen benefits to the soil and the cattle,” Effling says. “Our native grass is improved and we try to do what we can to eliminate weeds for native plants to grow.”

The Efflings’ have another challenge with their terrain.

“Our Marshall County land is right up against the Brown County line,” he notes, gesturing out over savannah-like acres. “We call this area the Sandhills of South Dakota. It was part of the James River Valley many years ago.”

Overgrazing can be a problem in such areas.

“We have to be careful that we don't overgraze and create what we call “blow outs” where the sand dunes start showing,” he explains. “It’s a fragile environment. As we move our cattle through, we have to let the plants recover fully in all our paddocks. We try to give a 60-day rest, no matter what.”

The Efflings have implemented Environmental Quality Incentive Projects (EQIP) to add miles of pipeline and water tanks in fields in both counties. That enabled them to subdivide the pastures even more into smaller units between which they can move the cattle quicker.

“Grouping our cattle into bigger herds and moving them through smaller pastures has definitely increased our bio-diversity,” Effling comments. “It increases our rest periods on the paddocks and it isn’t possible without the available water. Just those two things have done more to increase the profitability and to increase the soil health on our properties as anything.”

Photo by Mitch Kezar.

Weed Control

Kicking at a patch of Canada Thistle, Ray Effling says, “We have never hired an airplane to control weeds and we never will. We spot spray and try to keep our chemical use down as much as possible.”

He makes use of mineral and salt feeders as a weed control tool. They drop a feeder into a weed patch or an area thick with buckbrush and let the hoof action around that feeder in the weedy areas stimulate the soil, enabling native grasses and forbs to take root.

“We’ve tried that trick on leafy spurge, too, but sometimes you just don't have enough mineral feeders, so that can be a challenge. We fight weeds just like everybody else, but we don't get too wound up about it. That's just a continual battle as part of our life.”

Positive Partnerships

Effling has relied upon local resources and experts to refine his practices and experiment with new ones.

Amy Engels, District conservationist for NRCS, has been working with Ray for about nine years on different projects in Deuel County. Engels has seen the changes in action on Effling’s land and helped with a major water development project.

“With a couple of miles of pipe and 10 different tanks, the project helped Ray switch from a limiting rotation dependent upon where the water was to a more flexible rotation that allows him to rotate when the grass needs to be managed. It has been a huge success,” Engels says. “Because he doesn’t have to worry about the water, it allows him to try new things like season-long cover crops and more intensive grazing systems.”

Eric Magedanz , a senior private lands biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks has also worked with the Efflings for about nine years, and focuses on conservation.

“I've gotten to know Ray’s land pretty well, and the benefits that I've seen have been an increase in forage production and an increase in plant diversity and wildlife species,” Magedanz says. “The sharp-tailed grouse population on Ray's properties seems to be maintaining, if not increasing, which speaks to type of management that Ray has implemented over the years.” 

Neighbors who have lived next to Effling their entire lives had never seen wild turkeys in that area before. They are there in good numbers now.

“Usually, we see a deer or a coyote almost every day when we move cattle. The number of pheasants has improved too,” Effling says.

Marci Effling adds, “I never understood quite how much there was to maintaining grassland. We’ve learned together over the years and our children have all been involved as well. We love that our kids can be out here helping us and working with the animals. We believe it teaches them hard work and resilience.” 

The Efflings’ land has also proved resilient.

“In a dry year like this, when you go out and see green grass, clearly you're doing something right and that alone takes taking the stress down a bit,” Marci says. “The practices Ray has put into place really improved the grasslands and the result is we don't see as much stress on the grass or as much stress on the cattle. Many families may have to sell off cattle, but we're hoping with the management practices that we've used that that will not happen.”

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