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Holistic Ranch Management Helps With Economic and Climate Resilience

Updated July 28, 2023
Professional headshot of Sandy Smart

Alexander "Sandy" Smart

SDSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Senior Program Leader / Professor

Small group of cattle grazing a vast, well-managed rangeland.
Holistic ranch management offers ways to think about ranching as part of a diverse ecological system. Courtesy: USDA NRCS South Dakota

Why Holistic Ranch Management?

We hear a lot about climate change and global warming in the news. The warming trajectory provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (abbreviated as IPCC) can give you a feeling of helplessness. Agriculture sometimes is portrayed poorly in the news, however, managed land and the supporting agricultural activities only accounted for 13 to 21% of global total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to the 2023 IPCC Working Group III Report. In addition, managed and natural terrestrial ecosystems (including grasslands, forests, and rangelands) were a net carbon sink, sequestering a third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Keeping the “greenside up” on our grasslands and rangelands is probably the best mitigation strategy farmers and ranchers in South Dakota can do.

Holistic ranch management has, for a long time, offered ways to think about ranching as part of an ecological system. Thus, inputs, such as time, energy, and money, can be evaluated as a whole, comparing benefits and tradeoffs simultaneously, to provide a more-comprehensive decision-making system rather than impulsive thinking that permeates our culture. One strategy to help you get into this mindset is to put a high value on diversity. Diversity can be incorporated on multiple scales and systems. For example, range managers have always valued plant diversity, because it increases forage quantity and quality for livestock production, reducing the need for expensive supplements. Enterprise diversity (more than one business operation) can generate multiple income streams from shared resources. Thus, the business can insulate itself from economic and climatic disruptions. If one sector of farm income is disrupted, the others are there to even it out.

Holistic Ranch Management in Action

I visited with Brett Nix and Jim Faulstich, the chair and vice-chair of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, respectively, about their experiences of diversifying their ranches.

The Nix Operation

Brett Nix stressed his strategy was to diversify his livestock business. His cow-calf herd is the centerpiece; however, the ranch includes three other sub-enterprises as key components: bred heifers kept as stockers, steers kept as stockers, and fat cows. This diversity within the cow-calf enterprise benefits the ranch operation by letting them be flexible to manage through obstacles like drought and variable markets. Brett also has planted farmland back to grassland with a diverse mixture of grasses and forbs. This provides forage for grazing, haying every third or fourth year, and bale grazing in the winter. Brett’s stocking rate is actually double the county average because of the diverse forage resources and their ability to quickly adjust to changing forage conditions with their stockers and fat cows. Thus, they are more resilient when drought or grasshoppers reduce forage. Hence, rarely does the Nix operation need to destock the main cow herd. The bred heifers, steers, and fat cows allow greater flexibility to capture market highs, and when grass is plentiful, they can graze longer into the summer grazing season.

Brett stressed that thinking holistically has helped him trim expenses and manage the ranch in a more ecologically friendly manner. Thus, the Nix operation is less reliant on chemicals, iron, and fossil fuels than it was in the past. How much “greener” can you get?

The Faulstich Operation

Two men standing in a pasture.
Jim Faulstich discussing the value of native warm-season grasses on ranch tour. Courtesy: Sandy Smart

Jim Faulstich has several enterprises and likes the flexibility to “get in and out of quickly.” Jim, in addition to running a cow-calf operation, has four other enterprises: custom-grazed yearlings, pheasant hunting, archery hunting for deer, and crop and hay production. The custom-grazed yearlings give Jim drought management flexibility in addition to useful harvesting of invading grasses, like smooth bromegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and crested wheatgrass. If drought strikes, Jim can give his grazer two weeks notice to come and load them up.

Jim’s two hunting enterprises uses the pastures, cropland, and Conservation Reserve Program (abbreviated as CRP) land. Hunting requires providing suitable cover for upland game birds and deer. This requires a lighter stocking rate, but it has the advantage of not requiring to de-stock the cow herd during droughts. Also, providing extra cover benefits the cow herd during rough winter weather periods. Jim sees that if he “takes care of the natural resources, making it a priority rather than focusing just on production, he is able to manage the ranch in a more ecologically friendly manner that goes with mother nature rather than fighting against her.” Lastly, fee hunting provides reliable income versus fluctuating commodity markets. Sometimes bad weather can dampen a week or two, but because the season is spread out over the entire fall, it usually isn’t a complete bust.

Jim also grows crops on his farm ground that was previously converted before his time. Cash crops, crop aftermath, cover crops, and hayland all can provide income streams and feed resources for the cow herd. It also integrates well with hunting by providing winter feed for pheasants and deer. Jim really likes the late-season cover crops and crop aftermath for winter grazing. He finds that he doesn’t feed as much hay as he used to. “During the wet years, it is important to put up hay and have it on hand for bad winters like last year,” Jim said. “Also, we graze the hayfields during drought years because it is not economical to cut hay and we still get some benefit.”

Brett and Jim are just two examples of many great ranchers who have benefited from holistic ranch management thinking and value diversity to help their operations be more resilient during periods of challenging economic and climatic conditions.