South Dakota Grassland Coalition

by Dan Rasmussen

July 2021

Increasing stocking rates is the goal of every land manager wanting to keep the wolf away from the doorstep. That is just about all of us. However, we are limited on the number of livestock our land will sustain year after year. There is a ‘silver bullet’ in ranching and that is healthier soil. Managing rangeland for soil health isn`t just an idea, it is the idea. When increasing stocking rates is the goal then improving soil health is how to get there.

Consider the line graph showing unhealthy soil on the left and increasing healthy soil on the right. We all fall somewhere on this line. (Stocking rates are an example only.)

The key to learning how to increase stocking rates in a sustainable manner is learning how to make pasture soil healthier. This is accomplished by resting the plants after being grazed. By rotating the cattle through pastures the plants are allowed to recover and leave dormant plant matter on the ground for the soil bugs to consume. This process creates organic matter in the soil. Over time, a properly managed rotationally grazed pasture will increase organic matter compared to a season-long grazed pasture.

The point is to not increase stocking rates until the soil is healthy enough to increase organic matter levels while being grazed. A pasture that has been overgrazed for many years will require time to recover. Feed the soil first, then increase stocking rates.

Once you learn to observe how the land responds to your grazing plan, the plan can be adjusted to increase soil health. Nature will move to a healthier state if we play by her rules. This will mean adjusting management. Holistic Resource Management (HRM) teaches land managers how to change the ranch management culture in order to play by nature’s rules and increase rangeland production. Each ranch is unique; but some of the common changes are moving calving dates to the summer, winter grazing more and feeding hay less, and adding a yearling enterprise allowing for immediate destocking in drier years while maintaining the cow herd.


Increasing stocking rates must start with healthy soil. This may require a change in the ranch management model and even a change in the ranch culture. Making healthy soil a priority will pay for years to come.

Planning for soil health and more productive rangelands is taught each year at the Grazing Schools in Wall, Chamberlain, and Watertown. Find out more at

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

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