Cattle Hard at Work in Eastern Montana

Western Ag Network Note: This NRCS article made a return to social media discussions in January 2024. While it was originally released from NRCS in 2017, we thought the storytelling and discussion were worth sharing again.

January 3, 2024 - Bryan and Chelsea Phipps are using their cattle as tools to improve soil health, reduce erosion and weeds, and harvest one of our planet’s greatest resources – sunlight on their ranch near Brusett, Mont. This new management style has other rewards for the family, including less stress and better financial returns.

“Everything we do to improve our soil health, we can make that work to improve our animal health. If those two things improve, our financials are going to see the benefit. And our quality of life. It’s a lot easier in a drought year, like this year (June 2017), to not be stressed and worrying about what our cows are going to eat,” said Chelsea.

What led to this method of operation for Phipps Livestock?

They had been hearing about management techniques to improve their resources from the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist, Sue Fitzgerald, for years. However, it wasn’t until she accompanied them to a holistic management class that it all came together.

Chelsea says, “She’s been telling us bits and pieces this whole time, and it never really came full circle. Now that we took the opportunity to educate ourselves more, it makes sense.”

When the Phipps first started to change things on the ranch, they say it was hard, as change always is. However, when they tried the little things, they worked. Seeing these successes gave them the confidence to continue.

“We started with an EQIP project for water and then it turned into a Conservation Stewardship Program project. Because we have a small, local office, Sue has been the one that we primarily have worked with and we’ve developed a really good working relationship with her. She’s just such a resource for us. She knows our place, so she can kind of help us as to which new things we can implement here and have change with,” said Chelsea.

Stockwater System Facilitates Grazing System

Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Phipps installed a stockwater system in 2010. The system includes a 10,000-gallon storage tank that gravity flows to five different water tanks. This system replaces a series of reservoirs that were unreliable in dry years.

“Now, with this water, we’ve been able to make our pastures smaller and we can utilize our grass better. I would figure that we have increased the grazing area by 20 percent probably with this water source. Our breed-up is better and we’ve gained 50 pounds on the weaning-weight of our calves. I would guess in a year it paid for itself in pounds of calf,” said Bryan.

This stockwater system helps the Phipps implement a holistic, rotational grazing management system in which the cattle help to stimulate plant growth and soil health through grazing. By rotating their cattle through smaller pastures more often, the cattle eat the top half of plants rather than the whole plant and the plants get more time to recover between grazing events. This increased recovery time along with nutrient deposits from manure improve plant health which leads to better ground cover and jump starts the soil biology, and the cycle continues.

“The changes they’re making, they’re really seeing the improvements out on the land. Our rangelands are really resilient and once you get that nutritional cycle and mineral cycle and the water cycle going, life just springs forth,” said Sue Fitzgerald, NRCS district conservationist in Jordan, Mont.

Concentrated Bale Grazing for Soil Health and Erosion Control

The Phipps are also using concentrated bale grazing. Through this method, enough hay bales for four days’ feed are set out, not rolled out, in strategic locations. The cattle then break down and eat the hay bales, spreading hay residue and manure.

“When you dig in this hay, the ground’s wet. We’re in one of the lowest moisture years in 100 years. If you go outside of the bale grazing, the ground is dry and hard with not much growing,” said Bryan. “We’re one year into this and I think this dry year is really showcasing the results. Lots of soil health. Probably in another year will have earth worms and stuff, so that’ll be exciting to see.”

When the bales are set out in areas with erosion, such as head cuts, the Phipps are also seeing results. The residue and manure left behind are encouraging plant growth and soil health in these areas, too. Just by walking around in the area, the cattle change the shape of the eroded ground.

“If you look at the cuts, they were sharp and getting bigger and now the edges are rounded and the bottoms are flat, so it’s slowing the erosion down. This spring, when we had a little moisture when the snow melted, the water was holding in these spots instead of running down the hill. It held the water up and that’s why it’s still green, I think, because the water was able to sit there and soak in the ground instead of just running to the creek,” said Bryan.

Cattle as Mowers for Weed Control

Their cattle are also learning to eat Canada thistle, a Montana noxious weed. In 2011, a highwater year, a stockwater reservoir dam failed. The area previously covered with water was then covered by chest-high thistle. The pasture with the dry reservoir was traditionally grazed for three months during the summer. By changing to early spring and shortening the grazing time in the pasture, the cattle learned to like to eat the young thistles.

“What we’ve been able to do is decrease the amount of Canada thistle, probably over 60% just from the grazing. We have not sprayed at all,” said Chelsea. “Canada thistle is rhizomatous, so you can’t pull it and have success. You have to mow it to have success. That’s why we have trained cows to be mowers.”

Monitoring Supports Decision-Making

As part of their CSP contract, they are also monitoring their rangeland and animal health. This data supports decisions about the grazing management plan for soil health and plant productivity.

“Bryan and Chelsea are so into it that they are going the extra mile and doing the more detailed monitoring,” Fitzgerald said.

They have set up permanent sites for range monitoring so that they can come back to the same spot for comparison. At each site, they are looking at average plant height, amount of bare ground, plant diversity, surface litter, and the presence of earthworms and wildlife among many other things.

“The goal is, we’ll come back to this spot in two to three years and see what has changed.

Hopefully, our practices will show that we’ve improved the overall production of the grass as well as soil health. Bottom line is we need to harvest more sunshine, grow more plants, have more grass for our cows, so it’s all tied together,” said Chelsea.

By monitoring animal health through fecal sampling, they are also gaining knowledge about rangeland health and their grazing management plan. When a fecal sample is analyzed by a lab, it can be used to determine the quality of forage the animals were consuming during the previous 36 hours.

“It’s good information on the fecal sampling because we’re moving more often and we can see results as far as the protein in the grasses and make sure our cows’ nutritional value is met,” said Bryan.

“And we’ve actually seen an improvement in protein levels. Our protein levels this year really haven’t gone below 10. Last year, we got above 10 once, and that was on a wet year,” said Chelsea, checking data on her digital tablet. “Sue really knows so much about all of these things, that she can really help us to pull it all together.”

More Information

High resolution photos of Phipps Livestock.

For more information about NRCS conservation technical assistance, contact your local USDA service center.