Lyle Perman of Rock Hills Ranch of Lowry, S.D., near the Missouri River in far north-central South Dakota, said about 1.3 billion gallons of water fall on his 5,000-acre ranch every year.
That’s from an average rainfall in the semi-arid land farther west in South Dakota of about 16.1 inches per year.
“Our goal is to not allow that water to leave,” Perman, who works with his son and daughter-in-law, Luke and Naomi, and his wife, Garnet, on the Rock Hills Ranch, established in 1976 in the Swan Creek Valley.
The previous owners had a dairy operation and became accustomed to overgrazing. The process of restoring the 36 pastures and grassland began with increasing water infiltration rates, he emphasized in a talk Jan. 17 at the Northern States Beef Conference in Watertown, S.D.
Perman quoted soil scientist Rolf Derpsch of Paraguay, who said, “Research has shown the percentage of soil covered with plant residue is the most important factor in increasing water infiltration.”
The increased infiltration at Rock Hills improves water quality, decreases runoff and increases the productivity of various plants.
“Infiltration is really the key,” he said.
“We try to concentrate on capturing what falls. In the middle of the day in late June or July, what I like to see is cows lying on the hillside, not looking for something to eat.”
Perman said “four inches of residue should be left on your ground to capture snow or rainfall for the coming year.”
With the drought, which provided his ranch only 9.61 inches of rain from March 1 to Nov. 1 of last year, he said ranchers need to have a plan in place in case the rains don’t return this year.
If the drought doesn’t break, he already has planned that by July 1, he will liquidate more of his cattle.
He also said his stocking rate will be at about 80 percent this coming year because of the expected smaller amount of grass.
His plan also includes capturing more of the rain and snow for 2014, too.
“We don’t want to damage our resources,” he said.
He said the start to any drought plan is for producers to keep track of rainfall on their land, and if they don’t, to get it from neighbors or the nearest reporting station. He said that will help in deciding stocking rates.
Other parts of his overall ranch plan to help with water management is planting cover crops and doing a lot of rotation with his herd of mostly commercial Angus cattle in the pastures.
Even though he can have trouble getting germination in the fall for his cover crops, which go in after the wheat is harvested, he said it’s worth the effort.
Also, with increased infiltration, he said the native plant population will be healthier, with a better quality of water and improved quantity.
This will result in increased profitability on the ranch because of increased stocking rates.
He also is teaching his cattle to eat plants that aren’t normally in their diet. This past summer he exposed his herd to western snowberry.
With his yearling heifers, he was able to get them to eat the plant within about five days using a method by nationally known livestock landscape specialist Kathy Voth, who says cows will eat high-protein weeds with a little bit of training. Her website is www.livestockforlandscapes.com.
Perman said that once the cows are eating the other plants, research has shown they teach their progeny to munch on the same vegetation.
The rancher has many sources of water on his ranch, including 7 miles of underground water pipeline, two developed springs, two wells, four rural water hookups, 20 water tanks and 27 dugouts and dams.
The dugouts are fed by ground water, he said.
He uses the springs to fill numerous water tanks.
His cattle operation is divided into four herds: yearling heifers, 2-year-old cows, 3-year-old cows and a group of older cattle.
Although he said restoring his land won’t happen in his lifetime, he continues to work on problem areas.
One is with 200 acres of hay land, which lies in a creek bottom. He wondered why small swells were developing, making it difficult to hay, and why the plant community always was changing.
Perman reviewed NRCS data for the 1,380-acre watershed and noticed an increase in runoff because of grazing management. He converted the land to minimum tillage, which helped the situation.
The rancher also urged conference participants to make use of the experts and financial aid from their NRCS office or other agencies and organizations to help find answers.
For example, he said NRCS data can help determine watersheds and what can be done to save more water. He found that a 2.1-inch rain falls on his property on an average of every other year. In one of his watershed areas with the land at an 11.5 percent average slope, good grass management can keep the runoff to only 15 percent and the peak discharge or erosion factor to 75 cubic feet per second. If he had used fair grazing and grazed it pretty short, using the same slope and rainfall numbers, the runoff would almost double and the erosion would almost triple.
He said about 80 million gallons of water will fall in that 2.1-inch rain.
Perman said farmers and ranchers need to get it right when managing their resources because future generations depend upon it.
He told of how well-known conservationist Aldo Leopold once said, “The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself.”
“My question to those of you who are farmers or ranchers is, ‘What does your portrait look like?’ ”