Sims family utilizes extended rest for pastures to alleviate drought impacts
McFadden – Scott and April Sims, their son Shanon and his wife Melinda have been ranching all their lives near McFadden. Sims’ grandfather bought the ranch in 1942, and Sims and his brother ran it after leasing it from their father.
“For years, our dad told us that 1954 was a serious drought. He told us boys that we’d never really seen what it was like to be dry in our lifetimes,” Scott Sims says. “Whenever we started to get dry, we’d get some rain.”
“It never got very dry here until 2002 that I can remember,” he adds.
“My brother and I always figured if we got into a drought we simply wouldn’t sell any hay. We thought we’d have enough to get us through,” Sims continues.
But in 2002, drought struck severely enough that they weren’t able to sell hay, and in fact, the ranch ended up selling about 140 cows to avoid purchasing hay.
“We realized we needed to plan for drought,” Sims says.
“We’d heard some producers say a person needs to rest about 10 percent of their place for a full grazing season to help improve pasture and wildlife habitat,” Sims says. “We also heard about what Ray Bannister in Montana was doing.”
Sims explained that Bannister was grazing each pasture only once every three years and letting it rest for two years. Then, in the third year, he would graze each pasture heavy.
“We decided we would rest one-third of our pastures,” he explains.
“One reason we were able to do this was that we hired our cows out for several years to Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to graze a habitat management area where they needed to improve winter range for elk,” Sims explains. “This was on a ranch that was sold many years earlier to WGFD next to the mountains and adjacent to our place. WGFD bought it because it had lots of elk, and then they didn’t graze it for many years.”
Elk were no longer attracted to land as winter range because the forage was only old, dry grass with no regrowth.
“The local game warden saw what we were doing on our place and realized if they had some cows on their elk winter range during summer, it would become more palatable for elk. The elk had been leaving that unit and going to nearby ranches, and the ranchers didn’t want elk on their places,” Sims says.
The Sims family started with 300 cow/calf pairs on the ranch, seeking to accomplish goals of 90 percent utilization in the first year to deplete the decadent material from old hay meadows.
“Before we took cows up there, we looked at that place, and in one meadow there was nothing growing but mustard and Canada thistle. The only spot we saw a blade of grass was in an old elk track,” Sims explains. “This land needed more grazing activity.”
He continues, “Our efforts were successful to improve it, and grouping cattle tightly helped them learn to eat a lot of different things – competing with each other.”
“We were grouping cattle tighter than we did at home, so that was an eye-opener to us, regarding what we can train cattle to eat,” Sims says.
One example of a plant the cattle were trained to eat is whitetop, an invasive plant that crowds out native species.
“We’d put the cattle into a new pasture and see them in a tight wad. Our first thought was that a calf died and they were all grouped around it, but we’d go over there and find they were eating whitetop,” says Sims.
The WGFD biologist became curious and sent a sample of whitetop to an analytical lab for a nutritional analysis – and discovered it was 24 percent crude protein.
Taking 300 head to that pasture in 2003, along with selling some cows to compensate for drought, enabled the Sims family to rest one-third of their home pastures.
“After that, we’d go into the rested pastures first thing in the spring to utilize old growth to go along with green grass that was starting,” says Sims.
“We went through several years with this rest period, producing more grass and realized we should keep doing it. Then, in the drought of 2012, we ended up having to use all our pastures,” he says.
The spring of 2012 was very dry, and there was no green grass, but Sims explains, “The good thing was we had lots of pastures and let the cows go quickly through all of them, just spending a few days in each pasture. That got us through until we could start our grazing season and kept the cattle in better condition.”
When rain came later that summer, the family was able to re-graze those pastures to take advantage of later season grass growth. That was the only year they went through the pastures twice during the growing season – the first time when there was nothing growing and the cows were just utilizing old feed, but the second time, there was some green grass.
Sims explains it would have been beneficial for the plants if they hadn’t gone through the second grazing cycle, but the only choices were to do that or sell cows. That winter they did buy a little hay, some three-year-old round bales from their neighbor.
Then, in 2014, they had enough moisture to go back to resting one-third of the pastures again.
“Thanks to being a little more prepared, we got through the drought without having to reduce numbers,” he says.
Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.