South Dakota Grassland Coalition

By Kate Rasmussen

When Bart Carmichael moved to the family ranch two days after graduating high school, his grandfather ran cattle through four seasonal pastures. Bart and his wife Shannon bought Wedge Tent Ranch from his grandfather in 1996 and, with the help of their four kids, have managed to change the ranch over the years for the better. Curious about how he took the ranch from season long grazed hardpan to productive, diverse range, I asked Bart when he started changing his ranching model. He brought his laptop to the kitchen table and pulled up the meticulous records he’s kept for the last two and a half decades. He scrolled through pages of categorized data on what seemed like every animal he had ever laid eyes on. Bart found the year 2000 and said, “Here is exactly where it all changed.”

Seven years into running the ranch, Bart noticed his weaning weights were below average. He supplied his cattle with protein and mineral supplements and increased the weaning weights by fifty pounds. A detailed observer and thorough note taker, Bart saw that even though his calves were heavier the cost of growing them bigger made him back-track financially. This realization lead Bart to charge head first into a low input management style.

He began cross fencing the original four pastures into smaller paddocks with the idea of increasing carrying capacity. The previously season long grazed pastures were split into half sections, then quarter sections, and eventually into forty’s. Bart put water tanks at each end of the pad-docks and began rotating his herd through, letting the paddocks rest for a year after a three-day grazing stint in each. As we drove past stands of big blue stem and clusters of winterfat, Bart explained that the ranch grows “mostly cool season grasses so we graze once through. Going once through with the cattle has really helped our warm season grasses.”

Ranching is full of unintended outcomes. When Bart began cross fencing the original four pastures with high tinsile electric fence, his goal was to increase carrying capacity and to get his cattle to graze pastures more evenly. It wasn’t long before he realized the unintended outcomes for rotating his cattle and resting his rangeland were better breed up and improved plant diversity. This result has him convinced that breeding success rates follow healthy rangeland: “We’re not creating anything here, just realizing what nature can do.” For Bart, making ecological and financial improvements are a matter of paying close attention to how utilizing grass affects the numbers on his spreadsheets.

“The whole world is input oriented. People are after the silver bullet—inputs rather than utilizing what’s al-ready there,” Bart explained his movement toward optimum over maximum production meant that he relied more on the resources he had available rather than pouring money into protein supplements.

As we drove across his paddocks, Bart pointed out the bulky railroad ties he had for corner posts along his electric fences. He told me how his son spent days hauling the railroad ties around and tamping them in. It would be years before Bart found a better way to stabilize his electric fences with light fiberglass posts. The corner posts are a good example of Bart’s optimum over maximum philosophy. Like with his calves, he could get more done cheaper with the lighter, low input option than he could by overbuilding.

Once he landed on a fiberglass post he liked, he started an enterprise selling the posts across the country. Customers often call Bart asking for his advice on fencing and pasture rotations to which he answers, “it de-pends.” When taking on these grazing principles, he explains that “it’s gotta be adaptive. There are rotations that are good for cattle and rotations that are good for grass—the art is finding the balance.” Although he chose to ranch right away rather than attend college, Bart could teach this stuff better than any of the professors I had in school.

When he began his movement toward a low-input grazing system, Bart attended a South Dakota Grassland Coalition sponsored event where he met Terri Gompert and came away with new knowledge to bring back to his ranch. Bart sought out wisdom from other grazing management figures like Wayne Berry and Jim Gerrish. Bart stayed involved with the Coalition and has served on the board of directors for the past three years be-cause he believes in the value of healthy grasslands and the role education plays in holding onto them.

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