Lessons from 50 years of ranching

Ranchers who have a few decades of experience under their belts can provide some of the most practical management tips you’ll ever learn. Lavern and Sue Koch of New Underwood, S.D., are one such pair.

The couple has spent more than five decades together on their ranch, which has evolved from dairy, wheat and commercial cattle to their “retirement plan” of just cattle. Both are now in their 70s and are still eager and enthusiastic believers in ranching and grazing management.

Throughout the early 1990s, Lavern and Sue were involved with a local Bootstraps, program, which they credit with helping them think outside the box. It provided ideas on everything from rotational grazing to estate planning.

They put much of what they learned into practice, and through trial and error, have developed a family ranching operation that now includes their son, Larry. (Their other children also live nearby.)

What’s been key to this couple’s journey as a beef operation with a focus on grazing management? Lavern and Sue share these lessons:

“First, this is a ‘we’ operation,” says Lavern.

Sue attended many of the same meetings, workshops and tours that Lavern did. “That helps in making change work,” Lavern says.

The couple has been very involved with the South Dakota Grassland Coalition for more than a decade, and Lavern says that they’ve taken the group’s motto about range management to heart: “Utilize what you have and manage for what you want.”

Second, “you’ve got to have an idea what you want, but you’ve also got to be flexible and willing to change,” Lavern says. They found this is especially true in managing drought and other factors — like market prices — that you have little control over. “The key is to be able to be flexible in your management,” says Lavern.

Third, work with Mother Nature. The Kochs shifted to calving in April and May instead of March. “No wildlife has its young in the winter, so we need to mimic Mother Nature,” Lavern says. The couple has also planted all of their farm ground back to grass and legumes and cross-fenced pastures to create a rotational grazing system. They are trying to graze longer and feed hay fewer days each year. “Our goal is to get as close as possible to year-round grazing,” says Lavern.

Fourth, plan your grazing system. One cardinal rule the Kochs have is that the cows do not graze the same pasture at the same time each year. For instance, the first pasture the cattle graze in the spring will not be the first pasture grazed the following spring. “Sue matches the moves up so that the cattle can easily be near the home place for spring branding, fall marketing and when we have the kids around to help,” Lavern explains. The couple also likes to move the herd later in the day. They have several pastures with alfalfa and have fewer bloat problems when they move later in the day.

Fifth, continue to learn. Sue and Lavern advocate participating in grazing workshops, meetings and pasture walks. “You always come away with something you can learn, and those are great opportunities to network with others,” notes Lavern. They traveled to Argentina and Brazil with a group from South Dakota State University in 2010. “It proved to us what a world market we are in,” Lavern says.

Sixth, make sure you enjoy what you are doing. “It’s been a really good life and we’ve had a lot of fun,” Sue says.

Gordon writes from Whitewood, S.D.

Let nature provide

Lavern Koch credits his appreciation for grazing — and keeping management simple — to 27 years of operating a dairy. “That probably gave me my first clue on grass. When I put those cows out to graze, it was an immediate difference [improvement in productivity] that showed up in the milk tank the next day,” he says.

Today, he recognizes that Mother Nature provides everything a ranch needs. “I get to wondering once in a while if the ranch is part of me or if I’m a part of the ranch. I feel like I’m part of the ranch. I’m just another corner post out here. It’ll run if you let it.”


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YOUNG IDEAS: Lavern and Sue Koch pass on six tips from what they’ve learned from 50 years of ranching.

This article published in the December, 2011 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.