Working Lands Support Wildlife

Cattlemen create a mosaic of short, mid and tall grasses and forbs with rotational grazing.

Published on: Oct 1, 2013

Many farmers and ranchers are managing their pastures and rangeland to support wildlife habitat, according the Natural Resources Conservation Service in South Dakota.

NRCS provided these examples:

  • Hyde County rancher Jim Faulstich leaves a patchwork of paddocks grazed at different levels that provide variable height of diverse grasses and forbs.
  • Mellette County rancher Dan Rasmussen combines light, season-long grazing in large pastures with rotational grazing in smaller paddocks.  Pastures reserved for winter grazing are home to nesting birds and animals all summer.
  • Gregory County rancher Dave Steffen utilizes the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to defer grazing for a whole year on 30 percent of his grass.  He was delighted during last year's drought to see that previous year's deferred pastures produced noticeably better than grazed pastures, providing more grass for his cattle and critical wildlife habitat. 
  • Neil Bien's 70-80 acres of trees on his ranch in Marshall County add another layer of vegetation for wildlife habitat.
  • Faulstich plants wildlife friendly trees that also serve as winter wind protection for his cattle.

Stocking density, frequency of moving and pasture size all impact utilization rates in individual pastures. Allowing half or more of existing vegetation to remain creates the "mosaic" of short, mid and tall grasses and forbs considered optimal for wildlife, says Doug Sargent, NRCS biologist, Pierre, S.D.

Mule deer find food and shelter on working land in western South Dakota. Photo by Ramon Birkeland, NRCS, Dupree, S.D.
Mule deer find food and shelter on working land in western South Dakota. Photo by Ramon Birkeland, NRCS, Dupree, S.D.

Water development is also critical for wildlife habitat.  NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) has been instrumental in providing water to pastures.  Some ranchers take water development a step further. Jeff Smeenk who ranches near Newell, SD, qualified for special EQIP assistance because he has land near sage grouse breeding grounds. The contract calls for him to install bird ladders on new tanks.  A Bird Tour on the Smeenk Ranch counted over 40 species. Rancher Larry Wagner, Chamberlain, also has bird ladders in his tanks as does Dave Steffen.

Interested in ideas for your operation? NRCS rangeland management specialists offer free on-site consultations and the SD Grassland Coalition ( provides tips for various facets of grazing and livestock management, including wildlife considerations.

Source: NRCS - South Dakota