This is part two of a rotational grazing series from the March issues of Drovers CattleNetwork and Cow/Calf Producer.

“I’ve heard it said you should manage for what you want, instead of what you don’t want, and that is definitely true.”

A goal to leave land in better condition than what they started with resulted in management plans for Rock Hills Ranch of north-central South Dakota to utilize a rotational-grazing program. The ranch operates on a non-traditional management style with Luke Perman and his wife Naomi leasing the ranch from Perman’s parents, Lyle and Garnet Perman. This allows Perman to develop crucial day-to-day operation experience while still receiving guidance from Lyle.

“My parents started ranching in the mid-‘70s,” Perman says. “And then I came back to the ranch in 2006 when I finished college.”

Since then, Perman has also picked up leases with neighbors, managing their cattle along with Rock Hills Ranch’s Angus-based commercial operation, 1,100 acres of farmland and a seasonal pheasant hunting business. Currently, Rock Hills Ranch operates on more than 50 grazing paddocks for the 400-head cow herd. To best utilize cool-season grasses and forbes native to the region, such as green needlegrass and Western wheatgrass, as well as introduced species such as brome and bluegrass, the herd is divided into three grazing groups to be rotated through the paddocks during the grazing season.

“We try to keep as few grazing herds as possible for easier management of the groups based on their stages of production,” Perman explains. “The bigger the herd, the more impact we can have and the longer that paddock can rest.”

Because of the growing season and environment in the northern territory, pastures that house a herd for only a week may not see cows again for an entire year. With the operation’s calving season starting in mid-April on pasture, turn out comes as soon as snow has melted off the range and cattle can graze.

“When we turn out onto grass in the spring, due to the long rest period the previous year, there is a lot of old standing forage,” he says. “The cows get enough stockpiled forage with each bite of fresh spring growth that for as long as I can remember, we’ve never had a case of grass tetany.”

Management is based on a case-by-case situation of individual pasture performances. Perman looks at what grasses the cattle are eating most and how the pasture was utilized in the previous grazing season.

“Ideally, we want a cow to eat a plant, and for that plant not to be touched again until it is fully recovered. Whether she takes one bite out of it or three bites will determine how long the rest period is,” Perman says. “I know some people say grazing is more of an art than a science, and I tend to agree with that because there is no one set way of going about it.”

Leaving adequate forage coverage after grazing is crucial to help with soil health and to minimize erosion, he says. The ranch also does routine forage estimates later in the growing season to help determine how much grass is available for the remainder of the grazing reason.

On top of seeing an increase in grazing capacity and an improvement in the land quality, Rock Hills Ranch has had a tremendous improvement in its natural resources. Land that was purchased by Lyle and Garnet when they were building the operation was overgrazed and heavily eroded. Today, erosion has stopped and the rangeland has made a remarkable recovery. The water and filtration on the ranch have also improved greatly due to better management of forage and soils. These stewardship practices contributed to Rock Hills Ranch being named 2014 Environmental Stewardship Award winner for Region VII.

“The water table seems to be rising in different places it hasn’t before,” Perman says. “We’re seeing grasses that thrive in moister soils, like big bluestem, grow on hillsides. It’s exciting to see the plant community respond to better management.”

Manage for what you want, not what you don’t

A lesson Perman learned early on is that management decisions have to be based on what type of forages are most desirable.

“Kentucky bluegrass is one of the main management challenges I deal with because it matures very early — and if we don’t have it grazed by mid-June, the cows won’t touch it for the rest of the year,” he explains.

On a mission to get a handle on the species, Perman pushed a pasture harder than usual in hopes the cattle would be more likely to eat the Kentucky bluegrass. Consequently, the cattle grazed harder as well on the quality species he was hoping would gain more establishment in the pasture.

“I’ve heard it said you should manage for what you want, instead of what you don’t want, and that is definitely true,” he shares. “I tried to manage against what I didn’t want, and it did not turn out how I had planned.”

Now, Perman makes management decisions to get Kentucky bluegrass utilized during its peak performance from mid-April to the first of June, no longer with the goal of eliminating the species, but keeping it in check so it doesn’t crowd out more desirable species. Perman also says throughout the years, his appreciation for plant diversity has increased.

“I’m growing to be more of a fan of a diverse plant community,” Perman says. “Even if it’s considered a weed, as long as the cows eat it, it can be beneficial. Variety can help increase the amount cattle graze while playing a role in keeping the natural ecosystem in check.”

Part one: Grass farmer first, beef producer second: Rotate, let it grow, rotate, let it grow…