South Dakota Grassland Coalition

by Pete Bauman

July 2019

For the two or three people that generally read my columns, you know that I’m a staunch advocate for keeping our native grasslands ‘green side up’ when it comes to converting native pastures to cropland. I’ve seen plenty of that in both high and low grain markets, and so I’m surprised that it still catches me off-guard, but it does. With the present economic and climate situation, low prices and high water, why we still have land going under the plow is somewhat of a mystery, but I think it centers on not understanding the true value of diversity on the land.

And so, another, possibly more complicated threat to keep the green side up, is curbing our dependence on chemicals for rangeland management. Now I have, and do still on rare occasions, use chemicals too. The problem isn’t so much the use of chemicals as much as it is the general lack of understanding of how, when, where, and why to apply them and a realistic sense of what we believe they will accomplish. More or less, most pasture chemical management is like using a hammer when you really need a scalpel. Its cliché, but true. This ‘browning’ of the prairie is often coupled with poor grazing management, and thus our native diversity of flowering plants and lush native grasses slowly gives way to a ‘converted’ grassland full of non-native grasses and largely devoid of flowering plants – plants which have a place and which livestock will use when given the chance.

Through a recent grant by NRCS’s Collaborative Conservation Grants, the SD Grassland Coalition and partners have begun work on an educational program that will highlight the pitfalls associated with ‘chemical first’ pasture management. A major theme of this project is to not only identify the downside of broadcast chemical mismanagement, but also to acknowledge that weed problems can persist and offer tangible advice on identifying root problems and real-world, workable solutions.

Those solutions are highlighted, in part, on the Rock Hills Ranch near Lowry, SD, where father and son team Lyle and Luke Perman have taken great strides to understand the underlying drivers that make their ranch successful, including plant diversity and ecology. Ultimately, success hinges on understanding the carrying capacity of their ranch. From this knowledge, opportunity abounds, because not all species of plants are factored into the carrying capacity for cattle. Further, some species of plants not palatable to cattle are true weeds of real concern like leafy spurge or wormwood sage, while others are native plants that might be out of balance or underutilized like buckbrush (or goldenrods farther east).

Generally, there is a misconception that persists in modern ranch management that has convinced producers that by investing in chemical inputs they will reduce weed competition, therefore growing more forage and increasing carrying capacity, increasing total production and making more money. While in theory this sounds reasonable, in reality it has led to landscape level economic and ecological costs that are astounding. Don’t believe me? Just take a look around. If this system was working, we should be ‘winning’ the weed war with chemicals, but, simply put, we are not. What we are often left with are weedy pastures with reduced carrying capacity due to overstocking with no chance for a desirable plant to grow, so we have weeds. And the cycle just continues.

So back to the Perman’s. What makes them different? Nothing, except a desire to understand more, spend less, increase profits, decrease workload, and improve quality of life. By studying and understanding carrying capacity, they realized that their ranch has a higher capacity for livestock than originally thought in the form of plant species the cattle do not readily eat. Why spend dollars fighting a futile war with chemicals trying to wipe out those pants on the unproven presumption that the ranch will grow ‘more’ cattle feed. Instead, why not simply take advantage of the carrying capacity that already exists by using livestock that will eat those undesirable plants? Sounds simple. Can it be that easy? Maybe.

Enter the sheep. Not just any sheep. Con-trolled and targeted sheep grazing specifically designed to take advantage of weedy species without competing with cattle for their preferred plants. This is accomplished through the ancient art of shepherding by man and dog made possible with modern technologies like ATV’s, electricity, plastics, and polyfence. The Perman’s are working with a large sheep provider through a ‘package’ deal that includes, man, dogs, and gear, and about 1,000 sheep. Every day the shepherd targets the grazing on forage that is underutilized by cattle. Every night he pens the sheep and the dogs take the night shift, protecting the herd from predators. As for Lyle and Luke, their labor investment con-sists mostly of directing the shepherd and ensuring he has the resources he needs.

At the end of the day, the weeds are controlled, the sheep are healthy, the ranch looks great, the cattle are fed, the shepherd is employed, the Perman’s spend less and make more and are free to work on other enterprises. It sometimes is surprising how something old can feel new again. While this system likely won’t work for everyone, it does have great potential to be explored at many scales. The first step is ensuring an understanding of carrying capacities and stocking rates. Once the cattle grazing is in order, sheep may just add enough diversity to the mix to help you save money or make more, both of which sound pretty good!

Source: SDGC Newsletter

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