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Twice as Many Cows, Twice as Easy

This piece comes to us from Clarence Kelly,* work unit conservationist for the Soil Conservation Service (now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service). It was first published in September of 1962 in the Soil Conservation magazine.

This rancher faced a lot of the same challenges many of us face today. His solution was to become “regenerative.” Working with what was available in 1949, he found ways to improve his grazing management, grow more forage and improve soil health. Check out how he did it in “the olden days” and then consider what he might be able to do today with our newfangled fencing and forage options.

Rancher Ray Smith has a lot going for him today after a dozen years of good land use in Washington’s breaks of the Snake River near Hay.

Since 1949 he has:
• Stepped up his cow herd from 120 to 230 head.
• Cut his acreage of poor condition range sites in half.
• Increased the number of top producing range sites more tan 12 times.
• Established 145 acres of permanent summer irrigated pasture on a once barren, sandy river bar.

Smith laid the ground work for these and other gains soon after a Soil Conservation Service technician surveyed his land in the Whitman County Soil Conservation District. The survey, which included reference to a soil survey map and an aerial photograph of the ranch, showed that only 2 percent of the grassland produced at peak capacity and provided maximum soil protection, 33 percent was in good condition, 53 percent was in fair condition, and 12 percent produced poorly. Figuring the feed potential of such key forage grasses as Bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, and Sandberg bluegrass, poor range was turning out less than a fourth of what it should. Also, there was no good summer range; stock water was short, and the large size of some of the pastures made it impossible to defer and rotate grazing.

The soils map showed a 145-acre piece of low-lying benchland that might be adapted to irrigated pasture. Smith’s first step as to drill a 320-foot well, with a capacity of 1,200 gallons a minute. More than a mile of 6- and 8-inch permanent irrigation main lines were buried, and 5,000 feet of 3-inch aluminum laterals were installed. Sprinkler heads supplying 6.2 gallons a minute were placed at 40- by 60-foot spacings. The entire system required a 950-gallon-a-minute turbine pump, operated by a 75-horsepower electric motor.

Today, that formerly barren, low-lying bench is high-producing irrigated summer pasture, divided into four main units seeded to a mixture of smooth bromegrass, alta fescue, orchardgrass, white Dutch clover and birdsfoot trefoil. Each main pasture is subdivided into four lots, each of which is grazed for 6 days and given a recovery period of 18 days. With this rotation system, the grass is never harmed by overgrazing. At an annual operating cost of $10 an acre, the irrigated pasture solved the summer feed problem; but to provide hay, another plot of land also was irrigated, and seeded to Ladak alfalfa. It is never pastured.

Eight miles of additional fencing was needed for the new system of management. In order to have water in each of the dryland range units, Smith developed three springs and installed watering troughs. As a result of this conservation development, Smith no has five units managed under a rotation deferred system where 12 years ago there were only three dryland range units.

Smith normally begins using his irrigated pasture by May 1, so that most of his range is deferred and allowed to produce viable seed. His cows are turned from the irrigated pasture back to dry range in October. Each time a different range is used. Many of the low-poducing range areas were plowed and seeded to intermediate wheatgrass, and are producing four times the feed they yielded before. In contrast to its 1949 production, 25 percent of Smith’s rangeland now is rated excellent, 38 percent as good, 27 percent as fair, and only 6 percent as producing poorly, with 4 percent reseeded.

The payoff on his pasture development and range improvement and management system is a gain over 1949 of 67,000 pounds of extra beef annually, plus an additional 100 head of cows he now can run on the same acreage.

“It wasn’t easy,” Smith said. “Our conservation plan helped us a lot when we had our goals set. I can remember times when I thought we would never make it. One year we seeded that barren sandy soil three times, and each time the wind blew the seed away. But the fourth time, she stayed. Today we have on e of the finest pasture stands you could ever hope fro. You know it really seems odd, but now i can run twice as many cows twice as easy as I could a dozen years ago.

*Clarence went on to manage the NRCS Pullman Plant Materials Center where he retired in 1994. The Center provides vegetation solutions for  technologies for conservation and soil health with an emphasis on erosion prevention to protect air and water quality and provide good habitat for salmon and steelhead trout spawning and rearing. You can still find Mr. Kelley’s name on numerous plant fact sheets.

I was unable to find any information about Ray Smith and his ranch today. If anyone out there is familiar with the Hay and Lacrosse area of Washington, I’d sure like to hear about Mr. Smith and his descendants!

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