Grazing management involves more than moving cattle out of a pasture once the forage has been consumed. A good manager needs to know about the plants the pasture contains, its soil quality, water resources, and optimal resting period.

Grassland managers are planners — ready for catastrophes like drought, floods and fire — with written plans and management practices in place before disasters strike.

“We've switched our management routine,” says Jim Faulstich, owner and manager of Daybreak Ranch near Highmore, SD, “Rather than basing our emphasis on cow numbers and pounds of calf in the fall, we've switched to grass management and preserving the vigor of our grass and taking care of the resource.”

While much of the Midwest — into the western U.S. — Faulstich's place included, was hit with another year of drought, he emphasizes a good drought-management plan is necessary for survival and regrowth of pastures.

“It used to really hurt me to sell cows,” Faulstich adds. “But at their current price, I know if I cut numbers down under current circumstances my resource is going to be in that much better shape for recovery.”

Because of his belief in taking care of the land first, Faulstich became the first volunteer demonstration site for a program aimed at teaching all South Dakota graziers how to become better grass managers (more later).

The South Dakota Grazing Management and Planning Project (GMPP) was initiated in July 2001. Its brought together local, state and federal agencies, grassland and livestock organizations, university researchers and graziers interested in improving South Dakota's grasslands for grazing, wildlife, water quality and research purposes.

GMPP was set up in part by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition (SDGC), a non-profit group of livestock producers, private organizations, and local, state and federal agencies working together to promote grassland management.

“The coalition's objective is to help and educate people on how to operate and manage to make your grass survive and thrive, and how you can make a living doing it,” says LaVern Koch, SDGC chairman and a rancher from New Underwood, SD. “My feelings on grassland management is the closer you follow Mother Nature, the better it works.”

Getting started

SDGC received funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks (GFP). They also applied for and received an Environmental Protection Agency Section 319 Grant Clean Water Act grant through the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The DENR grant provides funding to curb non-point source pollution and allowed the hiring of a project coordinator for the GMPP. In October 2001 Justin “Judge” Jessop began promoting the project and worked with a team to draw grazing plans.

Jessop, a Presho producer, says he visits producers interested in setting up grazing plans, and begins by finding out the producer's goals for his operation.

“What changes are you willing to tolerate? What are you willing to do?” Jessop asks each producer he visits. “What do you want to change, what do you want it to look like and what can we do to help you get there?”

After viewing the pasture, the water sources and fences, Jessop and his partner, Leroy Ness of Kimball, draw up a grazing plan and suggest improvements.

“Sometimes there is cost-share money available, and sometimes there's not a need for cost share,” Jessop adds.

He says the project has helped formulate grazing-management plans for producers with as few as 30 acres to one with more than 50,000 acres.

“This isn't a one-size-fits-all system,” Jessop says. “We talk about fencing, we talk about water — sometimes we use above-ground pipes that don't require a heavy investment, diesel fuel or a lot of time; and sometimes we have to bury the waterlines.”

The goal was to plan grazing systems on 150,000 acres during the five-year period of the 319 grant. Jessop reports the project has surpassed that goal, and looking to apply for a three-year grant extension. The goal for the next three years is a minimum of 60,000 acres.

“We're just scratching the surface with those numbers,” says Dave Steffen, a retired Natural Resource Conservation Service range specialist from Burke, and a GMPP founder. “In some locations we're very welcome and get several referrals from the local conservation districts. In others, we rarely get any referrals and word doesn't get out as fast.”

Demonstration sites

The project not only assists with grazing-plan management but provides examples of grazing plans that work. Two demonstration sites are available on working ranches. Faulstich set up the first-ever demo site — an intensive rotational grazing system. The second site is located on the Mark Sip Ranch near Geddes.

“Steffen was one of the instrumental people to see a need for a demonstration site to establish and document the value of management-intensive grazing, especially on native ranges,” Faulstich says. “I'm located at the center of the state and was already involved in grazing management. He felt our area would represent the average of South Dakota.”

Faulstich uses approximately 320 acres of pasture for the demo site GFP and FWS provided the initial funds for fencing materials and water supplies.

The site was divided into 21 paddocks, each averaging more than 15 acres. Faulstich uses the paddocks to graze his replacement heifers away from the main herd.

“The fact it's a demonstration site, we do run it more intensely than the rest of the ranch,” he adds.

Faulstich moves the cattle as the grass dictates they need to be moved.

“We started by using a 30% utilization rate,” Steffen says, explaining how the grazing plan was set up. “When 30% of the cover was removed, we moved to the next paddock.

“Temporary electric fence is very versatile as far as moving it around. It's economical and it demonstrates how easily you can cross fence on existing pasture and get set up into a system without a lot of labor and expense to establish a permanent system,” he adds.

Faulstich says the paddocks are normally grazed twice during the grazing season for an average of three days. This year's drought, however, has reduced grazing to a single occasion.

Manage the land

Faulstich emphasizes how important he believes land management is, especially in an area where drought and fire can be yearly threats.

“I'm a firm believer in having a drought plan,” he says. “We have certain critical dates we evaluate our moisture — Nov. 1 of the previous year, April 1 and May 1. The further into those three dates we go, the more involved we are in determining how to reduce grazing pressure on the entire operation.

“We establish priorities for individual cows we're willing to put first on the sell list, and then we early wean their calves and put them on creep feed. By getting rid of those cows, we reduce the demand for forage,” he adds.

He's more than willing to share his knowledge with others, hosting several tours each year and making his ranch available to GMPP participants. South Dakota State University researchers also make use of the demo site, analyzing forage quality and moisture management to use as teaching tools.

And while Faulstich advocates the importance of management-intensive grazing systems, he cautions, “Don't just go out and start building fences and put in water. It's not a band-aid for poor management. It probably increases management, but I think the rewards are well worth it, if done properly.”

For more information on GMPP or SDGC, visit www.sdgrass.org, or call Jessop at 605/280-0127.