The creek at Rock Hills Ranch, Lowry, SD, now runs high only during spring snowmelt. Rotational grazing has reduced the amount of rainwater entering the creek from 5,000 acres of grassland owned by fourth-generation rancher Lyle Perman and his son Luke.
They rotate 375 Angus cow-calf pairs through a series of paddocks, moving the cattle every seven to 10 days and harvesting only about half the available forage at each grazing.
The payoff is healthier topgrowth and roots, which work together to capture water and hold it in the soil profile, say the Permans. They measure success in retaining most of their average 16-18” of annual rainfall by monitoring water levels in the creek and more than 25 stock dams and dugouts on the property.
“One disadvantage of reducing runoff is lower stock-dam levels,” says Luke Perman. “Development of a couple new springs in recent years has helped offset that change.”
In the 1980s, Lyle struggled to overcome the consequences of an overgrazing tradition that stemmed from his grandfather and father’s lack of conservation knowledge. In contrast, just last month his family became the recipient of the South Dakota 2014 Leopold Conservation Award, which honors exemplary stewardship.
“I knew I had to do a better job of managing my family’s land resources,” he says. “That led me to enroll in a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) program known as the Great Plains Conservation Program. It was comparable to today’s EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program).”
Through NRCS and Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program, he received cost-share money for fencing, dugout development, pipelines, tanks and small ponds.
“Grass, grass, grass is the best way to improve water-holding capacity,” says PFW biologist Allen Olson. “Leaving half the volume of grass above ground means there are more leaves to capture sunlight and build grass health. Mature grasses also produce litter that helps absorb rainfall and reduce evaporation during high temperatures.”
Lyle began rotational grazing in 1989. He rested overgrazed areas, which allowed native grasses such as big and little bluestem, sideoats grama, indiangrass and switchgrass to return. Other times, he grazed intensively to rid a site of an unwanted species.
The Permans, who also grow corn and soybeans, put the cattle on cornstalks when harvest is done.
“Even in corn residue, we create paddocks with electric fence and move cows about every week,” Luke says. “Unless snow is too deep, they stay on crop residue until mid-March. Between then and May 1, they graze stockpiled grass supplemented with some hay.”
It has taken time to organize paddocks and water resources to make their grazing plan work, he adds.
“The plan we start with in spring provides our general grazing rules for the season. It’s not a hard-and-fast plan because it’s dependent on the amount of moisture and other weather conditions each year brings.”
They monitor grassland conditions weekly and adjust their grazing strategy accordingly. That allows them to take advantage of forage such as sweet clover, which grows abundantly following wet fall conditions.
“You can’t graze sweet clover in September,” Lyle says. “It gets too mature and rank. That’s the kind of conditions we monitor every week.”
Luke, who is taking over much of the ranch’s management, expects to continue developing his grazing and water management strategy.
“I’ve learned a lot from experienced ranchers like those in North Dakota’s Burleigh County,” he says. “I see the benefit of adding cover crops to our cropping system. I haven’t had success with that yet, but I’ll keep learning and making small changes to improve what we’re doing.”