Soil Health Champions Network

by Kerry Hoffschneider

A group of more than 240 farmers, ranchers and woodland owners make up the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) Soil Health Champions Network and share the goal of increasing the adoption of soil health systems by landowners nationwide.  Sims Cattle Company, a fifth-generation family owned and operated ranch in the Rock Creek Valley of southeast Wyoming, is one of the operations involved.  Melinda Sims and her husband, Shanon, along with two elder generations and their children all live and work on the 26,000-acre ranch that runs 650 head of Angus/Simmental/Gelbvieh cross-bred cows and 300 yearlings.

Scott, April, Jentry (13), Melinda, Shanon and Kagan (16) Sims all live and work on their operation in southeast Wyoming.

Sims Cattle Company’s goal “to create a business that is appealing to our kids, grandkids and many generations to come,” is more attainable through practices that increase soil health Melinda said.  “Our decisions are tested against this goal every day to ensure that our operation remains environmentally and economically sustainable in an ever-changing marketplace.”

Roy Sims, Shanon’s great-grandfather, bought the first piece of ground in 1942.  Roy farmed it until the 1970’s when Shanon’s grandfather, Don, and his father, Scott, joined in a partnership and leased the ranch from Roy.  This team started implementing changes that “started to make the ranch more as we know it today,” Melinda explained.

About ten years later, Shanon’s uncle, Olin, also became a business partner.  In the winter of 1988, Scott and Olin went to an Allan Savory holistic management school.

“They were riding across summer pastures and asking themselves, ‘Where is all the grass?’  They thought all they were going to learn at the school was grazing management, but they also learned about the decision-making process that is more of a way of life than just a grazing program,” Melinda explained.

The brothers began implementing the knowledge gained at the Savory workshop.  In 2007, Don was ready to retire and Shanon became the fourth generation to partner in the operation.  During the transition Olin passed away in a tragic ranch accident.

“The entire dynamics changed,” Melinda said.

The team of Don, Scott and Olin had previously developed a holistic goal, but all the changes required a new look at the plan.  Roland Kroos of Crossroads Ranch Consulting helped update the plan in 2014 to include some of Shanon’s goals as well.  The goals consist of three parts that are each clearly outlined for various landscapes – riparian, range and irrigated – as well as stream health.

“On our rangeland, our goal is 80 percent ground cover with litter and dung breaking down and returning to the soil in one to two years and forming enough litter to cover 25 percent of the soil.  We expect to see an abundant amount of diversity of micro and macro-organisms.  We also encourage healthy plants and soils capable of capturing 100 percent of the precipitation and 50 percent of the sunlight.  The numbers and percentages are different for varying landscapes,” she said.

To achieve these numbers, she noted that the biggest shift in management techniques was that of rotational grazing.  Prior to Kroos’ visit, Melinda said they had already done a lot of cross fencing.  The 26,000 acres are broken down into 141 pastures.  Cattle are moved every three to five days on average, with the exception of a few two-section pastures.

“Many people think of rotational grazing as just moving from one pasture to another.  There is far more involved.  There is timing, because you never want to hit the same pasture the same time every year,” Melinda explained.

She said the biggest learning curve in rotational grazing was realizing how much rest each pasture needed.  Sims rest one-third of the ranch each year and that portion is not grazed for over 800 days.

“We are in a super brittle environment at 7,200 feet and on a good year 16 inches of precipitation,” Melinda said.  “Our irrigation is snow melt and it all comes in May and June.”

This year in particular was a bit different allowing the ranch to only recently shut off water as the last snow came on June 23.  Typically, they only have the months of May and June to irrigate and a 45 to 55 day growing season.  She also pointed out their ranch rangelands are mostly cool season grasses including June Grass, Western Wheatgrass, Indian Ricegrass, Needle-and-thread Grass, and Crested Wheatgrass.  Melinda said they may see occasional Blue Grama “if we are lucky.”

“We are very much a high mountain desert with harsh winters,” she said.  “The rest we allow our plants to have has made the biggest difference as far as soil and plant health.”

In hay meadows, the most beneficial change to soil and plant health has been the elimination of chemical fertilization, Melinda said.  They flood irrigate hay grounds in rotations as well.

“We have started rotating our water three to seven days, turn it off and turn it on,” she said.  “That has awakened so many different seeds in our hay meadows like wheat grasses, clovers and Timothy.”

Their aspect on weed control has changed as well.  The cows will eat the weeds because they are “good feed and high in protein,” she said.

“A weed is an indicator of something else going on.  If you are just treating the weed, you are not getting what is causing it,” Melinda said.  “We do not spray.  We treat some areas with molasses to get cattle to eat Knapweed, and our cows love thistle and whitetop.”

After witnessing the changes their ranch has undergone after implementing these practices, Sims Cattle Company became involved in the Soil Health Champions Network.  Melinda said they are members to help spread the word.
“Change is hard and scary,” she acknowledged.  “If we can do it in this brutal ranching country that we live in, it can be done many places.  First, we want to recognize our mistakes and then our successes, so the entire agricultural community can progress in their soil management.  It’s that next step of keeping us engaged and involved.  You don’t want to get stagnant.”

The family has an open-door policy at the ranch and have conducted many tours with the University of Wyoming, NRCS and internationally with groups from Argentina, Australia, Uruguay.

“It’s up to every individual to want to make a difference and want to learn,” Sims stressed.

“We have always vowed whatever your education level is, it does not matter in this lifestyle – if you want to improve, you have to continue learning.”


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