South Dakota Grassland Coalition Blog
Noem Announces Leopold Conservation Award Winner
Award recognizes landowners for outstanding stewardship
PIERRE, S.D. – In conjunction with Earth Day, Governor Kristi Noem today announced that Johnson Farms of Frankfort has been selected for the 2019 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold, this award recognizes private landowners who inspire others with their dedication to the land, water, and wildlife resources in their care.
In South Dakota, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. Johnson Farms will be presented with the $10,000 award, and a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention in December.
“Farmers and ranchers across South Dakota know how to balance agriculture production with conservation,” said Noem. “The intentional innovation, stewardship, and land ethic of the Johnsons and other producers ensures that our natural resources will be available for future generations.”
“The Johnsons are demonstrating how crops and cattle can work together to support their multiple-generation family farm while improving their natural resources and the bottom line,” said Steve Ollerich, president of South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association. “We congratulate them as our 2019 Leopold Conservation Award recipients and applaud their conservation ethic.”
“The Johnson’s focus on conservation, while managing multiple enterprises on their family farm, is commendable and we congratulate them on receiving the 2019 South Dakota Conservation Award,” said Jim Faulstitch, chairman of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. “We look forward to continuing to highlight their conservation story throughout the year.”
“Leopold Conservation Award recipients are at the forefront of a movement by America’s farmers and ranchers to simultaneously achieve economic and environmental success,” said Kevin McAleese, president and CEO of Sand County Foundation.
Finalists for the award included Bien Ranch of Veblen in Marshall County, Blair Brothers Angus Ranch of Vale in Butte County, and Hefner Ranch of Whitewood in Lawrence County.
Award applicants were judged based on their demonstration of improved resource conditions, innovation, long-term commitment to stewardship, sustained economic viability, community and civic leadership, and multiple use benefits.
About the winner:
Alan and Mickie Johnson, with their son Brian and his wife Jamie, farm 1,800 acres of cropland and 500 acres of grassland in Spink County. Agricultural conservation practices and raising cattle make the Johnsons more efficient without buying more land.
The farm’s roots trace back to 160 acres that Johnson’s Swedish immigrant grandfather homesteaded more than a century ago. The Johnsons use a mix of old school practices and modern technology to leave the land in better shape for the next generation.
Alan Johnson adopted no-till farming practices in 1986 when abandoning the plow, disk and cultivator was much against the norm. Despite what the neighbors thought, Alan saw that tilling a field to rid it of weeds was also depleting it of moisture. By mid-summer, if rain was scarce, crops suffered.
By coupling no-till practices with cover crops, the Johnsons have improved water infiltration and soil health, increasing productivity.
The Johnsons also find that a diverse rotation of their corn, soybean, wheat, oat, and barley crops, and leaving crop residue in place, minimizes agricultural runoff, naturally eases pest management, and provides wildlife habitat. To further address soil erosion and salinity problems, the Johnsons enrolled land in the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program.
Realizing that different areas of each field have varying productivity, the Johnsons switched to a variable-rate fertilizer system in 2004. Applying the precise amount of nutrients on the soil saves time and natural resources, and delivers a better return on investment. Since the switch, the Johnsons have won a yield contest held by the South Dakota Soybean Association.
The Johnsons also raise a herd of Angus beef cattle. Whenever possible, the herd is allowed to graze on mature cover crops and corn stubble, creating a cooperative relationship between the cattle and the land. The cover crops provide feed, and the cattle naturally fertilize the soil with their waste.
Grazing used to mean turning the cattle out to pasture for the summer and bringing them home in the fall. It was easy, but it took a toll on the quality and variety of the grass. The Johnsons now rotationally graze their cattle and closely monitor grazing conditions and the timing of their calving season.
While the longtime crop farmers admit that managing grass and cattle requires additional time, the results are healthier land and a stronger bottom line.
For more information on the award, visit leopoldconservationaward.org
By Dan Rasmussen
The year was 1991. The air was cool for July as I stood on top of a tall butte with my Father and Dwayne Breyer. The three of us were looking out onto the ranch that I ran with my father. The pastureland was brown from hot summer winds and sparse rain. For the years, `90 & `91, I had been part of a new extension program called Bootstraps, designed to help people like me improve ranch management. Dwayne, a range consultant with Bootstraps, started pointing out the large green patches scattered throughout the winter pastures visible on the plain below.
“If I were you fellas,” he said, “I’d be rotating a large herd of yearlings through these pastures about now.” He pointed out the green patches we could see were warm season grasses; mostly big bluestem and side oats gramma. Dwayne went on to say the yearlings will seek out those “ice cream” grasses and leave the western wheat alone. That`s a good thing for us since western wheat is a great grass for winter grazing. He said that cows will have to be pretty hungry before they eat big or little bluestem in the winter when it is dormant. Not that they won`t but you can get a lot better use of those grasses by grazing in the summer with a fast rotation.
I was in the first Bootstraps class starting in 1990. Dwayne was a hired range consultant doing the Bootstraps follow up resource inventory. Dwayne stood between my Father, Skee, and I on the butte that July day when he recommended implementing a rotational grazing plan on the ranch. There was a long silence after he had made his pitch. Finally, Skee spoke, “Won`t those yearlings hurt our winter pasture? I am afraid they will eat out the good stuff and our winter grass won`t last.”
I looked at both of them and said, “lets try it.”
Dwayne, sensing my enthusiasm and Skee`s reluctance, adeptly shifted into his “be careful” lecture, “I’d suggest you start slow with a small herd”, Dwayne began, “get your feet wet for a couple of years and see how it goes. The worst thing you could do is jump in too fast and have a wreck. That might sour you from making some real progress.”
That first summer we rotated fifty yearlings through six winter pastures. Two years later we were moving 250 yearling steers every two to three weeks through 800 acre pastures. This rotation took us into August when we normally sold the yearlings. We were able to keep the yearling open heifers all summer instead of selling them in the spring.
After the first year of rotating cattle, my father was a huge fan of the practice. He would drive around the ranch evaluating utilization of warm season grasses and coaching me on how long to leave the yearlings in each pasture.
Standing on Cedar Butte that day in July of 1991, Dwayne made his second pitch, explaining how season long grazing was depleting our plant diversity.
“Your plant diversity may be the most important thing you have going on this ranch.” Dwayne said, “Where you summer long graze, the warm season grasses and forbs are just disappearing. If you can manage to get these pairs rotated even a couple of times during the summer it would make a tremendous difference in your pastures.”
It took a number of years for Dwayne`s wise words to be fully appreciated by my father and I. But, joined a few years later by brother-in-law Blake, we planned, sometimes failed, and re-planned grazing strategies. In drought years the yearlings were sold in May. Steadily the pastures improved. As a result, plant diversity is, as Dwayne predicted, the most important natural resource we have on our ranch today.
Dan is a past board member of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition of 18 years. He is currently the Educator/Consultant on the Coalition’s Collaborative Conservation Grant.
Recent graduates of the South Dakota Grazing School are eligible for a Bootstraps style range consultant visit. The range consultant may spend several days on the graduates ranch helping implement grazing practices. The cost is $150. The remaining consultant fees are paid by grants from NRCS, SDSU Extension, and other generous donors.
If you are interested in participating in the Grazing School Follow-Up program, contact Dan at:
If you would like to attend a grazing school, contact
Judge Jessop at: email@example.com.
Check out April’s Our Amazing Grasslands Producers!
Linda Gilbert: Managing Grass with Cattle, a Little Water, and Plenty of Good Ideas by Kate Rasmussen
Linda Gilbert, the most recent addition to the South Dakota Grassland Coalition’s board of directors, isn’t new to the cattle industry. Linda was raised alongside cattle and horses in western South Dakota. She inherited the land ethic of her father Ken Halligan, a lifelong cattlemen and land steward. A veteran of the cattle industry and advocate for her heritage, Linda was appointed by Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, to serve on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board in 2010. Linda has also served
for a number of years on the National Board of Beef Council and Public Lands Committee.
Linda and her husband, Ray, run a cow-calf operation outside of Buffalo, SD. The two work around an arid, practically high desert climate averaging only ten to twelve inches of rainfall per year. This dry country requires a delicate balance between running a profitable cattle business and careful land management. Like many of the SDGC board members, the tough economic climate of the 80’s pushed Ray and Linda to make drastic changes in their management style. They did plenty of research and landed on a rotational grazing system they thought might work on their ranch. They added around twenty miles of electric cross fencing and increased their stocking rate by three fold. The two were able to take in yearlings and run a herd of sheep to supplement the cattle business. Linda found these changes helped their business and also matched the “take care of the land, it will take care of you” philosophy of her father. After about three years, Ray and Linda started seeing the land change as a result of their grazing system. Places on the ranch that were historically hardpan began growing feed. Perennial native grasses began gaining a competitive advantage over invasive species they had around for years like prairie sand reed. “Since we started rotational grazing, we’ve never sold cattle because of drought,” Linda said as she listed the unexpected positive results of their grazing system. It’s taken plenty of time to work the kinks out through trial and error, “we’re still tweaking things each year. There are so many different methods of rotating. You just have to figure out what works on your place,” she said, “find what works in your area and have an open mind. Be ready for change and be an observer. If you truly want to improve, watch your cattle and watch what your grass is doing.” When I asked the two if they had any advice for folks who are beginning their own ranch or thinking about changing an existing model Linda said, “Be ready to learn, observe, and adapt.” Ray and Linda discovered that there are many elements of a grazing system that vary from place to place, but one rule they live by is to always start in a new pasture. Each spring they always start their rotation on a different pasture rather than grazing the same plants at the same time every year. Practicing this year after year has allowed desirable native grasses to thrive. They’re also sold on fence line weaning. Ray and Linda both shook their heads, wishing they had done it years before: “The cattle are less stressed, they don’t get sick, and there’s really no shrink,” Ray said.
Thinking back over the years, Ray added that he wishes they had taken more pictures of the progress they’ve made in their pastures over time. “I wish we would have done more grass monitoring and kept track of the data,” Ray said. He also recommends doing thorough research on electric fence material. As a new member of the quickly growing organization, Linda is excited about the work the Coalition does for South Dakota land managers. She looks forward to being a part of the Coalition as it expands in the state. She believes that the organization “is a great opportunity for producers to learn from other producers. The coalition does a great job of sharing research.” The Gilbert Ranch arrived where it is today by sifting through research, picking out the good ideas, and adapting them to their ranch through trial and error. The Coalition helps producers speed up this process and offers educational support for people looking to improve their land while getting the most out
Ray and Linda agreed that if they could change anything about the way they did things in the early years of their ranch they would have gotten out more. “One of our biggest mistakes as young ranchers was that we worked all the time and never left the place. Talking to other producers and learning about different ways of doing things would have helped us a lot,” Linda said, “Networking is really important and it’s something the Coalition does well.”
Kate Rasmussen is a freelance writer and ranch hand based near Belvidere, SD.
As we start the spring semester at SDSU and a new year, I thought it appropriate to write about goal planning. Each year, I start my Ranch Management Planning course by reviewing the holistic goal concept developed by Allan Savory in his book
“Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making”. Spending time thinking about the “whole” is very important to orient oneself and a ranching operation to the things that influence every decision that needs to be made. Understanding that you don’t operate a ranch in a vacuum is important in developing a holistic goal. We first define the “whole” into three major categories: decision makers, resource base, and money. The categories are smaller wholes in themselves overlapping and
connecting everything together. The decision makers are people that have an influence on the day-to-day operations of the ranch or have a vested financial interest in the operation. These people create the holistic goal. It is a good idea to involve hired labor in forming of the holistic goal because they have special insight since they conduct routine tasks on the ranch. Creativity often comes from the ones doing the work as noted by Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great”. Also, you want people to be “on-board” when you implement necessary changes to the operation. The resource base is the physical things we normally think about on a ranch such as land, livestock, and equipment. However, you should expand this to include people as well. Extension agents, bankers, veterinarians, government agency people, etc. can be an excellent resource of
knowledge to help you be successful. Finally, there is money. We need money to reinvest in the business and support our lifestyle. The important thing to remember is the source of money and the time value it has. It can work either for you or against you. You just need to use it wisely.
After defining the whole, you can form the holistic goal. Savory describes three areas of the holistic goal: quality of life, forms of production, and future resource base. The quality of life can be described by value statements about family, work, free time, spiritual, physical, and emotional well being. Forms of production are statements about how to take the resource base and convert it to money to support your quality of life. For example, most farms and ranches support wildlife and could generate income through hunting or agritourism in addition to growing crops and livestock. Think outside the box for ways to convert the sun’s energy into cash. Last is the future resource base. You should think of statements that value the succession of your family business to the next generation, the environmental land ethic, and the importance it has in your community.
The holistic goal acts like a filter to help you make decisions and point you in the right direction. It grounds you and helps you avoid impulsiveness and miss steps you might regret. It also is not carved in stone. It should be a living document, reviewed
and revised regularly. This time of year is perfect to review, revise, and use your holistic goal.
By Sandy Smart
To learn more about the Holistic Mangement Goal setting process developed by Dr. Allan Savory, click here