Northern Plains Beef Producers Awe Me Across Three States

Beefs and Beliefs

Beef producers show me great management and even greater ideas as I road trip across the Northern Plains.

Published on: August 22, 2013
 

I’m writing from North Dakota near the end of a week-long trip, with time spent among literally dozens of brilliant and innovative beef producers and graziers.

It started last Friday when I met up with Doug Peterson, Missouri’s NRCS soil health expert and a heckuva innovative grazier in his own right. We left my car in York, Nebraska, and started our trek across three states.

First we stopped out at North Platte, Nebraska, on what was once the old Buffalo Bill ranch, to see Ernie and Kevin Kuhlman. They have one of the oldest linebred herds of polled Herefords in the country and those cattle have remained largely unchanged from the 1940s and 1950s when Ernie’s dad, Orvil, crossed his polled cattle back and forth with the thicker-muscled Anxiety IV Herefords from the Mousel brothers’ herds to create a beefier polled animal.

Old style: Doug Peterson takes a closer look at Kuhlman’s linebred, polled Herefords near North Platte, Nebraska.
Old style: Doug Peterson takes a closer look at Kuhlman’s linebred, polled Herefords near North Platte, Nebraska.

Before the days when university based idiots decided cattle needed to be shrunken like human heads in a cannibal’s tent, the Kuhlmans dominated the breeding-cattle shows with these truly moderate-sized beef animals.

Ernie says today the cattle aren’t much different, since it’s a closed herd and the only change they’ve bred in was a little upward size pressure. The cattle were thick and fleshy on summer grass. The only complaint I’d register is that this is a very conventionally managed herd, meaning they winter primarily on hay, near the house, so this may not put a lot of pressure on the herd like some beef producers today are requiring.

Moveable feast: Pat Guptill’s custom-grazed heifers get a drink from this portable tank, which Guptill designed to move easily with a four-wheeler on his Quinn, South Dakota, ranch.
Moveable feast: Pat Guptill’s custom-grazed heifers get a drink from this portable tank, which Guptill designed to move easily with a four-wheeler on his Quinn, South Dakota, ranch.

Next we met Pat and Mary Lou Guptill and his family at western South Dakota and visited at length about his operation. He’s way out of the box already in grazing and development of cattle fully adapted to his location and management style. He’s also a custom grazier.

One thing he showed us was how he strip grazes across the forage on a section of old crop ground with custom-grazed cattle. He’s using mostly one-day moves right now and the added density is slowly building forage and soil on this abused ground. If it weren’t five miles from the house, Guptill says he likely would go to much higher stock density at least part of the time and move forward faster.

Rich land: Lyle Perman and guests look out over the dense, biodiverse pastures on his family’s ranch near Lowry, South Dakota, in the north-central part of the state.
Rich land: Lyle Perman and guests look out over the dense, biodiverse pastures on his family’s ranch near Lowry, South Dakota, in the north-central part of the state.

Still, he says his profit per acre on that piece of property is $50 per acre, compared with conventional stocking profits of $12 per acre.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: Guptills winter most years out on pasture with no hay other than a little alfalfa, primarily as protein supplement. Guptill says in one out of 12 years in his area you’ll have to feed all winter because of iced-over snow. The rest of the time cattle can graze right through the snow and eat standing forage.

We also went to see Lyle and Garnet Perman on the Rock Hills Ranch at Lowry, South Dakota. Lyle makes it clear he’s largely retired from the ranch, which is now leased to son Luke and his wife, Naomi, but he still makes a pretty salty tour guide. No surprise, since Lyle and Garnet started with less than 1,000 acres in 1976 and the family has been expanding until they now control nearly 7,000 acres through ownership and leasing.

Permans now have about 40 paddocks on the ranch and have been practicing increasing levels of rotation grazing since about 1986. They have never been what you might call intensive in grazing management, small paddock size and high stock density but Peterson and I still were astounded at the ecological diversity of plants and animals on the Permans’ native paddocks.

Son Luke is currently working to set up more piped water and more pasture subdivisions to increase grazing control and thereby increase forage production and quality even more. We’ll talk more with the Permans in future editions of Beef Producer, both online and in the printed magazine.

My dizzying pace continued Monday morning when Troy Volmer of Volmer Angus Ranch near Wing, North Dakota, took me on a tour of his family’s operation and explained how they achieve grazing control despite the demands of multiple cow groups and bulls during the breeding season.

When the field day of the Grassfed Exchange and the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition began Tuesday we spent a full day in record 102-degree heat at the farms of Ken Miller and Gabe Brown, two of the elder statesmen of soil health in the Northern Plains. They did an outstanding job explaining, together with ARS soil scientist Kris Nichols and Canadian mob grazier Neil Dennis, how and why high-density planned grazing on rangeland and in multi-species cover crops produces healthier soil.

I’ve also had some good conversations and been pointed in the direction of some frightening data on grassland loss in the face of the ethanol-powered corn monster.

In the coming days I’ll be talking more with South Dakota rancher and conservation partner Jim Faulstich and also with South Dakota geographer Christopher Wright about grassland loss to farm ground. Wright and another geographer recently used satellite imagery to show dramatic conversions of grassland to farm ground between 2006 and 2011.

I must sign off now and get back to rubbing elbows with these great folks at the Grassfed Exchange annual meeting in Bismarck. There are producers here from 37 states, four Canadian provinces and four countries and I haven’t met one yet who didn’t have a great story to tell.

I love this industry and I really love the people who aren’t so tradition bound they hate a profit.