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Holistic Pasture Management Plan

With her boot stomping the accelerator and gloved hands maneuvering the wheel, Mimi Hillenbrand wrenches her bouncing all-terrain vehicle hard to one side, tires flinging mud clods across the South Dakota prairie. The wind whips her hair as she bounces twice on rough ground, skidding to a standstill. Her sunglasses reflect a wandering cow bison, the target of her chase, as it trots in front of her bumper. The beast lowers its shaggy head and melts into the herd.

It’s moving day. A thousand head of bison trudge up the hill, eager to get on fresh grass.

Hillenbrand is the owner of the 777 Buffalo Ranch about 30 miles south of Rapid City. The ranch touts 1,500 head of DNA-tested bison that graze the ranch year-round.

“We use holistic management to try to mimic the bison herds in the 1800s,” she explains, leaning on the frame of her vehicle. That management practice takes into account all life forms on the ranch: grass, water, bison, and all wildlife, including birds, coyotes, and prairie dogs.

“Huge bison herds back then would graze and wander, circling the continent from Canada to Mexico, and not come back for a year,” she says.

Fully recover

Not unlike ungulate herds in Africa, where topi, wildebeest, zebra, impala, gemsbok, and sable still move freely through thousands of miles of grasslands, the 777 Bison Ranch grazing plan allows for bison to feed on a pasture, then be moved off that ground to a new pasture, allowing all plant life time to fully recover.

For the grass, a good rest is key. 

“We plan our grazing to try and duplicate the grazing patterns of those big herds,” says Hillenbrand. “We have a growing-season plan and a nongrowing-season plan.”

The ranch can be droughty, often getting just 14 inches of rain a year. Managing the grass has paid off over the last 30 years, says Hillenbrand.

“We’re able to maintain our herds and not have to destock because we’re managing our grass. We’ve been able to weather two seven-year droughts because we plan our grazing,” she says.

Her eyes scan the vast landscape. More than half of the plants are native vs. introduced, she says. “Crested wheat and brome don’t fit into our plan, so we’re trying to get rid of them because they invade. Those grasses might be perfect for my neighbor and his plan, but they aren’t in our plan. We’re trying to get everything back to native.”

Plant diversity is key, she says. She pretends to think like a buffalo. “Today, I’m going to eat buffalo grass because it’s a little sweeter. Tomorrow, something else will catch my eye.”

A smorgasbord of plants is best, she says. “Different grasses have different levels of protein and carbohydrates, so it’s always better to offer a choice. If you have a complex and diverse landscape, you’ll be able to survive any drought better.”

Setting goals

Ranch managers have a goal for each pasture. At the beginning of the year, they look at each parcel and determine what needs to be done. 

“By hitting the crested wheat at certain times of the year, we can knock it down,” says Hillenbrand. “That opens the ground. Now we’re seeing big bluestem coming up on what was pretty bare ground. It’s so wonderful to see that coming back.”

By planning the grazing, native plants have the opportunity to come back. They hope for a 215-day rest period on each parcel of land. “We allow plants to recover before we move bison on them again,” she says.

Every ranch team member has a copy of the plan and everybody knows what needs to be done. Working on fences and water tanks is included in the plan. Making hay is not, because bison graze the pastures year-round. “Managing that grass makes the plan work,” says Hillenbrand.

“It’s a chore to plan, and it needs to be flexible,” she says. “We have to make changes in work schedules on-the-fly.”

Her family bought the 777 Ranch in the early 1970s when it was an Angus-Hereford/black baldy operation. Her dad and uncles thought of it as primarily a hunting concession. They bought their first bison in the early 1980s.

“They came through the winter super easy, and it was pretty easy raising them compared with cattle. So we started breeding bison and never looked back.”

Today, Hillenbrand runs the show.   

OK with coyotes

The grazing plan also benefits wildlife. “The guys I work with were raised to believe coyotes are bad. Even the prairie dogs are a bit of a nuisance, but they’re still part of the landscape here,” she says. “Coyotes are important. They clean up stuff and help keep prairie dogs in check.” 

As for prairie dogs, she admits that ranchers hate them. “The neighbors would like to wipe them out, so we do try to control them. I don’t like it, but it’s a necessary evil. The buffalo love them. I try to work with them, but they don’t always work with me!” she says.  

“We have to be respectful of neighbors,” she says, noting that coyotes are more of a problem with cattle and sheep than with bison. “My ideas are a bit different, but I hope that we have a good relationship with our neighbors.”

The ranch hosts yearly holistic management classes, dealing primarily with overgrazing issues that lead to environmental degradation.

Another source of income is film production. Portions of the movies Wyatt Earp and Dances With Wolves, as well as BBC productions and Planet Earth segments were filmed on the ranch’s short-grass prairies.

living the dream

Hillenbrand thinks back over more than 30 years living on the ranch. “I was just a kid when my family moved here. This is where I always wanted to be – in open country riding a horse and enjoying the West. I’m not a tree lover; I’m a grass lover. How can it be any better? The buffalo are happy, and I love the smell of sage.”

She has visited and admired the grasslands of Africa, but she says her land is just as beautiful. “I love morning light on the grass and evening light on the Badlands. It makes my heart sing!”

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