South Dakota Grassland Coalition

by Dan Rasmussen

March 2021

Joshua Dukart

North Dakota Holistic Resource Management trainer, at a recent HRM school in Faith said “our ranching business should be designed to focus on identifying and pursuing opportunities. With whole ranch planning, ranches can be, `opportunity focused businesses`”. Lack of rain is not an opportunity but managing to keep the rain that falls on your land is. By comparing an overgrazed pasture to a pasture managed for soil health, it is possible to have a severe drought on one side of the road and an average year on the other.

South Dakota experiences drought one in four years. We cannot make it rain, but there are opportunities concerning drought. Effective rainfall is the amount of rainwater that actually infiltrates into the soil. The healthier the soil the more rainwater soaks in. The rainfall amount is immaterial if most of it runs off. The opportunity is keeping as much of the rainwater on the land as possible.

case study

Here is a case study of two pastures managed differently near my home in Mellette County. Pasture one, (pictured) has been historically overgrazed by multiple leasers for decades. Pasture two is part of a summer rotation allowing for adequate litter to remain on the soil. Both pastures have similar soils and are across the road from each other. In 2017 both pastures received 9.5 total inches of rain.

Pasture one lowered its stocking rate by removing cattle early and had to defer the pasture the next year. I used the NRCS infiltration kit, timing a quart of water infiltrating in 14 minutes. In pasture two a quart of water disappeared in 90 seconds. A rain event would have similar results with water infiltration between the two pastures.

The stocking rate in pasture two did not change. 900 pounds of forage per acre remained after grazing. The following year, after grazing, pasture two left 1200 pounds of forage per acre to feed the soil. This is average for the pasture.

Grazing management

Determines what your effective rainfall will be. 90 seconds vrs. 14 minutes infiltration rates tells you over grazed pasture one did not have healthy soil. When I dug a hole in pasture one, the root ball fell easily apart. The roots were slick and had little soil clinging to them. In pasture two the root ball was held together by extensive root fibers. I had to work to pull it apart and the roots had many small filaments holding onto the soil. This is the result of leaving enough litter to feed the bugs in the soil and the reaction the plants have to livestock clipping their leaves and stems. Plants react to proper grazing by `root die off` which creates organic matter in the soil.

Creating a physical grazing plan and a drought plan are helpful tools in maintaining soil health and therefore keeping more rainfall in the pasture instead of the water leaving your property.

Creating drought resilient pastures can be done through managed grazing practices. These practices are taught at the grazing schools in Wall and Chamberlain every June and September. Education is one of the opportunities Joshua Dukart talks about at his HRM courses. In fact, Joshua will be a featured presentor at the West River Grazing School in Wall this year. Sign up early as the school fills up fast. To register call all Judge Jessop at 605 280-0127.

Dan Rasmussen is a third-generation cattle rancher living in south central South Dakota. Dan served on the board of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition for 18 years and is currently the education coordinator for the Grassland Coalition. 

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