When we left off last week the Franklin County Cattlemen’s educational tour had left North Dakota for South Dakota and hopefully some warmer and drier weather. We temporarily had outrun the rain but not the chill winds. We stopped for lunch in Sturgis then hit the road again in order to visit with rancher Alan Bishop.
Bishop’s ranch of almost 5,000 acres was in sight of Mt. Rushmore. He took us out to a point on a rise to view the mountain and explain his operation near what he said was a “windbreak,” a lone tree about 300 yards away!
At least the winds had calmed from the 60-70 mph sustained “breeze” they had the week before. He raises alfalfa and grazes brome grass with about 18” of rainfall on high selenium soils. He only has two water holes in the 1,000-acre field we drove through to view his herd. He said his greatest challenge is trying to rotate pastures when half of the year the grasses are dormant.
This area in the foot of the Black Hills is what he calls the “banana belt” where they get a thaw for a few weeks in January. Another interesting feature is that the tree line is slowly creeping down from the mountains and onto the prairie.
He overwinters with a Body Condition Score of 4-5 on about 15 acres per pair. We went back to his house to warm up and were greeted with fresh coffee and homemade cookies thanks to his mom. We found out he had a niece at the University of Kentucky and invited him to visit and we’d return the hospitality.
We left just in time to see Mt. Rushmore at dusk where we joined a few other hardy souls who ventured out to see the rock. We hung out until after dark in the rain to see the monument, which is lighted briefly every evening. It was worth it although most of us thought it looked smaller than expected but still magnificent.
We spent the night in Custer in a 1950s-era motel, The Rocket, a neat old motel that we settled into just as the snowflakes were starting. After a hardy breakfast with the locals we planned to visit Crazy Horse before a mad dash across the Badlands for our next stop late in the afternoon.
As we climbed the Black Hills and entered the park at above 5,000 feet we found 4-6” of snow. The memorial, though not yet complete, was beautiful as the snow blanketed the evergreens.
We left before we were able to adequately tour the Native American Museum but we had a long way to go and a short time to get there. We made a pit stop at Walls Drug just to say we’d been there and bought our required souvenirs.
We also made the unfortunate stop for lunch at a family diner at one of the bigger “towns” on the way. We stopped when they were closing after feeding a bunch of hunters with hangovers and they weren’t too happy to see us but fed us anyway.
We finally arrived at the Jorgensen Ranch, a family operation that was settled in 1909 by their great-grandfather. The ranch has evolved to encompass cattle, farming and hunting. They crop almost 20,000 acres of diversified grains and forage, which lends itself to the habitat for hunting pheasant.
They sell about 3,000 bulls a year. Many go to cooperators and are brought back as proven two- and three-year-olds for final sale. About 20 loads of bulls go to the southeast each year.
After a ranch tour in their bus, Cody Jorgensen then took us to their brand new hunting lodge. The lodge was immense and beautiful and will not only provide for hunting parties but retreats and meetings as well. They currently host about 600 hunters a season and harvest about 3,500 pheasants, which were first introduced by their grandfather. The lodge will let them expand and they expect the market to be there.
GROUP SPLIT UP
As darkness descended we started north for the night. Being hunting season, and being in one of the least populated areas of the country our accommodations required our group to split up into two different motels. Our rooms had signs stating not to clean the pheasants in the tub, don’t store them in the fridge and keep the dogs off the beds. We obliged.
Supper that night was at a local pool hall and steakhouse where we once again followed the hunters and had another surly waitress but she warmed up to our lively group as the night wore on.
Morning greeted us with another light blanket of snow and a wind-chill of -9F. We jumped into our warm vans and headed out for Daybreak Ranch. We met Jim Faulstich, his wife and son in their shop to hear about his ranching philosophy.
He’s witnessed the loss of 20,000 cows in his four-county area. The cows along with sheep, hogs and their native prairie grasses have been replaced by row crops of corn, beans and sunflowers, which he feels is a net drain on the soil. He feels that this loss of diversity affects the land as well as the community. As a result, his natural resources are his highest priority for managing his 8,000 acres.
Faulstich started using wildlife as his barometer to measure whether his ranching practices were effective or not. As the deer, grouse, pheasant and coyote increased, he realized he had found an equilibrium but also realized he had created a liability so he incorporated hunting to keep his abundant wildlife in check.
He rotationally grazes his 350 red Angus and south Devon cross cows using polywire and fence-weans his calves with the same hot wire system which he claims is less traumatic and results in healthier happier calves. He’s razing his cattle with no supplemental feed in a very harsh environment. His low elevation usually gets a first freeze in August and lasts until mid-May with temperature swings from a -90F wind-chill to 110F in the summer.
While in the area we stopped in to see David Fremark’s cow/calf and feedlot operation. He feeds around 6,000 head using distillers grains from ethanol production nearby but is finding that silage is cheaper now. With the increasing regulations for confined feeding operations he decided to hire a company to monitor his operation to help keep him in compliance. The manure is spread on a portion of their 15,000 acres of cropland, which now includes soybeans, something he said was not even grown there 20 years ago.
His cowherd totals almost 2,000 head but they are broken down into groups of 300-500 and grazed behind hot wires. This area is fed with artesian springs, which he uses to his advantage. Not only does it flow freely from the ground but also it comes out at around 80F. Of his 15-20 employees he still has cowboys to ride herd on horses but finds that he uses ATVs a lot more now.
A LIVESTOCK AUCTION
Most every trip we try and visit a livestock auction just to see how it is operated and gain a little insight into the market there. This year we stopped in on Hub City Livestock, the largest in South Dakota, which also happens to be family owned and operated.
Steve Hellwig gave us a tour of the facilities, which can hold 8,000-9,000 head and typically sells 6,000 on sale days. They also still sell about 300-400 sheep a week but this is half of what it was 20 years ago.
They buy around 4,000 roll bales of hay a year since it usually takes producers several days to bring in a calf crop and they must be fed and watered until sale date. After a good lingering visit with some order buyers in the office we traded KCA caps for Hub City Livestock caps and headed to the Bieber Red Angus ranch.
Two generations of the Biebers met us at their family operation. The ranch was started by Ron and Lois but is evolving into the hands of his son Craig and his wife Peggy. Craig lamented that he loved ranching but as they grew he had become more of a manager of people and did less and less hands-on work.
We got a tour of their 800-cow operation, which sells about 350 bulls a year. The cows were grazing recently harvested cornfields and were in great condition. Peggy had made arrangements for lunch at the café down the road, which was appropriately named 10/45 due the road intersection. We had a long enjoyable meal of German-based food in the company of an enjoyable ranch family.
Our last scheduled stop for our seven-day trip had another Kentucky connection.
Frank Moore, Director of Operations at Glacial Lakes Energy Ethanol Plant, spent many years in state government here and was excited to meet our group and finally talk to someone without an “accent.”
We got a great behind-the-scenes tour of how an ethanol plant works and they patiently answered all our questions about the whole process. The plant uses 84 million bushels of corn a year and produces 240 million gallons of ethanol, most of which is exported.
A byproduct is 900,000 tons of distillers grain, which is consumed locally or shipped out by rail. The plant itself is mostly a “green” operation with its only discharge being excess steam. It takes only three days to turn corn kernels into liquid fuel there.
With our educational stops done, we had a leisurely drive back to catch our flight out of Fargo. With a little time to spare we allowed a little shopping excursion since the other requirement of eating well had already been met.
While waiting for our connecting flight we discussed where our trip next year would take us. The only consensus was that it would not be north unless it was summertime!