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This Regenerative Rancher Manages for Grass

By   /  December 16, 2019  /  5 Comments

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This piece was first published in November of 1962 in “Soil Conservation,” the monthly magazine of the Soil Conservation Service. It was written by Albert P. Thatcher and Brent J. Harrison, range conservationists with the Soil Conservation Service (today’s NRCS) in Casper and Gillette, Wyoming respectively. As you’ll notice, the practices of the rancher described in this article are similar to practices we advocate today as regenerative grazing. It’s an interesting reminder that sometimes what’s new is old.

I added information about wheat production and crested wheatgrass to help us compare this rancher’s results from 60 years ago to what we’re doing today. Don’t miss the close-up of Mr. Simpson at the end of this article.

Wyoming rancher John H. Simpson uses conservation management to take the gamble out of his 11,000-acre ranch operation in the Intermountain Soil and Water Conservation District.

“I feel that grass management should be placed on an equal basis with livestock management,” he said. “I just watch the grass, and when it is used to about 50 percent, the livestock is moved.”

Simpson checks grass growth in 1961 on one of the small meadows developed by building water spreaders.

Simpson’s native pasture early in the spring of 1961 had plenty of grass remaining after dry 1960. Simpson also gives his pasture a chance to rest during the growing season once every few years.

“Many people get the idea that I’m a poor livestock manager,” Jack said, “because I let my cows live on grass and don’t keep them up near the house for calving and wintering. I’ve found that when there is plenty of grass on the range, the only time the livestock need hay is when it is covered with snow. My winter feed costs are low, and also the labor costs.

“I calve my 2-year old heifers without much trouble because they have plenty of grazing throughout the year. They aren’t short of grass for part of the year and then fed extra prior to calving. In this way they can grow uniformly the year around.”

Jack studied to be an engineer in college in Colorado. But he always loved the land, and when he came back to Wyoming for a summer vacation in 1932, he stayed, starting in the ranching business by homesteading. He took over management of a large ranching 1937, and in 1951 too advantage of an opportunity to buy a ranch of his own.

3-year-old windbreak surrounds one watering place.

He was faced with two choices – stock heavily and gamble with the climate by trying to pay off the debt in a short period, or stock lightly and pay it off more surely over a longer time. Because of his previous experience and having seen what happened to both the grass and the livestock when there was a shortage of forage on the range, he decided to stock at a light enough rate to allow for range improvement and still provide sufficient forage, even in times of drought.

“While I didn’t make a killing in any one year,” he recalled, “my net income and growth has been steady; my grass has improved; my son is going to inherit a productive ranch; and I have fulfilled my duty in taking care of the land.”

Simpson’s steers have averaged about 680 pounds and his lambs about 90 pounds at market.

Simpson entered into a contract under the Great Plains Conservation Program in the spring of 1959, in order to speed up his conservation work. Previously, much of his cropland was block-farmed and subject to wind and water erosion. Through this program, he has planned or installed more than 15 miles of terraces, 300 acres of wind stripcropping, 180 acres of contour stripcropping, and a grassed waterway. He harvested 16 bushels of wheat an acre in 1961 while his neighbors were cutting theirs for hay or turning stock into it. His 8-year average has been 20 bushels. (Note: Today’s average yields for Wyoming winter wheat is about 30 bushels per acre.)

Simpson always has hay in reserve – 3-year-old stack in the foreground, with bales of 1961 crop and left-over 1960 crop in background.

He also has seeded more than 150 acres of his least productive cropland to crested and intermediate wheatgrass, which now is being cut for hay and pastured, and small areas of poor cropland with native pastures back to native grasses. He likewise has installed many small erosion-control dams to heal gullies, and check dams to hold back water to produce hay. He has built cross fences to enable him to practice deferred grazing. Of last year, which was exceptionally dry, he said:

“I didn’t get through putting up hay. I just quit.”

What do you think? What stands out to you as similarities and differences in management between what was recommended in the 1950s and 1960s and today? How does what Mr. Simpson is doing relate to the principles of soil health?

A Little More About Jack Simpson

Mr. Simpson was inducted into the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of fame in 2016 where they include this information about him. I share it because Mr. Simpson is such an interesting and innovative person, ahead of his time in many ways.

John H. “Jack” Simpson was born in Logan County Colorado near Iliff in 1911 to Bertha A. and Howard H. Simpson. He spent his younger years in Logan County. As a boy he would deliver milk with a horse and wagon to help the family with living expenses. He graduated from Iliff High School in 1929.  Following graduation he went to work on the Logan ranch in southern Montana with his father whose life was spent in the saddle. His job at the Logan Ranch was wrangler and cowboy. He took it upon himself to always have the cook’s wood box filled. That fall, Jack entered the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The land, livestock and cowboy way of life was his true passion so in 1932 Jack packed up his Model A Ford and his milk cow and moved to Wyoming, where he homesteaded north of Wyodak on Deer Creek. To make some extra money Jack would sell bones he would find when out riding. 

In 1933, he went to work for the Harris-Simpson Cattle Company managing the Laurel Leaf, the Wagonhammer and the Koehns ranches, all located in mid-northern Campbell County Wyoming. The Harris-Simpson Company would buy Matador cattle, shipping them to Moorcroft on the railroad. Jack and his crew would receive these cattle and trail them to these ranches to pasture.

While working on the Wagonhammer ranch Jack met a young schoolteacher. He and Hilda Raudsep were married on Nov. 15, 1941 in Miles City, Montana. They made their home on the Wagonhammer ranch until 1947 when they moved to the Koehns ranch. In 1951 they purchased this ranch where they raised their family and resided until their deaths, Hilda in 1986 and Jack in 1988.

Throughout his Life Mr. Simpson was active in agriculture in all areas. He took pleasure in riding a good horse, developing a good herd of cattle and sheep, was ahead of his time with grazing practices and livestock management. As a boy he was active in 4H. He had a keen knowledge of soil types and their ability to produce crops. He won many awards for his conservation practices.

He was a member of the Moorcroft Senior Citizen’s, the University of Wyoming Agriculture Scholarship Fund, the Agriculture Advisory Board, the Farmers Co-op Association board, Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service board, Soil Conservation District county committeeman, and National Association of Conservation Districts. He was also a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council of which he served on the board and as chairman of the board.

Jack loved to read and enjoyed writing poetry. He was a true cowboy and stockman who took great pleasure in the wide open spaces. Of all his interests, his family was his first love. He lived the Code of the West, was a fair and honest man that was generous, humble and kind. He attributed his success to hard work. His faith is summed up best in the Cowboys Prayer.

To wind up the story, I tried to find out what happened to the Simpson’s ranch. It doesn’t seem that Jack’s son, Loren, took over the ranch. He was a farm/ranch hand throughout Montana and Wyoming. He passed away in 2016. Jack’s daughter, Hilda, however, carried on the family tradition on a ranch of her own. She married a Montana rancher and, continued to manage and grow their ranch in Biddle, Montana, even after her husband’s death in 2003. In 2010 she and her family celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ranch.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

5 Comments

  1. Howard Jones says:

    I am his grandson and the ranch is now known as Kohns Ranch LP, after the family who homesteaded or owned it originally ( Mickey Kohns). I am following his practices and legacy to this day, and was thrilled to have found this article. My mother, KayRene Jones is Jack’s daughter, the next youngest after Loren and Hilda Ann, and she and my father Leroy have been here on the ranch since the early 1970’s.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hello Howard!
      I am so happy to meet you! I tried to find what had happened to the ranch. I’m so glad that you are there and continuing the work!

      • Lois Simpson Schlup says:

        Thank you for sharing this information about my dad. I am Lois Simpson Schlup and the youngest child of John H. and Hilda Simpson. My husband and I have continued on his legacy by caring for the land that he homesteaded. His daughter Cheri and her husband George Faris DVM have continued caring for and continuing conservation practices on the property where he was born and raised. All of his living children are involved in agriculture.

      • Lois Simpson Schlup says:

        Thank you for sharing this information on my dad. I am the youngest daughter of John H. and Hilda Simpson. I now own the land that my dad homesteaded. My husband and I continue to be stewards of that land and carry on his grazing practices. My other sister, Cheri and her husband George Faris DVM now own and continue his conservation vison on the land where our dad was born and raised. All of their living children are involved in Agriculture.

  2. John Marble says:

    Thank you for this inspiring piece. As I read along, I found myself thinking about how neat it would have been to have Mr. Simpson for a neighbor or an uncle. What an opportunity to learn! On the other hand, I’m betting the reality was that few of his practices were adopted by other folks during his time. After all, they certainly thought he was crazy.

    The most poignant piece for me was his philosophy of paying attention to plant life rather than livestock. This suggests an inherent, fundamental understanding of ecology and long-term outcomes. We should take a lesson here.

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