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Reintroducing native grasses to hold moisture

Rotational grazing, no-till, cover crops, and native grasses mean an improvement in plant growth, moisture retention, and erosion control on the Anderson ranch.

After enduring dusty, dry years on their Lemmon, South Dakota, ranch back in the early 2000s, Chuck and Koreen Anderson realized one important thing. They needed to keep moisture on the place. Their sandy, loamy soils were parched and dry.

With the Andersons’ implementation of rotational grazing, no-till practices on their crop ground, using cover crops and a rigorous reintroduction of native grasses, they immediately saw an improvement in plant growth, moisture retention, and erosion control.

Even some of their areas of clay pan came around. They’ve seen improvement - native grasses populate areas where none showed before. Things started looking up!

“I’ve even seen Big Bluestem and ground plum milk vetch coming back,” says Anderson. “That’s a good indicator of effective grazing pressure. If this pasture is grazed too heavily, you never see those plants.”

Chuck and Koreen ride their horses, saddles creaking in the morning sun, over gently rolling terrain where the original 900 acres of tillable land lie. Now, half of the acres are no-till and the other half have been turned into pasture. They’ve got a little corn, some rye, alfalfa, and a lot of native grasses.

Anderson ranch

“I’m hoping to put all this farm ground into warm season grasses eventually,” says Chuck. “That would be right up my alley. I don’t care to drive a tractor all that much.” 

They trot past a small herd of sheep and a few bawling cows with hot breath steaming in cool morning air. They skirt a soggy wetland near a pond teeming with puddle ducks into higher ground where a larger herd of Angus cows and calves graze a 40-acre paddock.

A flock of sharp-tailed grouse flush ahead of the horses hooves, clucking in concert as they flutter down, settling near a barbed-wire fence.

“We have a lot more wildlife now than we had when we moved here,” Chuck says. He tipps back his white cowboy hat with the fingers of a worn leather glove and continues.

Anderson ranch from sky

“We’re seeing a lot more deer. It seems like they summer elsewhere but prefer to winter here. We see them hang out near neighbors’ farmland during spring and summer, and then when the weather turns they move back in here. We also have three leks where the grouse display. It’s fun to watch them dance. I think we’re going to have a good year for them, for all our birds, pheasants included.  Wildlife is good.”

Chuck notes how green the pastures are, even in August. The rainfall in that area averages only about 15 inches annually, but the increase in organic matter is holding the moisture and making better use of it.

Watching the horses approach a wire and post gate, the herd bellows in anticipation of the move to the next paddock where a fresh stand of native grasses and forbs await them.

cows on grass

“The cows get used to getting moved from one pasture to a fresh pasture, so they pretty much move themselves,” Chuck notes. “Koreen always helps me move the cows on horseback, and when our kids and grandkids are around, they’re in on the action, too. Koreen has been my right hand through all this. She’s had to scratch her head a few times on decisions I’ve made, but she understands we’re trying to make this a better place for the future.”

Some of their pastures are only 28 acres. The biggest one is 80 acres, and that one has a permanent fence. They’ve talked about using poly wire and splitting some of the pastures into smaller paddocks, because the cows might be walking down more grass than they’re eating.

“When the grandkids help, we can move a quarter mile of fence in about a half hour,” says Chuck. “An electric fence doesn’t need to be pretty, it can be crooked and the posts can be far apart and it’s still effective. We check our cattle all the time this way, and there’s payback to it.”

In a seep area, 120 acres is seeded to big bluestem and side-oats grama.

A small herd of sheep graze near the ranch’s shelter belt. Sheep also have a role on the Anderson acres.

Sheep on Anderson ranch

“The sheep are a project to keep weeds down around the place,” Chuck says.  “They’re kind of a grandkid program as well, with ownership of some of them belonging to the kids. We’d like to expand the herd more, but we’ve got a predator problem. Running them with cows seems to help that. Cows chase coyotes off.”

The sheep follow the cattle and eat leafy spurge when the cattle won’t touch it, says Chuck. “The sheep’s digestive system breaks down weed seeds rather than spread them around in their manure like bovines do. They do carry cocklebur seeds around in their wool, though,” he says.

Anderson employs a portable water system to get fresh water to the various paddocks for the cattle and sheep. He uses a 16-foot steel water tank plumbed with a valve and heavy plastic pipe.

“We can drag that around with our 1,200 feet of pipe and it works really well,” he explaines. “The cows get used to trailing to the water and it works well during the summer months.”

The Andersons were involved in EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), which helped them establish cross-fencing techniques. That’s also where they learned about grazing a pasture only once annually. 

Chuck went to a seminar presented by Jay Fuhrer from the USDA-NRCS in North Dakota. “Fuhrer said that the best thing you can do before you go from a monoculture crop to a diverse grass and pasture mix, is to plant cover crops,” says Chuck. He did that. “I am really pleased with how we’ve increased our organic matter so far.”

In five years, Chuck and Koreen want everything seeded into grass so they can graze the whole ranch year-round and reduce feed costs.

“We’d like to leave this place in much better shape,” says Chuck. There is some interest in family members taking over the ranch years from now when the grandkids finish college, he explains.

“When I was a 4-H kid, our leader introduced us to range management, which at the time was mostly plant identification,” says Chuck. “I don’t think he understood the science behind all of it, but he’d been through the 1930s and knew how tough it was back in those years. He knew if you left some grass there would always be grass. In the dry years it would carry him through.” 

And it still works.

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