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Improving an award-winning ranch

Gilda V. Bryant for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 July 2021
Sims Cattle Company

Located in the Rock Creek Valley of southeastern Wyoming, the Sims Cattle Company has been owned and operated by five generations of the Sims family.

They raise Angus/Simmental/Gelbvieh cross-bred cows and yearlings on 26,000 acres of upland and bottomland pastures. In the 1990s, Scott Sims and his brother, Olin, attended the Savory Institute to learn about holistic ranch management. This approach helps ranchers better manage cattle if they also supervise the natural resources livestock affect and use. This concept involves constant observation, planning and testing.

Three Generations of the Sims family

“Our emphasis at that time was our range grazing, understanding that we were overgrazing pastures,” Scott Sims explains. “We wanted to increase stock density and help improve the range. We wanted to move cattle between pastures, allowing grazed pastures to have more rest and recovery time.”

Passionate about caring for the land and animals, the family added fences and developed additional watering systems. In 1989, they began monitoring rangeland while improving grazing strategies. Introducing the herd to windrow grazing in 1991 saved time and reduced labor expenses.

Fourteen days of targeted high-density, short-duration grazing not only controlled weeds but led to an improved distribution of livestock in each pasture with a more uniform spreading of manure. They also fertilized grasslands and added new grass varieties to promote different forages. The Simses worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), University of Wyoming Extension, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Fish and Game Department to improve pastures for cattle. Wildlife benefited from improved habitats, and these management strategies also promoted clean water in springs and streams. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) recognized these significant improvements by awarding the 2005 Region 5 Environmental Stewardship Award to the Sims Cattle Company.

Continual improvement

How have the Simses’ stewardship practices changed since receiving this coveted award? In 2007, Scott and Shanon became the principal partners. Shanon, who is the Sims Cattle Company general manager, reveals their principles remain the same. They still implement high-density, short-duration grazing, giving the uplands time to rest, with windrow grazing during colder months.

“We have refocused our management,” Shanon reports. “Prior to our award, our attention was on the uplands. Now, we realize we were getting five to six animal days to the acre. In the bottoms, we’re getting 100 animal days per acre. It’s been worth our while to spend most of our time in the irrigated pastures and hay meadows.”

Since 2005, these ranchers have eliminated the use of fertilizers. Working closely with an NRCS expert, Shanon no longer harrows pastures, leaving cowpats intact, which provides food and living space for macroorganisms. He also saves money on fuel and labor expenses.

“We made land improvements for a while, then it stagnated,” Scott recalls. “We needed to improve the soil. In 2002, we had a drought and had to sell quite a few cows. We usually sold 600 tons of hay annually, and we had no hay for sale. About the time of the stewardship award, we were resting a third of our pastures. That helped us in two ways. It gave us a drought reserve so that when it was dry, we could graze those areas. We saw improvements in the land and grass quality, such as more diverse and healthier plant communities. It benefited wildlife, as well.”

The ranch is at an elevation of 7,200 feet, receiving an average of 12 to 15 inches of precipitation. Plants have a 45- to 60-day growing season and require 18 months of recovery time because of long dormant periods. Cattle graze in pastures for eight months, graze on windrow hay for two and feed on big round bales of cut hay for two months. During dry spells, the herd grazed grass reserves, also known as stockpiling because pastures had proper recovery times.

Shanon reports they attempted ultra-high stock density grazing. “We let it go rapidly,” he admits. “The amount of labor involved was phenomenal. We’re on a bigger landscape here; trying to divide a half-section or full section into five-to-six-day moves is labor-intensive. With our brittle environment, the time between a herd grazing and completely removing all cover was too small a window for us. I can’t say it wasn’t successful, but it didn’t fit what we wanted to do. We still use high-density, short-duration grazing, with one cow to the acre.”

Profitable progress

The Simses added more land to their operation and now have 140 pastures. A University of Wyoming graduate student is conducting soil studies on the Sims Ranch. Research suggests that soil organic matter and beneficial macro- and microorganisms are increasing as a result of the changes the Simses have made.

Different grass varieties

These stewardship applications are profitable. “We’re putting money in our pocket by putting carbon in the soil,” Shanon argues. “If we’re putting carbon in the soil, we’re holding on to moisture. If we hold on to moisture, we grow more grass and become more resistant to drought. We didn’t have to destock when we went through a localized drought in 2016 and the 2020 drought. I think it’s because of our practices.”

The Sims Cattle Company may give up some income during average years by letting pastures rest instead of grazing. However, during dry spells, Scott and Shanon save money because cattle graze stockpiled forage, and cattle remain on the ranch. Shanon feels strongly that their practices pay for themselves.

“Producers should determine what they want for themselves and their operations,” Scott advises. “The reason a lot of people have not been successful with holistic management is: They don’t monitor grazing. That’s especially important in our environment. People want to make changes in their operation and see [immediate results]. It doesn’t happen that way. Through monitoring, we show we’re making improvements every year. Because of that, we stay excited with all we see out there.”

Shanon says they constantly adjust their holistic program. He encourages ranchers to set a goal and work toward that objective every day. Beef producers must regularly change to stay competitive in today’s beef market. Learning about profitable stewardship programs from the Savoy Institute, NRCS and the University of Wyoming’s extension experts has helped the Sims Cattle Company improve water quality and grasslands for cattle and wildlife.  end mark

PHOTO 1: The Sims family checks cattle often, moving them to new pastures to avoid overgrazing.

PHOTO 2: Three generations of the Sims family stand in a lush pasture.

PHOTO 3: The Simses’ holistic approach encourages different grass varieties to grow in pastures, providing diverse and beneficial forages for cattle and wildlife. Photos courtesy of Sims Cattle Company.

Gilda V. Bryant is a freelancer based in Amarillo, Texas.