South Dakota Grassland Coalition

By Kate Rasmussen

Brett Nix grew up a few miles south of Murdo, South Dakota on the same ranch he and his wife Lori live on now. I visited the Nix place in the thick of calving on a balmy, May morning. We stood in the middle of his calving pasture next to a few calves hiding in the fresh grass. Curious mother cows and pregnant heifers started to make their way over to us from the nearby hills while Brett reflected on how much his ranch has changed over the last decade. He no longer spends his calving season in barns with a calf puller in hand like he used to.

Eight years ago, he stepped out of the calving barn for a short break from managing every mini crisis that comes with tending needy heifers. Worn out from working long hours with discontented cattle, Brett leaned against a panel and surveyed the herd of bred heifers milling around their pen. One heifer walked over to Brett through ankle deep mud and snow, stopped, then looked him square in the eye for a moment as if to say “you expect me to have my calf in this?” Brett recalls the turning point for his ranch. “I looked at the cow, her quality of life, and the unbelievable workload we had. It was a crisis of some sort.” He and his family have weathered March calving seasons for as long as he could remember, but something had to change.

Identifying the problem became his first step to making changes in a more promising direction. Calving in winter conditions was a problem. The labor-intensive system was tough on the cattle and their caretakers. Mother cows weren’t content in a sloppy pen, the number of calves needing to be pulled seemed too high, not to mention the young ones had to fight the cold once they made it on the ground.

Brett started researching new ideas and methods of running cattle on the grassland ecosystem. Lori encouraged him to attend an event put on by the Grassland Coalition where he heard Jim Gerrish speak. Gerrish had an “instrumental impact” on Brett’s approach to making necessary changes on his place. The talk challenged him to question his practices and ask: “what do we want our lives to look like” then find the steps to get there. Asking big picture questions, Brett found, helped him pick out specific weak links in the business: “We’ve really become ‘Why’ people.” The only reasons for calving out in the March cold was to accommodate planting in the spring and because he thought calves had to be a certain weight in the fall. Brett ran into a recurring issue when he questioned his reason for farming his land: the inputs didn’t match the rewards. The farming enterprise put a strain on the soil and financial recourses without a substantial return. On top of that, farming and March calving were parts of the business no one on the operation particularly enjoyed.

Brett focused their genetics on easier keeping animals by selling the tall, heavy boned cows and raising bulls compatible with pasture calving: “We do our best to produce cattle to match the groceries we’ve got.” He began selling farm equipment to fund fences and, over time, worked in a grazing rotation the grass responded well to. He found moving fewer groups of cattle for short durations; followed by allowing grazed pastures ample amount of recovery time ended up producing more “groceries” than the land had been producing in the past. “Doing anything new is hard even if it’s good,” Brett said as he reflected on the overhauling of his place spanning the last decade, “but doing things more naturally has made a lot of our major problems go away in the long run.” Simplifying calving by moving the date didn’t remedy everything on the Nix place but moving the date and rearranging land use helped iron out some of the major wrinkles. His calves and their mothers require drastically less hands on attention than before and the grass has become more productive on both wet and dry years. He’s no less busy than he was eight years ago– he does most of the work himself rather than needing to hire four employees and he’s able to spend more time on the parts of ranching he’s passionate about.

Brett has served on the SDGC board of directors for about a year. “Being on the board is my way of giving back to the organization that gave to me,” he said as we watched the content mother cows graze with their calves close by. Despite having his plate full, he continues to give his time to the Coalition. He has recently taken on organizing projects like the Coalition Pasture Walks. Educational events like the Pasture Walks provide others with the learning opportunities that helped him zoom out and improve his cattle operation: “Being exposed to new ideas opens your mind to new possibilities. One day can change the dynamic of your business.”

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