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Managing for Profit and Benefitting Wildlife

August 2012
D'Jeane Peters, Public Affairs

Photo of a smiling Ted Hash in a cowboy hat that shades his head on a sunny summer day at his ranch.
Ted Hash, rancher near Billings, Mont., uses a "twice-through" grazing managment plan he developed with NRCS. His plan allows him to graze 10 months of the year and just feed supplements for two months.

If you were to take an aerial picture of the ranch owned by Ted Hash, a third generation Montana rancher, you would see a patchwork of 29 small pastures, each between 100 and 400 acres in area. Hash raises about 160 cow-calf pairs and summers 200 stockers near Billings, Mont., and has proven to have an effective and innovative management plan. It has benefited Hash financially, as well as increased his wildlife habitat.

Shortly after he moved from Absarokee, Mont., in 2006, Hash sought the technical assistance of NRCS. “The first thing I did was find out what Ted’s overall goal for the ranch was. Then we inventoried the plant and animal life, and assessed the forage conditions available on Mr. Hash’s ranch,” said Matt Ricketts, NRCS area rangeland management specialist. “With that baseline data in hand, together we developed a plan that met Mr. Hash’s goals.”

As summer temperatures in Billings reached near-record breaking levels, the outcome of Hash’s grazing plan was evident�his land was still producing. “I’ve still got grass, as dry as it is, and I can graze in the winter,” he says. Other ranchers in the area were already feeding hay as early as July, and hay was selling for up to $200 per ton.
Hash worked with Ricketts to develop a “twice through” grazing management strategy, grazing 10 to 25 percent of the available grass between April 15 and July 1 before moving the cow-calf pairs to the next pasture. “This is the time of year when grasses are growing the fastest and when annual grasses are green and palatable, encouraging cattle to eat them and allowing for better growth of perennial species, the ones we want to increase,” Ricketts said.

In July, Hash starts the rotation over, hitting pastures for a second time, grazing 50 to 60 percent of the available grass. “Taking half leaves plenty of residue of the preferred grass species, making them healthier and more productive,” Ricketts said. “Over time both the drought and weed resistance of the ranch increases. Ted and I have already seen the wet coulees and depressions filling in with vegetation where once they were bare.”

Hash’s grazing plan rotates his cattle through 18 of his 22 pastures over a seven-month period, from April 15 through November 15. His remaining four pastures are used for grazing another three months in the winter, allowing him to graze 10 months of the year and only supplement feeding for two months of the year, decreasing his hay expense. “The less you have to feed hay, the better. Hay is an expense,” says Hash. Hash follows the same twice-through practice with his 200 yearlings, rotating through seven pastures from May 15 to Sept. 15.

In addition to monitoring his rangeland health (forage response), Hash also wanted to assess his cattle herd health (animal response). To do that, he began doing fecal analysis and nutritional consultations every month for two years, beginning in 2008, to determine the nutritional quality of an animal’s intake. The analysis provides a rancher with a nutritional balance report for protein and net energy and a report for least-cost feeding solutions, maximizing animal weight gain and minimizing costs. “This tool takes the guessing game out of when to feed your cattle supplements and determining exactly what they need,” Ricketts said.

In addition to financial and grazing management goals, Hash also wanted to increase wildlife habitat, especially for sage-grouse. “I see them from time to time. They’re around,” says Hash. The amount of grass he has compared to others in the area means that the grouse have much more available cover and food sources. “I’ve had much less cheat grass since we started these rotations,” says Hash.

Hash has managed his operation in a sustainable manner and as a result, his management system is a win for his cows, his land, his balance sheet, and sage-grouse.

Summer photo of dry sagebrush grassland with good vegetative cover.
Despite a very dry summer of 2012, Ted Hash's rangeland near Billings, Mont., was still producing grass, thanks to the healthy condition created by his grazing management system.