Building a better ranch

How the Cammack family added plant and wildlife diversity

When Gary and Amy Cammack looked out over the open prairie near Union Center, South Dakota, several decades ago, they thought how nice it would be to have a big woods to create a break in the open and endless prairie landscape. That forest seemed a bit of a stretch, but they started planting. Thirty years later they have planted over 30,000 trees. 

“Years from now, the only evidence of Amy and I having ever been here will be our kids, these trees, and the wildlife,” says Gary, as he ponders the landscape today. Wildlife on the ranch includes deer, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, mule deer, whitetail, antelope, and hundreds of species of birds.  

(Watch a video about the ranch here.)

Gary and Amy both grew up on ranches, got married right out of high school, and worked at various businesses. When the Union Center ranch came up for sale in 1984, they purchased it. 

Plant diversity on the rangeland was almost nonexistent. The sandy soil meant bad erosion. “The thing I remember the most was the needle grass, or needle and thread,” says Gary. The viability as a ranch was going to be tough. Things had to change. The NRCS in Sturgis helped them put together a plan for a water system, cross fencing, and planting trees.

“Without advice and help from the NRCS, we’d only be a fourth of the way of where we are right now,” Gary says. “Their expertise and cost-sharing programs made all the difference in the world.”

They focused on attracting wildlife and getting diversity back into the ranch, along with improving the carrying capacity for cattle.

It was a family affair

“Amy did a lion’s share of the work when it came to feeding the livestock,” says Gary. By then they had four sons preparing the seed beds, planting trees, and helping with cross fencing.

“The place we now call the forest I planted when I was in eighth grade,” says son Reed. “Now I get to walk through these 30-foot towering pine trees. It’s been fun to see the transition, the benefit for the wildlife, and something green in the dead of winter when it’s white and the wind’s blowing across the prairie.”

Walking out to open a wire gate fence, Reed says his father taught him about bird migration habits, plant species, and which plants were invasive. “That was before it became fashionable to understand that sort of thing. I’m so thankful for my parents and my grandparents, who have always been there to give us that knowledge and ability to observe.” 

Cammack Ranch was named the Leopold Conservation Award Winner for South Dakota in 2017. Cody Grewing, a private lands habitat specialist with South Dakota Game Fish and Parks, says the way Gary and Reed observe and evaluate their range means they have the long-term interest in their pastures at the forefront.

“A lot of times we tend to focus on big game species: mule deer, elk, turkeys, and whitetails,” says Grewing. “The suite of habitats this ranch provides for migratory songbirds and insects and butterflies is just tremendous. It’s not every day you get to see marbled godwits flying around you, or upland sandpipers, bobolink, or prairie larkspurs. Cammack’s Ranch is an oasis for grassland songbirds.”

cattle-rangeland

The ranch was taken over by cactus and prairie dogs before the improvements, says Matt Soltenberg of the Belle Fourche River Watershed Partnership. A new grazing system with 13 pastures doubled the carrying capacity of the property. “Not only do I see the water quality improvement, there’s some riparian area improvements in there, too,” says Soltenberg. “The wildlife on this ranch is just incredible.”

The Belle Fourche River watershed partnership helped with livestock water development, cross fencing, rangeland inventories, and grazing plans. A goal is to reduce sediments that wind up in the Belle Fourche River. The projects improve prairie riparian systems that serve as a filter before the water enters into the river, says Soltenberg.

Water development, specifically through the use of shallow wells, pumping systems, pipelines, and water tanks, 25 miles and 80 watering facilities on rangeland for livestock grazing, are an integral part of the ranch. 

In a vast pasture, two of Reed’s young sons have their dirty little hands busily digging in the soil just to see what’s in there. Tanse Herman, a district conservationist for NRCS in Sturgis, was showing them emerging plants, beetles, and bugs. The Cammacks host third-graders at the ranch every year from Rapid City. 

Gary serves in the South Dakota Senate and chairs the agricultural committee. Having a good understanding of agriculture and conservation benefits the citizens of South Dakota, he says.

Leaning into his wife of 46 years, Gary gets a bit choked up. “If I was to sum up the philosophy of what this ranch means to me and my family it would be this: Life’s been good and the best is yet to come! We have a good sound conservation ethic.”

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