Holistic management has made a difference in ranch sustainability for Ken and Bonnie Miller on their ranch in south-central North Dakota, near Fort Rice, along the Missouri River.
Ken Miller says holistic management helped point the ranch in the right direction 30-plus years ago.
“I went through the training with Allan Savory in the mid-1980s. The way we were ranching/farming before that was not sustainable. Like most producers, we thought we had to get bigger and more efficient so I was renting all the land around us that I could. We were getting bigger and bigger and going broke faster and faster. We were still tilling, and had a lot of erosion. We were farming fragile soils and I knew there had to be a better way to manage the land,” he says.
Then he had an opportunity to attend a five-day holistic resource management course with a scholarship from the local soil conservation district.
“It totally changed the way I ranch,” says Miller.
He realized that any decision affects the entire ranch. Using a herbicide to kill a certain weed will also kill some good plants. Using pour-on insecticides on cattle will kill good insects.
He says the important thing is to work with nature instead of trying to fight nature.
“Back then, we calved in February and at the training they asked why we calved during the coldest part of the year. I said, ‘everybody does.’ It was partly to get calving done before we were busy planting crops. Now we calve in June and it makes life so simple, and the cattle more profitable,” Miller says.
“Now we want to manage the land in a regenerative way to make it better than when we took it over. We want to build soil health to make healthier plants, healthier animals, healthier people, and be profitable while enjoying what we do. Quality of life is part of the equation.”
He says when he was renting more and more land, it was like spinning his wheels.
“Being bigger, you have to hire someone, and it becomes overwhelming. You never catch up.”
At first, he tried new methods on rangeland, using higher stocking densities, and saw some benefits. Now, the farm is much more intensive and is seeing more improvement. A recent drought tested some of these practices.
“We would have had to destock or buy feed, but now we are able to keep going, running the same number of cows,” he says.
It is amazing how much resilience range pastures have when they can be rested and given enough recovery time, with cattle spending just a short time in each pasture, he says.
Miller’s management strategies and soil improvements led to his receiving the 2017 Leopold Conservation Award for North Dakota.
“The deep ravines that had washed deeper with every run-off episode are now filling in,” he says.
“Water no longer runs down those gullies as much. The lesser runoff and the herd impact (creating divots where grass starts growing) has healed those gullies. The land can be healed a lot quicker with cattle.”
One of Miller’s most successful practices is bale grazing.
“The fields I’m bale grazing were originally poor crop land that was seeded back to a mix of grasses 35 years ago. When we seeded them, the soil lacked nutrients and there was a lot of bare ground,” he says.
By strategically placing bales, he says he is adding plant matter plus nutrients from cattle manure and urine back into the pasture.
He takes clippings from some of these pastures to measure production. When he started, he had more than three times the production right around the bale than in portions of the pasture where he didn’t bale graze.
“There’s a 20-foot circle with practically no production the first year because the litter is so thick. By fall, you have annual weeds coming through that, and then the next year you have really good grass.
“We are more than doubling the production while cutting winter feeding costs.”
He custom grazes 110 to 120 cattle and has about 150 pairs of his own plus some replacement heifers and a few finishing animals. He has one pivot of irrigated ground that gets grazed; he often hays part of it and grazes part of it, alternating those parts — and never makes hay on any piece two years in a row. Every piece that is cut for hay gets some grazing for one or more years in between to improve soil fertility with animal impact.
The pivot has multiple small paddocks, about seven acres each, with about 80 pairs on each piece for one to three days.
“Originally, we had some 40-acre paddocks and now we’ve split all those down to 20 acres, so we have higher stock density and more herd effect. The cows graze each paddock for a short time and then we give it a very long rest-recovery. This makes a tremendous difference,” says Miller.
One of the highest input costs when raising cattle is winter feeding.
Some ranchers save money by wintering summer-born calves with the cows and not weaning until spring.
Miller has been bale grazing cow-calf pairs through winter for 12 years.
“I give them enough bales to last a week, then move them to the next bunch of bales. I feed some high-quality hay along with some rank, coarse hay.”
He says the cattle eat some of the poorer hay to add fibre to their diet, and trample and bed on the rest. This puts more organic matter and carbon on the ground.
He says calves perform well when wintered with their mothers on hay, with a few rare challenging times.
“The winter of 2016-17 was a challenge, however. We had three blizzards in a row starting in November. We had 11 weeks’ supply of hay bales set out for the cattle, two miles from the yard, and it got snowed under. We didn’t have any other options for feeding, so I just moved the cattle down there. It took half a day to plow a path. I started with the tractor until it couldn’t get around anymore, then got a snowblower and a Bobcat to finish blowing a path to where the bales were. Then I could blow away the snow around the bales so the cattle could get to the bales.
“Some places had four to five feet of snow and bales were covered. Amazingly, the cows and calves made it through winter, bale grazing in that deep snow,” says Miller.
He says wintering calves with their mothers, even in a bad winter, works well. There is no sickness, compared to weaning calves in the fall. The cattle graze as long as possible and then when grass gets covered with snow, they start bale grazing.
He says on their operation, they used to feed five to 5 1/2 months a year but are now down to about four months of bale grazing, even in bad winters.
“A few years ago, with a nice winter, we fed for only 75 days” he says.