Learning new methods Growing grass and cattle in South Dakota
Published on Jan. 18, 2020
Doug Sieck and his wife Merilee live in north-central South Dakota, not far from where he grew up. He went to college and came back to help his parents.
“There was never quite enough there for all of us. In the early 1990s, I started a little welding business out of our shop, to help make ends meet, but the farming at that time was eating up all the welding money,” says Doug.
He continues, “I realized if I wasn’t going to make very much money in agriculture, I would rather try to make money doing something I liked.”
He enjoyed cattle and in the mid 1990s started planting more of the 3,000 acres of cropland back to grass, with the intention of running more cattle.
“We ended up selling the place in 2007 to Basin Electric. This changed my situation from being in debt to having some capital to work with,” he says. “Doing the typical rancher thing, I turned around and bought another place, so I was back in debt.”
“It was good debt, however, being that it was land debt. I was fortunate to be able to buy land just before land values went up,” he says.
Learning new ways
Doug attended the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition (SDGD) Grazing School in Oacoma, S.D.
“I thought I knew quite a bit about grazing and cattle, but came away from that school realizing there was still a lot more to learn, especially the value of rest in the grazing plan,” says Doug.
Then, the South Dakota No-Till Association sponsored a bus tour to North Dakota, to tour the Burleigh County Conservation District’s test plots.
“It was early fall and we also went out to Gabe Brown’s place. I remember him standing in a warm-season cover crop mix that came up to his chest. These cover crops took less fertilizer and chemical and had all this vegetation. That really appealed to me,” says Doug.
“I came back from that tour and planted winter triticale and hairy vetch in a soybean field we’d just combined and this was my first stab at cover crops,” he says. “I also threw in some turnips just because they sounded kind of fun.”
Then in 2009, he went to a holistic resource management school, which further influenced how he managed his resources.
When he came home from that school, he started moving his cows every day. Within a few years, he saw more plant diversity and an increase in some of the native plants like big bluestem and more of it going to seed.
“I was still planting more cropland back to grass and alfalfa. Then, two years ago it was really dry. Instead of selling cows, I just kept rotating them through the grass and the cover crops I’d planted,” he explains.
“A few years earlier if we’d had a year that dry, we’d have been out of feed and selling some cows,” says Doug.
The change in grazing management has given those pastures more resiliency in dry years.
He also does some bale grazing, which has improved the soil and production in those areas. On a dry year a couple years ago, it was easy to tell where he’d been bale grazing.
“There was green grass about knee high in those spots, whereas 15 to 20 feet away where there had been no bales, it was significantly drier and the grass not so good,” he says.
The litter, nutrients, urine and manure from the cattle, in that 30-foot bale circle where the cows were eating helped the soil, and that much additional organic matter also helps hold more moisture. The nutrients and moisture stay there instead of running off, which also helps with water quality issues.
Another change he made when he put more of his place into grass was to buy low-birthweight bulls for easier calving.
“We used to calve the end of March, and calving was a bit rough, so we changed to the first of May,” he says. “Most of the time the later calving is better, but it does require some changes; if someone is used to selling 600-pound calves in November it won’t be the same.”
He decided to try smaller cattle after reading some of the articles written by Kit Pharo, who talked about how a semi-load of smaller calves can give producers a bigger check than a semi-load of bigger calves.
“They bring more dollars per pound. A semi-load is 50,000 pounds. If a 500-pound calf brings $2 per pound and we are selling a semi-load of 500-pound calves, it would be $100,000. If we sell a semi-load of 600-pound calves at $1.80 per pound, we are only getting $90,000 for those calves,” says Doug.
A cow eats about three percent of her body weight in forage and smaller cows eat less feed than the larger ones. A person can run more cows on the same pasture if they are not so big.
“We could run 100 1,500-pound cows or we could have 150 1,000-pound cows and they’ll eat the same amount of total feed. Not only will we have more calves, but also get more dollars per pound when we sell them,” he says.
He raises many of his own bulls now, to have the genetics and frame score he wants. He prefers a smaller, wider cow and doesn’t want heavy-milking cows. They require more feed and may not breed back as readily – especially when leaving the calves on the cows all winter. In the end, the ranch conditions help select toward the genetics producers want because only the fertile, good producing cattle to stay in the herd.
These past few years he’s been moving cows every three to five days.
“We use a lot of poly wire and if there’s a hayfield or pasture I want to graze and the fence isn’t very good or there isn’t a fence around it, I just run poly wire and the cows respect it,” he says.
When cattle grow up around electric fence they are “trained” to it.
“I like the plastic step-in posts, the posts with the orange loop on top and pigtail posts because there’s nothing to short out. I can put them into the ground without getting off my four-wheeler and even tap them into frozen ground when I’m going across corn fields in the winter. My cows graze my cornstalks and the neighbor’s field,” says Doug.
“One of the things that has really made a difference for me was being affiliated with the SDGC,” he says. “I ended up being on the board of directors for three years because I felt I owed them a lot.”
He continues, “While I was on that board, Jeff Zimprich, the head of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in South Dakota, said he would like to start a soil health coalition and wanted us to help him get it going. We thought it was a good idea because we were all concerned about soil health and were doing the things that the Soil Health Coalition is doing now.”
He notes the coalition put on their fourth annual South Dakota Soil Coalition Soil Health School in September 2019 and had 30 producers attend the 2.5-day school.
“They learned about the importance of keeping the ground covered, the value of mulch on the soil and the value of not disturbing the soil any more than we have to,” he says. “They are also learning the value of long rest periods in rotation grazing. We try to emphasize the grassland component in everything we do, if we can.”
“These producers are also learning the value of diversity, whether it’s in pastures or crop rotations,” says Doug.
Heather Smith-Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.