Diversifying livestock and business on a South Dakota ranch
Robert Boylan leaned his lanky frame against a corral fence on a windswept day on his ranch in Butte County, South Dakota.
Cattle and sheep run here, a pairing that is an essential part of Boylan’s diversification plan.
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“Honestly, I think I run cattle so I can wear a cowboy hat,” he says, a big grin spreading across his face. “I run sheep to make the payments. Sheep take advantage of what nature gave us out here better than the cattle do. Sheep take care of a lot of weeds, especially early on in the season and they don't really touch the grass early, either.”
Wool prices have been good for Boylan in the last couple of years and the price of lamb this year has been surprisingly high.
Boylan talks about his ranch history and the struggles of ranching in modern times.
“I don't know of any ranches that aren't paid for that can make it without diversification,” he explains. “You either need a spouse working in town with insurance or, well, we've started a little bike rally bar, which is busy before, during, and for a while after the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, just up the road.”
The bar helps pay for a couple of months’ worth of groceries and the Boylans have also branched out by building a wedding venue on site.
“I built a wedding barn for my daughter as a promise. And it has really blossomed. This year, we had 13 weddings. We'd like to do a little dude ranch too, but I just don't know if we've got the time,” he says.
Cattle and Sheep
Currently, Boylan has about one thousand sheep on the ranch after destocking. He made the decision to sell off the sheep to protect his main resource, the grasslands, when the drought caused scarcity of grass and water. He has about a thousand cows left too.
Boylan’s sheep lamb on the prairie late in May, in concert with nature. He docks his lambs’ tails in early July and then they go on the rotational grazing program.
Calving doesn’t begin until around the 20th of April for the same reason.
“We try to work with nature and sell a little less pounds per calf, but we sell a lot more pounds for live calves,” he grins, as opposed to losing some calves in late-season winter storms, a former practice. “I guess those two ideas and selling my hay machinery are probably the two best things I ever did for this ranch.”
Driving across a large pasture along a wire and post fence, he talks about water availability and what it means to his operation.
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“The water situation on this ranch was terrible when I took it,” he recalls. “We've added a lot of ground since we bought the initial deal, but probably we’ve got close to 60 miles of pipeline put in. The initial project was through an EQIP program, and they're still helping me with some ECP money this year.”
While Robert built most of the reservoirs by himself, some agencies assisted with the 120 reservoirs in the last four years. He has around 80 tanks of water in place.
“Water distribution is the best thing you can do for grasslands,” he says. “If you're going to run big numbers of animals, you’ve got to have water distribution to stop them from tearing up the ground in small areas.”
Too many cows walking to the same water source over time leads to deep trails and erosion.
Boylan estimates it will take another 3-4 years to complete the water distribution he needs. He does the work himself and because he owns a trencher, he’s hired to do it for others too. It’s another income boost for the ranch.
Coming upon a creek, he points out young trees sprouting on the banks where it had formerly been trampled and rough ground.
This is where he’s worked on stream riparian erosion control with interlocking rock, a limestone product. In addition, there are structures of pine and cottonwoods to help back up the water and hold the silt. In the end, it should force the creek to become more of an “S” shape with a gradual swale.
“We all need to work on taking care of the land,” he says, looking over the project.
Partners with NRCS
Mitch Faulkner, the area rangeland management specialist with the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, has with Robert on several projects.
“Robert's been working diligently for years on improving his ranch and NRCS has been a partner to make improvements and add to the infrastructure and to his grazing management,” he Faulkner says.
Boylan and Faulkner are working on other resource concerns like livestock distribution, improving the uplands, and low-tech riparian structures.
Boylan’s philosophy is the more grass is left and given time to rest, the more grass will grow and more cows can be run.
“If your ground does well, the wildlife does well, your livestock does well, too,” he says. “I've tried to rest some areas of this whole creek area to stop stream and bank erosion. As a result, there are hundreds of Cottonwood trees sprouting streamside. It’s a big priority for me to get some trees growing on Willow Creek. I’m very proud of that.”
Besides installing water distribution and selling hay machinery, Boylan says learning to work with nature is one of the most important things he’s done for the ranch.
“I believe it was 2012 that I realized the importance of rest and rotate our pastures,” he recalls. “I realized how early we could go back into those pastures the following year when we did get water nearby, and it just dawned on me; that was what nature needed. Grass needs to go through a full cycle.”
Profitability came after a year or two, Boylan says. But bar none, these practices are the best for the grasslands and while it’s expensive up front, it pays dividends in the long-run.
“The workloads are much easier, the care of the fences, and the health of livestock are all good,” he says. “I think if other folks would try it on even a part of their place, they would never go back to anything else. And if they even try to calve later, I don't think they'd ever go back to anything else on that either.”
He talks about future ideas and making even more improvements by introducing forbs that grow at different times of the year. He doesn’t want to take away from the native grass, but is interested in inter-seeding to increase grazing capacity.
“To me, it's all about the grass,” he says. “If you take care of your grass and your ranch, that's what you gotta do to stay in this business. Some days, it’s hard to keep your head above water, but we’re living the dream!”