The year that they sold their calves and still couldn’t pay all their bills, Cody and Deanna Sand asked their banker what they should do for the coming year. His suggestion, to borrow more money, just wasn’t going work. Between Deanna’s off-farm job and Cody making and repairing saddles and working on the farm, they were already working harder and harder, having less and less fun and going further into debt. Something had to change, and fast! What they did is a testament to what happens when you look at your problems in a new way and then dig in and do something about them.
Holistic Management Course Paves the Way
The Sand Ranch is near Forbes, North Dakota. It was started by Deanna’s grandparents and Cody and Deanna took it over from her parents in 1999 and then purchased it in 2001 They continued to run the cow calf operation as it had always been run. They calved their cows in March and their heifers in April, running them in 2 to 3 minimally rotated groups through the summer. They grew and put up 3,000 bales of hay a summer, and fed through the winter. Calves were weaned, backgrounded and sold. Through it all, Deanna drove 60 miles one way to work every day and Cody built saddles at home.
The harder they worked, the less fun it was for everyone, and when, in 2010 they still had $20,000 in carry over bills after all the calves were sold, the look on her husband’s face told Deanna something had to change. Shortly after, they learned about a Holistic Management course being presented by Josh Dukart, and they signed up for it immediately. For 3 days in February of 2011, with temperatures dropping to -42 F they drove back and forth to Bismarck for the course, feeding cattle at home, and feeding their brains in Bismarck. The reward was a new way to look at their ranch and how they could run it.
Deanna shares their “Ah Ha!” moments in this slide from their presentation at the 2015 North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition winter meeting. From timing of calving to reducing haying and better managing their grazing, Deanna and Cody went home with ideas they could start implementing almost immediately. But most importantly, they saw how doing these things could improve their quality of life so that ranching could be fun again.
First Things First
What they really wanted to do was change their calving season from March and April to May and June. But since the cows were already bred, they were stuck for one more calving season. Instead, they stopped spending money and began paying off debt by selling off equipment. The calf shelters, tire tanks and windbreaks went, as did some haying equipment and anything else they weren’t going to need under new management.
Next, they changed their summer grazing routine. Instead of 3 to 4 groups, they put all the cattle into one herd. This decreased the time spent checking the fence and moving the cows. In class, they’d learned that they had been under-stocking and over-grazing. Now they graze more animals in a smaller area for less time, which has improved soil health and forage. The Kentucky blue grass invasion is slowing and diversity is exploding. The litter mat they leave behind reduces rain run off, and decreases soil temperatures and evaporation. In fact, the grazed pastures are in better shape than ungrazed acres as their daughter Dessa discovered with her Science Fair Project.
As other large scale graziers have noted, one of the biggest benefits of their new grazing management style is rest and recovery. Now, Sand Ranch cattle are only in some pasture for a few days a year. Even when Cody worries that they’ve made a mistake and grazed one spot too long, he’s learned that it actually comes back better than before after a good rest.
Who Knew Cows Could Calve Their Own?!
The next change was moving calving season from March and April to May and June. Though it was hard that first year to hold off putting the bulls in with the cows at the same time that everyone else was doing it, the rewards made up for it. First, the cows nutritional requirements are reduced during they winter months. So the Sands save money because they don’t have to supplement the cows with hay before and after calving. In the old days, feeding in March and April was a big expense. Now, the cows meet their nutritional requirements by grazing on the lush spring grass.
They also save time on checking the herd during calving. Cody says that the first year they went and checked the herd 2 to 3 times a day out of habit. But now, they know that the cows are going to calve without help, so this year they only checked on them when they were moving them to a new pasture. They rarely have to pull calves now, and they’re even reducing this problem. They get rid of problem cows every year so that their herd becomes stronger and stronger.
The calves are healthier thanks to a later calving season. There are no more scours or pneumonia to deal with. The family is healthier too because they don’t have to leave the house in a blizzard. His one worry, predators, have turned out not to be a problem at all. Predators have not been a problem calving on green grass. The 3 to 4 coyotes on his place have plenty of other, easier food options in May and June.
Cody says that if he had to go back to calving in the cold and snow of “spring” he would probably give up cattle. In addition to how much easier their lives have become, they’ also reduced input costs. Here are all the things they got rid of by changing to May/June calving:
So far so good, right? But what about fencing all those new pastures for their new management? And what do they do in winter? What about hay? And what are the changes in heifer management and marketing that come with a later calving season? We’ll share the Sands’ answers to those questions in the next articles. Click here to read Part 2.
Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.