How a first-time rancher is regenerating degraded cropland to healthy, resilient rangeland
By Kurt Lawton
Rangeland health, soil health, and the economic health of ranchers are one and the same, not mutually exclusive. That’s what James Halverson, Executive Director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, has learned. Halverson also happens to be a passionate rancher, grazing cattle in the northern foothills of the Black Hills.
In a recent podcast interview, Halverson talked about his journey from cropland to rangeland—and why he enjoys being a rangeland evangelist. “I feel that rangeland is like a red-headed stepchild that isn’t getting near the attention compared to cropland when it comes to the regenerative agriculture movement,” Halverson said.
“We can apply the same soil health principles to rangeland—to increase stocking rates and production while increasing the ecological function and economics, too.”
“We try to graze different pastures as short of time as we can, depending on where we can haul water. I’m a big believer in grazing pastures hard, but then giving pastures a good rest, giving them a season to recover.”
“Moving into the middle of an older couple’s ranch, in the northern foothills of the Black Hills, we were lucky as first-time ranchers that they put no pressure on us to do things the way they did,” Halverson said. “Especially as we adopted soil health practices to regenerate degraded cropland. You can learn so much by observing the ground, watching how and what species the cows eat—really learning from the landscape and going far beyond just checking the cows,” Halverson said.
And that translates to a better product for consumers, he believes. “Raising really good tasting beef starts with healthy soil, diversity on the rangeland and figuring out how to get cattle to eat it,” Halverson said. “I try to emulate and learn from people like Dr. Fred Provenza, Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta and others who are on the ground and want to help producers.”
Halverson subscribes to the slogan “Remember the R’s– Rotate, Rest and Recover” that several South Dakota organizations are promoting to develop resilience on grasslands. He said he’s seen first-hand the value of rest, which has contributed to the growth of his pastures.
Here’s more of what Halverson has to say:
“We’re fortunate to have a local seed company with outstanding guys that developed a 12 to 15 species mix of cool and warm season grasses, brassicas, alfalfa, sainfoin, tannins and others to meet our goals. Diversity in rangeland helps the soil, and cattle figure out how to flourish as well.”
“Our experiment with bale grazing, putting out round bales weekly, is working well, keeping the cows from eating the pine trees that can cause some abortion problems. And we’re seeing some pretty cool results by not pouring cattle.”
“We’ve pushed our calving season back, from late April into June, which has worked really well. Those calves rarely see a bad day, we’ve seen basically zero problems, and selling calves a bit later in the year has worked well, too.”
The South Dakota State University influence:
- How South Dakota State University (SDSU) led to agricultural teaching and becoming a first-generation rancher.
- How his Colorado State University (CSU) graduate degree in Rangeland and Ecosystems Management entrenched his passion for helping other cattle producers become better soil and grass producers.
- His CSU graduate advisor, Dr. Larry Rittenhouse, taught him the importance of forward thinking and being open-minded. It really opened his eyes to teaching and doing things that can be tough for older generations to do—to adapt and continue to evolve our rangeland management.
James Halverson, Executive Director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association and a rancher, shared his experiences in improving grassland management on the Soil Health Labs podcast.