The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) Soil Health Champions Network is made up of more than 240 farmers, ranchers and woodland owners from across the nation.
Its primary purpose is to increase the adoption of soil health systems by farmers and other landowners nationwide.
Sims Cattle Company is one of the Soil Health Champions involved in this program. The ranch has been family-owned and operated for five generations and is in the Rock Creek Valley of southeast Wyo. Melinda Sims said they are involved in the program because of their goal, “to create a business that is appealing to our kids, grandkids and many generations to come. Our decisions are tested against this goal every day to ensure that our operation remains environmentally and economically sustainable in an ever-changing marketplace.”
Their ranch is 26,000 acres of mostly upland pasture and runs 650 head of Angus/Simmental/Gelbvieh cross-bred cows and 300 yearlings. Sims explained, “Our ranch family includes grandfather Don Sims and his wife Cheryl. Don is no longer active in helping us work, but he will show up to every preg-checking and still has his valuable opinion to offer. Scott and April are my husband Shanon’s parents. Then Shanon, myself and our kids – Kagan (16) and Jentry (13). Shanon’s sister Kendra is a chiropractor and helps when she has time off.”
The history of this family ranch begins with Shanon’s great-grandfather Roy Sims, who bought the first piece of ground in their area in 1942. Sims explained, “Roy farmed it until the 1970s, when Shanon’s father, Scott, got into the partnership and his grandfather Don, leased the ranch from Roy (Don’s father) and started to make the ranch more as we know it today. Then in the 1980s, Scott’s brother Olin came in as a 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 about grazing management, but they also learned about the decision-making process that is more of a way of life than just a grazing program,” she explained.
The family brought home what they learned and began putting their new knowledge into practice. Then, in 2007, Don wanted to retire, and Olin and Scott brought Shanon into the partnership that summer. During all this change, Olin passed away tragically in a ranch accident.
“The entire dynamics changed,” Sims said. “We brought Roland Kroos of Crossroads Ranch Consulting in around 2014 because they had set up a holistic goal with Scott, Don and Olin and Shanon was not a part of that goal. We brought Roland in to help with continuing our own holistic goal.”
The goals consist of three parts that are each clearly outlined for various landscapes – riparian, range and irrigated, as well as stream health. Sims said, “We had already started cross fencing a lot. The cattle get moved on average every three to five days.”
“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.
“The biggest thing that has helped us the most is realizing how much rest our pastures need. We rest one-third of our ranch every year. It does not get 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,” Sims pointed out. “Our irrigation is snow melt, and it all comes in May and June.”
“Then, in our hay meadows, the biggest thing we have done there for soil health is quit chemical fertilizing completely. We also flood irrigate and rotate our irrigation. We have started rotating our water three to seven days, turn it off and turn it on. That has awakened so many different seeds in our hay meadows like wheat grasses, clovers and Timothy,” she said. “We also view weeds differently. Our cows eat weeds because they are often good feed and high in protein.”
Sims said adamantly, “If we can do it in this brutal ranching country that we live in, it can be done many places. 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.”