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NRCS: Sound Grazing Practices Critical in Drought
South Dakota Ag Connection - 07/07/2021

While the rain that fell across South Dakota in varying amounts over the past weekend was welcome, it didn't change grazing recommendations from the USDA in a drought.

"We're suggesting ranchers think long-term in their grazing operations, and continue to rotate pastures to leave enough growth for their pastures to recover," says the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) State Rangeland Management Specialist Emily Helms.

June 24's Drought Monitor Map showed nearly the entire state was abnormally dry with most of the state in a moderate or severe drought and about a dozen counties with severe drought. The latest South Dakota NRCS forage production map shows only 70% to 85% of normal production for much of the state.

Tanse Herrmann, South Dakota NRCS State Grazing Lands Soil Health Specialist, says ranchers are running out of grass in some situations, and face some tough decisions.

"There are still options, but grazing pastures short is a short-sighted option," Herrmann says. "You want to preserve the long-term sustainability and resilience of rangeland resources. Taking those pastures too short in a drought has detrimental effects for more than just next year--a lot of times we see effects two, three and four years later."

Beau Bendigo, his wife Susanne, and his father Larry, listened to that kind of advice years ago. The resilience they've built into land Larry and his wife have leased from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in Ziebach County for more than 50 years is paying off now.

"It was dry in 2002, and we knew we had to do something different," Bendigo says. "We struggled again in 2006, and began making improvements. We knew there would be more drought."

"The big changes we made were splitting two big pastures into eight smaller pastures with cross fencing, and adding water tanks to every pasture so they could be rotated and rested," says Larry.

"We get everything grazed this way," Beau says. "It's a night and day difference on even use of the grass."

Beau says the key to resilience is figuring out what works best on your own land. "Our land isn't suited to moving cattle every few days. But I figured if we could move cattle every 21 days, we could take half and leave half the forage. So we put the practices in place to do that."

"You have to be prepared," Beau adds. "We're short on moisture, but when you have old grass left, you get more water infiltration and more growth with a little moisture. We've got enough grass in our pastures and confidence in our system. It's working."

"We never overgrazed, even 20 years ago, and we don't overgraze now," Larry adds. "But now Beau can run more cattle on the same land." Beau says the carrying capacity has increased by 50 head, and there's enough grass for them even in this drought.

Helms and Herrmann say it's not too late to use drought management alternatives. They recommend ranchers who are running out of grass talk with an NRCS conservationist and choose a strategy that best fits their operation. Long term, they say, ranchers can build resilience to drought by rotationg and then resting pastures, giving plants time to recover and building healthier soils.

The NRCS offers an online Drought Tool at and other aids for drought planning, and direct assistance to producers across South Dakota. These include NRCS South Dakota Drought Resources at and the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition -- Mentor Network at

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