As On Pasture begins to head off into the sunset, I wanted to be sure to leave you with some of the most important lessons about successful grazing that I’ve learned while writing and publishing articles for you over the last nine-plus years. To help me, here is the Thompson family from McLaughlin, South Dakota. You can watch the 7:00 video, with great shots of the family working together on a beautiful landscape, or you can read through the transcript. Then in our “Thinking About It” section, I’ll highlight the lessons learned along with links to more information.
Justin Thompson, McLaughlin, South Dakota: My great grandpa homesteaded in Sioux County, North Dakota north of Thunder Hawk and my other great grandpa put together a ranch that my Mom and Dad still ranch on and that I grew up on. I chased Micki for 6 years before we were married in 2001. I was working for a bison ranch for a man from Ohio. We ran buffalo for him until 2002 when he sold out. And that’s when he gave us an opportunity to buy the ranch. My wife was teaching school 30 miles away and in ’08 we had an opportunity to sell that ranch and lease it back on a long-term lease and that’s when we bought the place that we live on now.
We run the ranches as their own separate ranches because they have their own separate challenges and problems with the grass that’s grown there, the soil that’s there, the water that’s there, or the lack of water that’s there. We started building cross fences and I started attending grasslands schools. Tried to go to one a year and felt like I really enjoyed and I got really excited about improving the range.
Micki Thompson: When we got married and I was teaching, I wasn’t really involved with a lot of the practices on the ranch and it took me a while to learn exactly what was going on as far as rotations and grazing because I didn’t grow up this way. But when I stopped teaching I was able to start attending some of the classes that Justin went to. I realized there is so much more into ranching than most people see form the outside.
Ryan Beer, NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist and District Conservationist: I’ve been working with Justin and Micki for close to 20 years now. Working on their grazing plans, helping them develop their natural resources, talking quite often with Justin over different questions he might have, whether it be over cover crops, bale grazing, grazing rotations, plants identification. There’s been a huge improvement in plant communities that are here. Like Justin has said, there’s 2 different ranches. One is in the Pierre shale soils and so its almost completely different plant community than the one that is south of Mclaughlin. That’s more of a sandier ranch. But the plant communities have greatly responded. We’re seeing a lot more diversity, seeing a lot more of the desirable plants. We’ve seen some sand bluestem growing on the side hills. That’s a pretty good indicator of as healthy system. There’s a lot of lead plant. Lead plant is a pretty desirable plant. We’re just seeing nice improvements and utilization on everything and good distribution.
Justin Thompson: We started building cross fences trying to get all the same acres in the pastures. We added pipelines to the wells that were there. Once again I’m pretty sure Ryan drew them all out and we pretty much followed them to get the most efficient water line we could.
Ryan Beer: There are no shallow wells. Its deep artesian water. So getting water distributed to the cattle for grazing distribution has been a challenge. Without the water it’s harder to do the cross fences and get good rotations. But we’ve done quite a bit of improvements getting water distributed so we’re seeing the benefits.
Justin Thompson: It’s easy to see where you needed improvement once you start fencing because there’s still areas that aren’t getting grazed. So we saw trees growing where the dams were. We saw different species of grass growing. They will be in a different pasture every year at a different time so they’ll be grazing a completely different species. Right now in the pasture we just moved them out of they were grazing lead plant and prairie sand reed and they’re grazing things that they won’t graze a month from now in that pasture. They won’t be in that pasture at the same time next year and that has helped a lot with the variety of what we have growing there.
It was something my Dad had always taught me growing up that we need to take care of our cattle and take care of the range and be stewards of this amazing gift that we’ve been given, this amazing opportunity to raise a family while managing grasslands and be able to make a living doing it and a chance to improve the land that’s there.
Tell Thompson: I like to work with Dad. I like ride horses. And I love the cows.
Coy Thompson: I like haying, riding horse, and calving and branding.
Jayda Thompson: Probably a day branding with my family and then we go and jump in the dam when it’s really hot out.
Ryli Thompson: My best day on the ranch would be a branding with all of our family and friends and eating lots of good food and dessert. And probably also jumping in the grand river afterwards and riding a lot of horse.
Micki Thompson: We don’t know yet, but if the girls or the boys would like to continue our legacy and continue ranching we want to take the best care of the land that we can and teach them how to do it as well. Coy has a huge passion for ranching and farming. Ryli talks about hunting and maybe building a hunting lodge some day. There’s so many things that they could be involved and they learn every day things here that would help them in the future as far as work and ethics and taking care of the land.
Justin Thompson: Not many jobs do we have that we can do with our family. And where they see a benefit of their work and teamwork to bring it together. I am so thankful for the opportunity.
Thinking About It
The Thompsons provide some great examples for a path to success. Here’s what I saw:
It was attending schools put on by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition that started Justin down the path to better grazing. He said it helped him get excited about improving the range.
If you’re in South Dakota, I highly recommend joining the Coalition and attending their trainings. If you’re in a different state, you can still take advantage of the great materials they put out.
Most states have either a State Grazing Lands Coalition, associated with the National Grazing Lands Coalition, or a Forage and Grasslands Council, associated with the American Forage and Grasslands Council. Though some states have more active programs than others, this is a good place to start.
If you don’t find what you need there, check in with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office, Conservation District, or Cooperative Extension office. They often put on workshops, or know what’s available in your area.
You can also spend some time reading good books. I’ve put together a list of books I recommend here.
Develop Relationships With Good Advisors
One of the reasons the Thompsons are so successful is they have an advisor working for them. If you want your own Ryan Beer, someone to help you with grazing plans, water distribution designs, plant identification assistance and more, your first stop should be your local NRCS office or Conservation District office. Both can provide technical and financial assistance for projects.
When you visit them, remember that you’re developing a relationship. Bring them coffee and donuts, or invite them to the house for a meal. Get to know one another so you can work well together.
John Marble also suggests that having a lot of allies is important to success. You can read more about that here:
Know Your Soils
You probably noticed that both Justin and Ryan mentioned how the nature of the soils under the two ranches affects the way they manage them. That’s because different soils support different flora and fauna. If you don’t know what’s under your forage, you might now know what you can expect to grow and how much of it you might get.
Fortunately there’s a great, free, online tool that can tell you everything you need to know. Here’s a link to what it can do and instructions for how to use it.
Plan, Observe, and Adapt
Both Justin and Ryan talked about how much better the plant communities are thanks to the grazing planning they did which helped the Thompsons implement rotational grazing. The plan ensures that cattle are never in the same pasture at the same time every year. This is important because different plants grow at different times and by switching up the timing of grazing, he ensures that a species that got grazed one year has a chance to grow unimpeded in another year.
We’ve talked a lot about grazing planning here at On Pasture along with taking time to pay attention to what is growing when in your pastures. The plan helps you think about how many animals you’ll put where. Observing what happens to the plant communities helps you adjust. Together, they’re a great way to develop healthy plant communities and happy livestock.
Take Care of the Next Generation
Transitioning to the next generation means making the business something attractive to the next generation, and it’s clear that, at least right now, Justin’s and Micki’s kids love the ranch and love spending time doing ranching activities with their family. I loved how three of the kids mentioned that they liked branding and it was clear from the girls’ answers that they liked it because they were with family and got to do something fun afterwards – swimming and eating good food! It seems to me that making sure to have plenty of fun is a good way of encouraging the next generation to continue your legacy.
But it’s hard for one ranch to support several generations at a time. So that means thinking of ways to diversify. One daughter is already thinking about how hunting and a lodge could be another income source. There might be other options as well if you spend some time looking at your resources and brainstorming. As a little inspiration, here’s the Switzer Ranch. In addition to running cattle, they diversifed into eco-tourism and a rafting operation:
Diversifying Helps Multiple Generations Make a Living On the Land
You can read more about their “tanking” trips here:
I hope this has given you some things to think about as you continue on your path to a successful and happy farm/ranch!
Re: the Thompson family ranch.
I’m a little jealous that they have a property that contains native plants. On our farm, we are basically changing a forest (boreal) biome to a prairie biome when we make hayfields and pastures. Further up the slopes there are natural grasslands with vetches, wheatgrasses, etc., but we basically have only tame grasses to work with.
I’m happy with my tiny herd and its paddocks, and the lessee is relatively happy with the haylands, but we could not find ecological equivalents to leadplant, or bluestem, etc.
So, to be a thinking grazier, we need to question our basic assumptions: how to handle land in such an “artificial” situation.
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