Drought-proof your ranch: Manage for Plant, Animal and Ranch Diversity
As ranchers learn adaptive grazing, a new appreciation of plant species diversity, no bare ground and soil health accelerate. And they understand that the process isn’t as difficult as they initially thought to begin achieving quicker recovery from drought.
Early on, West River rancher Robert Boylan realized that adaptive grazing practices on his heavy gumbo soils would not include small paddocks and high-density livestock. “There’s no doubt rotational grazing is the best system, and what we’ve discovered is grazing our cattle and sheep on 1,000 to 2,400-acre pasture size works best for us, followed hopefully by 12 months rest,” he says.
Working with nature on this Butte County ranch near Newell has gradually improved Boylan’s pastures that were abused and mismanaged when he bought the ranch a decade ago. Instead of the old overgrazing without rotating practice, Boylan adapts herd size and pasture rotation timing using the ‘take half-leave half’ grazing strategy to improve the land.
“The most significant changes I’ve seen in forage diversity have resulted from managing the grass, resting and rotating, which allows nature to heal and bring back some warm-season native grasses,” Boylan says. “All my plant species seem to be coming back in full after two years of drought.”
Boylan likens his pasture improvement to a natural system of buffalo roaming and grazing in big mobs, allowing the grass to rest behind them. “They also broke the grass up and pushed it into the ground when it was soft, adding nutrients and microorganisms to the soil,” he says.
Other adaptive grazing practices paying dividends are water distribution and bringing biology back to the 15 miles of riparian areas along three creeks that run through Boylan Ranch. Over the last decade, Boylan has worked with NRCS to design and install 60 miles of pipeline to 60 tanks. He collects rainfall and runoff water in 130 reservoirs he has built, aimed to bring plants and wildlife to the creeks that are primarily dry except in wet years like 2019.
“Adding water and more rest for pastures has made a huge difference, as we have fewer cow trails, and the old grass infiltrates more water into the soil profile,” he says.
To diversify his water source, Boylan has partnered with six ranching neighbors, working with The Nature Conservancy, to drill a well. “It will be a dream come true for all of our ranches and will benefit everything from the wildlife to our livestock and profitability.”
Animal and wildlife diversity
Boylan likes his diversity of sheep and cattle grazing, running between 1,000 to 1,600 sheep and 800 to 1,400 cows, depending on grass availability and economics. “I like the differences in hoof action, how they eat and fertilize differently, and how sheep improve the slopes and edges of our dams, so I try to graze them first.”
He’s also experimenting with native grass seeding using his sheep. “I’m in a program to test whether sheep hoof traffic can push previously broadcasted seed into bare ground areas to grow grass and cut erosion.”
As Boylan rests pastures for as long as economically feasible, he sees wildlife diversity benefits. More birds, whitetail deer, antelope, mule deer—they’re all moving back in because there’s more water and protein, which is so good to see,” he says. “The more I can rest a pasture, the better the grass and the more cows we can run with less work.”
Mitch Faulkner, NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist who works with Boylan, is impressed by his continual efforts to improve the ranch. “Robert has worked diligently to improve infrastructure and grazing management. Now he’s focused on other resource concerns like livestock distribution, upland improvement, and riparian structures—always trying new things to increase resource potential,” Faulkner says.
Diverse options for healthy rangeland
While up to 12 months of rest works well for Boylan and other ranchers, some ranchers find splitting up rest periods works to optimize plant health, water infiltration and increase organic soil nitrogen. For example, White River sheep and cattle rancher and 30-year career NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist Lealand Schoon is a big believer and user of Lee Manske’s decades-old twice-over rotation system.
Research since the 1970s by range scientist Manske at the NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center has focused on restoring degraded grasslands using biology and physiology. By maximizing photosynthesis and stimulating plants to feed the rhizosphere organisms, this practice can achieve increased organic mineralized nitrogen for long-term above and below-ground benefits.
“Nitrogen is the major growth-limiting factor in northern plains rangeland. So, once we understand soil biology and work with nature to achieve more diverse healthy plants and roots, then more nitrogen becomes available over time,” Schoon says. “By soil sampling we can see that the soil achieves 100 pounds per acre of organic mineralized nitrogen in about 10 years, while upgrading the total biomass production and diversity in a grassland ecosystem.”
Schoon explains the biologically effective twice-over rotation system in four main points: stimulate, growth, harvest, and recover. It begins with a proper stocking rate on a minimum of three and a maximum of six contiguous native grass pastures. Then, each pasture gets lightly grazed during this stimulate phase for 7 to 17 days to achieve a 30% defoliation between June 1 and July 15 (45-day interval).
This light graze stimulates soil biology, adds 5 to 8 more tillers per plant and continues root growth that usually stops if 50% of the plant is removed. The goal is to ignore cool-season invader grasses and not graze until native species grasses have 3-1/2 leaves—to increase, rather than halt warm-season grass and forbs growth.
Following this resting growth phase is the harvest phase, a 90-day grazing interval from mid-July to mid-October. Each pasture is grazed for twice the number of days as the first grazing period, leaving 50% of the native grass foliage. The remaining tillers store carbohydrates and nutrients to continue plant mechanisms over winter, which resume growth in spring.
“The dormant season is the recovery period where you have an active, deeper and more dense root system. And these roots are more diverse, feeding many different soil organisms throughout the year,” Schoon says. “This grazing strategy focuses on rangeland soil health, less infrastructure, easier implementation and resiliency against drought. When the rangeland soil is healthy, it can reduce the symptoms associated with drought to about two years out of 40.”
Ranch income diversity
The final important piece of diversity to many ranchers is a diverse income stream. “I don’t know of a profitable ranch right now that doesn’t have a working wife with insurance or some kind of outside income,” Boylan says. “My summer wages the last two years have been waterline trenching for people and occasional fence building.”
The Boylans also built a successful wedding venue on their ranch, and a bar that gains traffic from motorcyclists attending the Sturgis rally every year. “We’ve also invested in our small town of Newell, including part ownership of the grocery store and some rental homes. All these efforts help keep the ranch going as we hope to pass it down to our kids someday,” Boylan adds.
To learn more about how diversity can help drought-proof your ranch, South Dakota offers an innovative look at ranchers across the state who describe their improvement journeys in the NRCS-South Dakota video series ‘Our Amazing Grasslands.’ In addition, the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition has compiled a list of rancher mentors by topic. And the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition has a list of farmer and rancher mentors.
In case you missed it, check out Part 1 of this series.
This is part three of a six-part series of articles that showcase how a growing number of ranchers have moved away from season-long grazing in a few pastures to a more adaptive and productive grazing system. Understanding the steps in their journey–– along with grassland specialists’ recommendations––can put you on the path to a less stressful, more profitable operation.