Cattle rancher Mike Van Horn was looking for a way to double the number of cattle on his ranch without buying more land, so his son can join the family operation.
He thinks he's found a way to accomplish that aim with what's called regenerative or intensive grazing.
Van Horn was among 60 to 80 participants in a two-day seminar on the topic sponsored by the Williams County Soil Conservation District. The program was by Steve Kenyon of Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd., who was in the region this summer to talk about management practices on his ranch in Canada, where he provides custom grazing for up to 1,000 head of cattle.
The Soil Conservation District decided to bring him back for another session, this time for a more indepth and hands-on seminar that looked at growing soil health by promoting a poly culture of plants and roots on down to more of the nuts and bolts, such as how to design grazing cells and water systems that work.
Van Horn is from Sentinel Butte in Medora, and said he had tried out the concept of regenerative grazing on a small scale last year.
"A few people from our area are doing this, so I'm just kind of curious and wanted to further my knowledge," Van Horn said. "I came up here to see how much bigger I could get on the same land."
Last year, Van Horn put 60 yearlings on a quarter piece of land that he divided into four segments. He let the cattle graze each quarter piece until it was about half down, then moved them to the next segment.
When the cattle got back around to the first segment, the grass there had grown taller than before, and there was more of it.
"We were coming out of a bad drought from the year before, so there wasn't much to start with even," he added.
The intensive grazing concept works in part because it is stimulating rapid growth in grasses, Kenyon explained. That rapid growth also means that the grass is more nutritious.
Older plants are hiding their proteins and sugars in root systems, flowers and seeds. Newer, younger shoots haven't had a chance to hide their riches from grazing cattle yet.
There are other benefits to the system, such as helping the more nutritious grasses to outcompete less desirable plants. The cattle also help juice up the soil by adding fertilizer over the area they are intensely grazing and working that in with their hooves as they go.
Van Horn ended up grazing each of the segments in his quarter section twice, and said he was pleased with that outcome.
Now, however, based on what he learned from the seminar, Van Horn thinks he probably could have put 160 yearlings on the same quarter segment instead.
"So I'm going to do this more detailed now," he said.
Van Horn is a fourth generation farmer, and his son will make a fifth. Market forces, however, have been making it harder and harder for family operations to keep going from one generation to the next.
"I have my mom and my dad's farm, and it's still tight," he said. "So we are going to try and figure out how to run more cattle with less land. That's our goal anyway."