Dave Reis advises his ranching peers to "go slow" in developing a rotational grazing system. While he has no regrets about establishing 24 paddocks on 8,500 acres during the past 20 years, he said he'd go at it slower if he had it to do over.
"I couldn't afford to do it all at once and was always cautious in making changes, starting with installation of a couple of cross-fences each year," Reis said of the South Dakota ranch.
"Once I started seeing results from initial investments, I began adding some kind of improvements every year. Through two recent years of little rainfall, figuring 10 acres of grazing per cow, we were able to maintain about 750 mama cows."
As the ranch's third generation on the Lyman County ranch, Reis said he recognized early on he would not be able to graze cattle the same way his father and grandfather had. His herd numbers had to be larger, and his grassland had to be more productive.
"Most of our topsoils are clay, overlaying shale and gravel ridges," he said. "This supports mixed-grass prairie, with both warm- and cool-season grasses like big bluestem, green needlegrass and western wheatgrass."
In a good year, Reis sees 20 to 25 inches of rain, with a hefty percentage of that coming in the form of snow. When the range is grass-covered year-round, it's a natural snow catcher.
"If our ground is bare over winter, snow blows away," he added. Since he has always lived on this ranch that lies along the Missouri River Breaks, words like "very rough," often used to describe rangeland, don't trouble him. "My family has learned how to deal with this land, and I have learned what I can and can't do out here."
GENETICS AND PADDOCKS
Reis uses Charolais sires on black baldy cows to produce big calves, maximizing pounds of beef harvested per acre. All new heifer calves come from a pool retained from his herd because they have the proven genetic background needed to thrive here. Because the rangeland is divided into paddocks, cattle can't avoid thoroughly grazing each area.
"Over time, grazing too much or too little leads to poor-quality pasture," he explained. "This was a sheep ranch when Granddad bought it in 1934. It was probably overgrazed then. Because Dad and Granddad had just one or two large summer pastures, a calving and a winter pasture, they had few management options. They did what they had to in order to survive."
Today, Reis has more management options in dealing with changing weather and grass conditions. Altogether, he figures he has 15 miles of cross-fencing, 12 miles of pipeline and 36 big, rubber-tire water tanks. It all adds up to options. He can move cattle to accommodate environmental conditions throughout the season.
GRAZING BASED ON MARKETS
"We only graze each paddock once during the growing season," Reis said. "Each year, we start our rotation in a different paddock, giving every grass species out there a chance to regrow and restore."
Yearling stockers from his herd are retained in years when grass is abundant. If rainfall becomes scarce during the growing season, stockers can be removed or marketed early. "In 2018, it looked like we'd have a dry year, so we sold stockers in April," the rancher recalled. "As it turned out, we had extra grass."
Reis observes cattle and grass conditions on a daily basis as he determines rotation times. On average, he aims to graze 50% of a paddock before moving cattle on to the next one.
Darrel DuVall, with the Natural Resource Conservation Service's (NRCS) Chamberlain, South Dakota, field office, likes the fact that Reis has long-term vision as opposed to focusing on just short-term gains.
"Dave is working toward sustainable soil health on his land," DuVall said. "My role with him is more one of support, coming alongside and seeing how NRCS programs can assist him in his efforts."
Among the results DuVall said he's seen firsthand on the Reis ranch are reduced gully erosion, rotating use of calving pastures and short grazing periods followed by adequate rest. "Drought and dry conditions are common in this area," he added. "Ranchers should expect dry conditions at least several times every decade."
For Reis, that means focusing on a rotation plan that is always flexible. "I build in flexibility each year so I can move cattle as necessary and manage stockers to do what's best for the range," he said. "Putting in pipeline and fences is a great investment, and NRCS cost-share programs really help."
Reis emphasized it's important to resist the urge to overstock in the first years of a new rotational system. Because it takes a lot of years to overgraze rangeland, grazers shouldn't expect that land to come back with just one year of working a new system.
"If you don't give yourself time to thoroughly understand how a new rotation system works on your land, you'll probably end up grazing too short," Reis said. "What works for me may not work for someone else. And, ranching can't only be about the money. We have to make sure we're leaving the land better than we found it."
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