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Ranch Makeover in McIntosh County

Home makeover programs are popular on cable TV. But a whole ranch makeover? Now that would be a real hit, especially in farm and ranch country.

Kindra Gordon writes from Whitewood, SD.

Cody and Deanna Sand, who operate a ranch in McIntosh and Dickey counties, made over their ranch with the help of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), in Ashley, N.D. NRCS provided technical advice and financial assistance.

family, snow

The Sands started work in 2010 with a decision to move calving from March and April to June. Getting their cows more in sync with Mother Nature would lower their winter labor and feed cost and better match their Red and Black Angus cows’ nutritional needs to the forage availability of their pastures.

Cody and Deanna also recognized that even though they were using rotational grazing, they were understocking and overgrazing. They credit holistic management training for helping them recognize the benefits of short duration, high stock density grazing followed by rest and recovery on pastures.

In 2012 the Sands secured an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contract through their local NRCS office at Ashley. Over the next two years they installed nine miles of water pipeline, 27 water tanks, and cross-fencing to create 64 permanent paddocks on 2,300 acres (the area was previously divided into 16 larger paddocks). Paddocks now average 40 acres in size and depending on the forage available during the growing season can be sub-divided with poly wire.

Cody credits NRCS with being a great technical and financial resource.

“What we did in two years [with their help] would have taken us 20 years or more to afford ourselves,” he says.

The Sand’s cowherd, which fluctuates from 225 to 300 head, now graze on a 40-acre paddock for two to three days during the active growing season before being moved to another paddock. A second herd of about 150 head, comprised of yearling heifers, two-year-old cows and some of Cody’s dad’s cows, are grazed on other paddocks through the summer. By late August, they’ll be grouped together into one large herd.

To stretch their grazing season to be as long as possible, in the spring the ranch relies on about 400 acres of former Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground that had been planted to cool-season forages including bromes and alfalfa.

Summer grazing is primarily on native range pastures.

Pastures are also saved for fall grazing. In 2017, the cowherd grazed stockpiled pasture forage all the way to Dec. 15, before being moved to bale grazing.

High density, short duration grazing has helped the Sands manage invasive species, improve soil health and water infiltration and even control flies. They make sure they move cows some distance to new grass each time so that when fly larvae hatch in the manure the cows deposited in the old paddock, they don’t have a host.

The Sands have also been able to increase the number of grazing days on their operation. This has allowed them to keep calves on the cows for 10 months, wean in March, carry calves through the winter and grass-fatten them the following spring and summer and sell them in late August.

In 2017 when the ranch only got 1-inch of rain from April through July, the Sands were preparing to sell yearling steers early. But when the rain started to come in late July, their grass began to grow. Cody credits the quick regrowth to their short duration grazing, rest and recovery scheme. The extra grass growth carried their steers to their August sell date and provided enough forage to graze the cowherd into mid-December.

Grazing mentors promised Cody and Deanna that by making over the ranch they would get through two or three years of drought without destocking. Now they believe it.

“With good grazing management, it can be possible,” he says.

Patti Burian, NRCS Soil Conservationist in McIntosh County, is impressed with the impact the change has made on the Sand ranch.

“The way they can utilize their grass with short grazing periods and being heavily stocked is nothing short of great management. I was doing a farm visit one day and we went to a pasture that they stock piled grass that year. Not only was there big bluestem (an ice cream plant for livestock) all over, there were also many different kinds of insects. To me, that says a lot about their environment there.”

High intensity grazing isn’t for everyone, Burian says, “but if you can start making changes to your operation little by little, it will make a huge difference.”