In the early 1950s, Jack Heyneman’s parents bought the Bench Ranch homeplace, south of Fishtail, Montana. It started out as a cow/calf, red angus seedstock operation that transitioned to a commercial grazing operation in the mid-1980s. Jack says, about the time they were disbanding the registered herd, “Mom and Dad got hooked up with Alan Savory and a group of like-minded producers in the region. That’s when they implemented this quick rotation, intensive grazing program.”
At the time, Jack’s parents asked Wayne Burleson for his assistance. “They wanted to build some cross fences and start practicing and doing holistic management. I came up here and did a bid and got excited because they said yes to build cross fences.” They installed electric, high-tensile wire fences, enabling them to rotate more frequently and to provide more rest to pastures.
Today, Jack and Karen Heyneman focus on increased stock density in the smaller paddocks as part of their custom grazing operation. They graze through the summer months and destock in the fall. Irrigated pastures might be grazed twice, but most pastures are only grazed once and then rested until the following year. “That’s worked pretty well for us the last few years. With the number of paddocks we have, we’re moving about every two to three days on a lot of our pastures.”
The Heynemans have worked hard to make sure they build enough fence and develop enough water sources to achieve the high stock densities they want. The also adjust their grazing management to fit different sites. Some areas have soils and native plant communities that are not able to produce enough forage for this grazing system. Other areas, like high dry pastures need different management to prevent sagebrush from taking over. Historically, sagebrush was kept in check by fire and bison grazing. Since those aren’t available to the Heyneman’s, they’re using their cattle, increasing cattle stock densities to reduce sagebrush’s competitive advantage.
Heyneman says, “I don’t want to kill all the sagebrush. We want a mosaic. We want habitat for the wildlife and the birds and the sage grouse.” By keeping this goal in mind and managing grazing accordingly, they’ve been able to double their stocking rate and there is still plenty of grass and other plants for both livestock and wildlife forage.
Documentation Records Success
Over the last 36 years, Burleson and the Heyneman’s have documented improvements at the ranch resulting from their grazing management. “We can look at photo points and pictures and look at real overall trends and see what is happening on a macro level. We keep real accurate records on stock data and I’m able to see trends with that, then base next year’s grazing plan on what we did the last few years,” says Heyneman.
“Photographing the change over the seasons and different years has been extremely exciting,” says Burleson.” Some plants have increased and some have decreased and it usually goes back to what changes have happened on the soils.”
Burleson sees below-ground improvements in soil health reflected in the above-ground vegetation changes. The photos below are one example. In the first photo, you see a high, dry pasture where sagebrush had begun to take over. As part of their holistic landscape goal, the Heynemans wanted to provide better habitat and forage by reducing sagebrush and increasing grasses and forbs. Their plan was to feed out bales to the cattle in mid-winter. “However,” says Burleson, “Something happened, and the cows broke the electric fence and got into the round bales. They trampled all the hay into the soil and again deposited lots of manure and urine on one area.”
In this set of photos, we can see a reduction in bare ground, and an increase in vegetation. (Bare ground is more common in the arid west as soil type, precipitation and climate affect the potential of the site to do more.)
Two years later, the site had changed dramatically. As the photo below shows, there is much less bare ground, less sagebrush and more forage. But the truly exciting part for Burleson is “Nineteen years later there is still way more tall grass (Green Needlegrass) still growing on the trampled area and the sagebrush is less. The area next to this spot has almost no grass except a few tuffs of Idaho Fescue and healthy sagebrush. In the arid west, a site’s potential is dictated by soil type and precipitation, so bare ground is actually a natural thing. The changes in this case indicate changes in the soil that improve the site’s potential to grow more and better quality forage.
The set of photos below is another example. This pasture moved from short grass species to tall grass thanks to a major fencing project that concentrated the livestock. Burleson says the cattle spend about 3 days on this paddock, grazing, trampling grass into the soil and adding their manure and urine. The result is a layer of compost that feeds the soil and increases forage growth.
If you’d like to learn more, take 4:32 minute trip to the Bench Ranch with the video below. You’ll visit with Jack Heyneman, who describes more of his operation, and with Wayne Burleson who talks about how their grazing management has improved soils on the ranch. Then read on to see how you can adapt some of the principles you see here to your own operation.
What Can You Do With This?
Here are three things that the Heyneman’s did that you can do too.
1. Make a plan.
Build your plan based on the goals you have for your landscape, your business and your personal life. We’ve shared lots of articles over the last seven years to help you. Here are just a couple:
2. Document what’s happening.
The Heyneman’s experience shows us once again that a picture can be worth a thousand words. But it’s important that you set up your photo monitoring so it’s easy to take photos at the same place over time to show what’s happening. Here’s how:
Photos are nice because they allow us to look back and sometimes see things that we may not have noticed when we were on site. We can also use the results to help us make decisions about our grazing management.
3. Share the load.
Part of the Heynemans’ success comes from the support of like-minded individuals, like Wayne Burleson and other producers in the area. Chip Hines shared some great tips on how to find folks to work with.
You might also find valuable assistance, both financial and technical, at your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Conservation District offices, or by visiting with a local extension agent.
Thanks to Montana NRCS and Wayne Burleson for their contributions to this article!