Rotation, rest, and recovery yield success in this ranch's grazing program
After managing the rangeland and cattle for the Lower Brule Farm Corporation for 24 years in an intensive grazing program, A. Jay Heiss reflects on what he’s learned.
“Leave the soil better than when you received it,” he says, looking over the windswept ocean of grass. “Keep living roots and growing green plants in the ground as long as possible. And when grazing, remember the three R’s: rotate, rest and recovery.”
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The changes, hardships, and techniques over the years ultimately improved the organic matter in the soil and benefited the forage and, subsequently, the cattle on that land.
The Lower Brule Sioux Tribal grasslands lie along the right bank of the Missouri River in the Antelope Creek area of central South Dakota. The ranch sprawls to the horizon, covering some 26,000 acres.
“When the ranch started in 1998, there was zero cattle range land and have since acquired four other ranches,” Heiss says. “We run up to 1,500 cows, but right now we've got 1,200 and a thousand yearlings.”
Even though he does not own the land or the cattle, he says it's still his job to pay off the land.
“I figure nobody really owns the land, we're only here for a short time just to manage it. So if I can leave this place better than I received it, which I feel I am doing, that's why I'm here,” he explains. “That's what drives me every day to do this.”
The rotational grazing takes more work and management.
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“Some days I think, ‘Oh, I should just open it up and let them go for two months right out there.’ But I know that'd be over grazing and wouldn’t help the soil, grasses, cattle, or the future generations,” he says.
Before fences were ever invented, the wildlife managed the land. The buffalo, antelope, and deer rotated constantly, every day. Before fences stopped them from rotating, they were never in the same thousand-acre place for an extended amount of time.
“I want to create deep, thick, roots and deep soil. The only way you can do that is rotate livestock and keep a living root and green grass growing as long as possible,” he adds.
Love for Ranch Life
“Being a rancher was always my first love,” Heiss says. “I loved taking care of the livestock. Growing up, we were on the farming program and had irrigated pivots and a feedlot. I was not much interested in the farming side, but I loved to take care of the cattle, so my dad allowed me to do that.”
Heiss’ father bought the first ranch for the Tribe, got cattle together, and gave the job of managing the livestock to A. Jay, which he still does today.
Most days, Heiss makes it a priority to scout the land. He picks a spot, digs down to see how deep the grass roots are, and find where the moisture lies.
“I want big balls of soil with air and water pockets. I want it to look like chocolate cake,” he says. “You can tell by smell the difference between good, healthy soil vs. soil that's been compacted or tilled. I will pour water to gauge my water infiltration. I want it to soak in as much water as possible. I clip grass every now and then to see how many pounds per acre I have.”
He explains how rotational grazing practices have led to success in the operation and figures that led to a 40% increase in carrying capacity of cattle on the landscape and cheapened the daily cost of grazing.
With land prices on the rise and feed prices increasing, he calculated that the only way to make it all work was with a rotational grazing program where he could graze a pasture twice a year. That strategy has added more tonnage and more quality of grass year after year.
“We were able to increase the herd size to 650 cattle from 350 in previous years. There were no other costs beyond adding cattle, unless we had to feed in wintertime. We will now stockpile grasses on half the ranch so that we can graze year-round to save that feed bill,” he explained.
Heiss continues, “What surprised me the most was how easy it was to handle the 650 head and keep them fenced in. Also, how fast the grass would recover. After only 20-30 days of rest and after a good rain, we could not tell that a cow had even been on there. The grass regrew, even filling up all the deep cow trails.”
“Some people think you can’t run large numbers of cattle in small sections. They think it's too much work to rotate cattle every so many days. But it’s not that hard when they're done with these pastures,” he explains. “We open up a gate and they move to the next pasture on their own.”
One of Heiss’ goals is to improve the soil health and grazing system is to get away from a chemical fly control program.
“I would love to get out of the pour-ons and the injectables,” he says. “I've yet to see where an intensive grazing program with rotation has completely eliminated the fly program. I would like to try some all-natural solution, though, to protect the bug system in the soil.”
Heiss is using a two-wire high tensile wire program on his fences.
Walking along a quarter mile of fence line, he explains, “So far, my top wire's hot. My bottom wire is the ground. With a cow-calf operation, if the wire's hot and I do my job of keeping it hot, I will not have cattle get out. When I first saw it, I thought, ‘This will never work.’ To tell you the truth, it absolutely works. When I first installed poly-wire, I didn't think that would work, either. I think that high tensile fence is better than a four or five-barbed wire fence because they won't even graze up to it. I'll see cows on a barbed wire fence try to get through.”
Looking up at a sky devoid of clouds, he reflects, “I’ve gotten through two years of drought and we're sitting here today with green and thick, lush grass where in previous years there'd be no grass left. All the green grass would never get rested so it could go to seed.”
Heiss offers up advice to others on creating a grazing program. “Start with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Environmental Quality Incentive Program and get as much going as you can on pipeline water tanks and the fencing to set your pastures up for rotational grazing. And when that ends, go to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to do additional activities to improve the management of your grazing.”
And, he adds, change your calving schedule to be in sync with nature.
Elaborating, he says, “When I first moved up here in ’98, we were calving in the cold of February and March. There was always a blizzard or two. When we were done by April, we still might have a blizzard and no green grass. We were feeding cows and calves every day and we always had calves in heat boxes. With the CSP program, we could move our calving date back to May 1.”
Watching his healthy and content herd graze their way up a hillside, he continues, “Since I've done that, I'll never go back. Every day is fun to calve. We’re out there in a T-shirt most of the time, pairing up calves. The calves are born in green grass and the cows are in good shape. There's no hay in the cattle. It helps my feed bill, because in January and February, my cows aren't six months pregnant. They still have until April and May to make up that weight. They aren't eating as much because they aren’t calving in the next 30 days. But there's nothing better than calving in May and June when it's 70 degrees out and you’re not fighting in 20-below zero to save calves from a blizzard.”