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For the Love of Grass and Cattle

As a young boy on his father’s farm, Herb Hamann was bothered. He was bothered by agricultural practices that, to him, didn’t make any sense. Bothered by perfectly good grass going under the plow. Today, as he looks out over hundreds of acres of windswept prairie grasses on his Blue Bell Ranch, Hamann waves toward a hillside and thinks back to his youth.

“I remember one time when I was plowing, my dad said, ‘You’ve got to get that plow over to the edge of the fence closer. We can get two more rows of corn there!’ Well, of course, I didn’t argue with my father, but I thought that grass along the fence would be nice for wildlife and the cows could lie down on that strip when they got filled up. I plowed it under because I was told to, but it bothered me. I remember thinking, even then, I’ve just got to find something different.”

No Small Feat

Today, his grown children are not in the least bothered by his love for grass. They embrace it. Hamann and his wife, Beverly, raise cattle with son Breck and daughter Arla Poindexter on 5,000 acres of native grasslands and wetlands. The ranch serves as an ecological anchor on the southern end of the Prairie Coteau Hills near Clear Lake in eastern South Dakota. It was named the 2017 Leopold Conservation Award winner, named in honor of author Aldo Leopold, who rallied a drive for an ethical relationship between people and the land. Award applicants in South Dakota are judged based on their demonstration of improved resource conditions, innovation, long-term commitment to stewardship, sustained economic viability, community and civic leadership, and multiple-use benefits. A common theme among winners is a focus on transitioning the operation to the next generation.

“The Blue Bell Ranch serves as a model for preservation of our grasslands,” states Jim Faulstich, chair of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. “Herb and his family have shown that healthy grasslands are at the core of their operation and that those grasslands are a logical starting point from which all other management decisions flow. Their leadership in wise use of grassland resources toward long-term goals for future generations is commendable and serves as a great example for those in both the livestock and conservation arenas.”

Pete Bauman, a range management specialist with the South Dakota State University Extension, worked closely with the Hamanns during his previous job with the Nature Conservancy.

“I’m impressed with their openness to try new things like biological methods and controlled burns to improve grassland health,” he says.

Early in Bauman’s career, the Coteau stood out to him as a landscape that’s unique from the rest of eastern South Dakota. The hilly landscape was formed as two glaciers compressed the land.

Looking under his feet at the host of prairie plants in the pastures at Blue Bell Ranch, Bauman notes, “Each one has a role and a function in the system. That’s why it’s better for the Hamanns to manage weeds in a way that doesn’t wipe out native species. They are making decisions not to judge a plant on its exact value and worth today in context of what they currently understand, but realizing that it likely has value and worth and a place in the system. They’re trying to preserve that.”

The Hamanns have worked to maintain an excellent diversity of native vegetation on the ranch, and they consider ecological impacts and critical wildlife needs when grazing cattle.

They implement conservation practices with or without incentives by incorporating prescribed fire, biological control for invasive plant species, and changing to May calving dates. They’ve also influenced neighboring ranches to see the positive results of working with the landscape instead of working on the landscape.

Cattle Response

In an effort to not overwork the land and because the Hamanns’ cattle are on the range for much of the year, the family has learned to respond to the grass conditions. Therefore, stocking rates can vary dramatically between months and seasons, but the primary objective is to maintain the grass in a productive state. Since they don’t have the manpower to handle a bigger herd, they never push the grasses to support more cows. With rotational grazing, they save on labor costs.

“With the right amount of cattle, we have to be very careful to not overgraze it,” says Hamann. “If we have grassland left over, some people think we are wasting grass. I never looked at it that way. I thought it was a good reserve and it makes the grass stronger. I always work on the theory that I don’t want to fight Mother Nature. It’s better to work with her.“

He shakes his head. “You would be surprised what land people will try to farm. When you plow these prairie acres, you’ve ruined thousands of years of growth behind you. With one drop of the plow, that ground can never go back to the original. You’ll never get those 200 species of grasses and forbs back like when they were a native prairie.”

Hamann grins. “I can look down on this place and say, ‘That’s always going to be grass.’”

He’s not bothered anymore.

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