Faulstich: Grazing management is the key to sustainability
Kearney, Neb. – As Jim Faulstich looked over the grazing and cropland between his home in South Dakota and Kearney, Neb., it only reconfirmed his fears that producers haven’t learned enough from previous generations.
“I think we are headed for another trying time in agriculture, and grassland is one thing that is sustainable,” he told a group of nearly 300 people during the Nebraska Grazing Conference.
Faulstich said he would be the first to admit that he fears we are heading for a time like the “dirty 30s” because not all producers have learned enough from that generation to be good stewards of the land. He showed pictures of areas near his home in South Dakota where the topsoil was gone, and flooding was occurring because producers hadn’t properly managed their land. Moisture was running off instead of infiltrating fields. Other photos showed grazing land so short that most native species had died, and every time the wind blew, the soil went with it.
“We have all seen pictures like this,” he told the crowd.
Multiple use lands
Faulstich talked to producers about managing grassland for multiple uses.
In his own operation, he focuses on the power of water infiltration and soil health.
After working through last year’s drought, he also pointed out, “A drought plan is a survival plan.”
“It is the most important thing we have in our sustainability plan,” he said.
Faulstich also noted the importance of paying attention to how much moisture is received at critical times and how that impacts his grazing scheme.
“A South Dakota State University (SDSU) study of our area found that April is the most critical month for moisture. It determines how much grass we will produce that year and how many head we can graze,” he said.
Grazing management is a constant focus.
Spring grasses, like brome grass, have become key species. In the summer, he relies on varieties like big blue stem.
“The key is to graze areas just enough to keep the pressure off,” he said. “If I see major trails cropping up or the cattle are killing out corners of a paddock, they’ve been there too long. Early in the season, we move the cattle every three days, and later in the summer, we move every week.”
Like most producers, feed costs are the biggest expense in his operation.
“I realized that to keep this ranch sustainable, I needed to reduce cow size and figure out how to graze more,” he explained. “On some pastures, that meant adjusting the stocking rate. I had to determine how to operate in tune with nature. The landscape and environment helps me determine how to set up my grazing management program, whether its mob, mig or rotational.”
Faulstich went with a year-around grazing program, but in order to do that he had to take pressure off his grass by reducing numbers. He also tries to utilize every ounce of feed on his operation.
“Have you ever noticed how much forage is going unused in the U.S.?” he asked the producers. “A friend of mine commented that the way to start feeding the world is to start building some fences again. We waste a lot of feed in this country. There are pieces of grass, cover crops, aftermath and just waste areas in a field that go unused for one reason or another.”
The change in Faulstich’s own operation started back in the 80s, when he started to notice he was losing biodiversity on his own operation.
“I was losing some key species of forbes, and I began to notice how important those are to my grazing program. Some are important for pollination, and some are part of the mineral program for livestock and wildlife,” he said. “Have you ever noticed when you are moving cows how they will crop off a sunflower on the way through? Some species of forbes and weeds hold snow; others have a real nutritional benefit in the plant cycle.”
“I started evaluating my grazing management system including plants and animals and trying to create a nice variety of warm and cool season species,” he explained.
One species Faulstich attempted to re-establish in his grazing program was blue stem grass.
“I started the blue stem by spreading it by hand,” he explained. “For years, I thought I had failed. It took seven years for it to re-establish where I could see individual plants in the pasture.”
From his experience, Faulstich has found that with management and timing of grazing, it is possible to start, reestablish and change grasses in his grazing system.
“I want to improve the health of the landscape and its inhabitants,” he explained.
It’s a management decision Faulstich feels more producers need to make.
“The health of the human population is directly correlated to where they live,” he said. “To have a healthy riparian area, we need healthy water. One of our goals is to not let any water runoff and leave the ranch. It’s not always possible, but it is still a goal.”