How to make grazing work on national grasslands


Breeder Bob Rittberger leans his slender frame against a weathered corner fence post and looks out over a valley of rolling hills, pines and prairie grass. A coyote barks in the distance. Rittberger talks about what this place must have been like hundreds of years ago.

“When the buffaloes traveled here, it was a bit like rotational grazing at its best,” he says. “The bison gradually moved around. There were no fences for them. Now with the cattle and the fences we have to make sure that the cattle never stay in one place for too long. We must also keep them constantly in motion for the improvement of the grass. It reproduces what it was like when the buffaloes were here.

Grasses stay healthy through rotations.

Bob and his brother, John, run a cow-calf farm in their hometown, where their grandfather once ran a small dairy. Their grandparents owned this land in 1909. These dairy cows kept food on the table at that time, and after the Rittbergers took over the ranch, they were able to purchase more land and devote themselves entirely to ranching. beef.

John and Bob Rittberger

Their operation is unique in that their ranch relies on a mix of their own private land, in a checkerboard pattern with tracts of US Forest Service land. About two-thirds of their operation takes place on the Buffalo Gap National Prairie. “Without our leases on the prairies, it would be quite difficult to do,” he notes.

The ranch pays the forest service with a monthly Animal Unit Fee (AUM), either per animal per month. “We’re one of the few people who use federal land and actually pay,” says Bob. “It’s a way to keep the grass in check and not get too long and tall.”

Their grazing management reduces the risk of grassland fires and improves grass health. The family works under the Forest Service guidelines for land use.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service work closely with pastoralist communities in 16 western states to ensure that public rangelands remain healthy and productive landscapes: 50% of collected grazing fees that are deposited in the US Treasury are returned to the Range Betterment Fund for the field improvement projects. Some collected charges are also returned to states for use in counties where charges were generated.

An AUM or HM – treated as equivalent measures for royalty purposes – is the use of public land by one cow and calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for one month. Grazing fees were determined by a formula of Congress and came into effect on March 1, 2018. The fees apply to nearly 18,000 grazing licenses and leases administered by the BLM and nearly 6,500 licenses administered by the Forest Service nationwide.

The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land located primarily in 12 western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of underground mining estate across the country. The agency’s mission is to maintain the health, diversity, and productivity of U.S. public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

The Rittberger’s strive to see more western wheatgrass become established, as well as green needlegrass on their acres. “We want to leave it better than when we took over, and we want to see that the grass is thicker and more vigorous, replacing a lot of that buffalo grass. We hope to get better grass coverage all around, ”says Bob Rittberger.

Kicking a boot into the dry earth, he continues. “Droughts are pretty much inevitable here. You just have to expect it. ”

From 2000 to 2007, the ranch experienced drought. “It taught us a lesson,” says Bob. “Since then we’ve been trying to leave half of the grass standing. This practice has given us the best durability to weather a drought. ”

They had to sell part of their herd in 2006-2007. Looking into the gently blowing wind, John Rittberger says, “Drought is always on our minds. It never seems to go away. There are many more dry years in my mind than wet years. Drought is the most important factor we are managing.


Providing water to the livestock on a farm of this size, through hills, sumps and rough, drought-prone soil, is a major challenge. They put 20 miles of piping and bought their own trencher, because it was getting so expensive to hire people to do it. Pipelines protect them from drought. They now have water tanks in each pasture, so the cows don’t have to walk a mile or two to get to the water. Fortunately, when they started adding water lines, the fences were in place so it was a matter of moving the cows from one pasture to another.

An added benefit of the water pipes was that they allowed the Rittbergers to fence off riparian areas along the Cheyenne River. Keeping livestock out of these areas has led to improved vegetation along the streams.

“The biggest change I’ve seen is the introduction of willows along the banks of streams,” says John. “Even the poplars have come back. Our banks are much safer now.”

Looking at the vast landscape, Bob says, “We have more fences to make. We could divide the pastures if we can get Forest Service approval. Studies have shown that the impact of hooves improves the grass, so if we didn’t graze it and had a big thunderstorm, it could all go up in smoke. We hope we can do our part to help prevent the fires that will eventually occur. Removing some of this grass for the benefit of our livestock is where we all win. ”

One change over the years in the landscape of their ranch on the edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills is the obvious proliferation of pine trees. “My father said when he was a kid there weren’t any pine trees here,” John says. “There were a few rare miles east of here, but the encroachment of the pines on the prairie soil has occurred.”

The cost of controlling growth came mainly in labor. John’s oldest son used a chainsaw to thin out trees. “The long-term plan for the forest area is to keep pruning and thinning,” says John. “Years later, that paves the way for more growth. Our goal for grazing is to always leave some grass behind. We love the grass. John smiles.

“I like to watch a pasture that looks good even after removing the cattle.”

Shale is a concern in some areas. “We don’t dare overgrazing on this type of soil,” says John. They graze in rotation during summer and winter. Much of the land is forested, so it is only grazed in autumn, winter and early spring. ” We are going in circles. Cattle move throughout the year.

John laughs. “Living here on this ranch, I can honestly say I’ve never been bored. I might be angry and disappointed and disgusted, but I’ve never been bored. If I didn’t have to make money, that would be fun!

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