Much is said and written about how ranchers can bolster profit by giving appropriate attention to the management of cattle nutrition and health. Much emphasis is placed on the role of genetics. Savvy marketing is touted as a key element in improving an operation’s bottom line. Certainly, all are influential factors. However, Pat Guptill believes long-term profitability is largely a function of how well ranchers manage their land.
The western South Dakota rancher says attention to improving soil health and range plant health and diversity ultimately lead to increased forage yield. Cattle are tools for utilizing the forage. Guptill and his wife, Mary Lou, consider grazing management critical to optimal utilization of that basic ranch resource.
For 25 years, the couple has operated the ranch, near Quinn, where Mary Lou was raised. Since 2000, they have implemented non-traditional management practices to enhance its forage resources and increase drought resilience. They have tried to lower production costs and increase efficiency. Pursuit of those objectives has brought many changes to the ranch.
The desire for a breeding herd requiring less feed for maintenance prompted genetic selection for cows of smaller frame and moderate mature weight. Breeding those cows to start calving in May further reduces feed requirements. Guptill says meeting late-gestation nutrient requirements of cows that calve in late-winter or early-spring typically requires feeding harvested forages. It can take a lot of hay to have cows in Body Condition Score 5 or 6, at calving time.
“Our cows graze throughout the year and we feed very little hay,” explains Guptill, admitting the cows will lose some condition in the winter. “It doesn’t hurt anything. They will be on green grass for close to two months before they calve, so they reach scores of 5 ½ to 6 by that time.”
That doesn’t mean the cows never, ever receive hay, but they seldom see very much. Guptill says hay serves as a supplement to grazed forage, rather than a substitute for it.
“For years the same guy has put up our hay, on shares. With the high cost of machinery and fuel, we really couldn’t justify owning haying equipment for our small amount of hay ground,” tells Guptill.
“We feed hay when we wean calves, and if ice-crusted snow keeps cows from grazing,” he adds. “We will supplement cows with 5 pounds of alfalfa (per day) in the winter. The cows never get a belly-full of hay, though, so they keep grazing.”
Running on dormant range during the winter, cattle are managed under what Guptill calls “limit-grazing.” They are allowed access to limited acreage, with enough forage for one to two weeks, and then moved to another area. Guptill says a relatively high stock density – what some grazing managers call mob grazing – and frequent rotation affords better forage utilization. With proper management, animal hoof impact also puts plant residue in close contact with the soil where it can feed soil microbes.
Guptill strives for 50 percent forage utilization during the winter, but often achieves 85 percent utilization during the summer. When forage is green and growing, cattle are rotated to new ground more frequently. Generally, cow-calf pairs are rotated every two days, while yearlings are moved daily.
“Our summer grazing management has evolved quite a bit. At first, we tried to take too much grass before rotating. We didn’t have a goal for how much to leave behind. Now, the goal is to leave about an estimated 1,000 pounds of residual forage, per acre,” says Guptill, noting that adequate residual forage is necessary for plants to recover during a period of rest.
Short grazing periods mean plants have ample time to grow and strengthen their root systems. Guptill says strong roots make the range more drought resistant. He warns, however, that having a drought plan is critical to protecting the land.
Maintaining both cow-calf and yearling enterprises allows Guptill to protect the ranch’s forage base through adjustments to carrying capacity. Determining that the ranch can run 250 cows, even during drought, Guptill says the available forage, above and beyond the cow herd’s needs, is then utilized by custom-grazed yearlings. Numbers of yearlings taken in each summer can be adjusted, according to the relative abundance or lack or precipitation. And, if a promising spring turns into an extremely dry summer, destocking of yearlings is preferable to removing or selling cows.
Guptill says a drought plan should have “trigger dates” – predetermined dates at which destocking decisions, based on rainfall received and forage availability, are made. A manager also must know what action will be taken when those dates are reached.
“You have to set your trigger dates and stick to your plan. If it’s time to move cattle out, you do it. If you have to sell them, you can’t deny it because of the market or anything else,” warns Guptill. “If you keep the cattle too long, you hurt the land and it may take years and years to recover.”
Guptill views ranch management, and grazing management in particular, as a learning process. There is always more to learn. Lessons learned thus far have convinced him that biological processes occurring beneath the soil surface significantly influence forage production and cattle production.
“We know that high stock density stimulates plant growth, but it also stimulates underground activity. They say an acre of land has 20,000 to 50,000 pounds of microbes in just the top four to six inches of soil,” says Guptill. “I want to learn more about soil microbes and how our management affects them. I think it’s important.”
For their respect and concern for the health of the land and its role in livestock production, the Pat and Mary Lou Guptill family was awarded the 2013 Leopold Conservation Award in South Dakota. Named for famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award is presented by The Sand County Foundation, in recognition of landowner achievement in voluntary stewardship and management of natural resources.