Loving the challenges of ranching
Passengers in a car could whip past the Hove Ranch on the Buffalo Ridge near Sisseton, South Dakota, and see herds of cattle behind miles of fence. They’d see grass, rocks, and a big blue sky with wind thrashing tall prairie grass from side to side. They might see a rancher taking in the view atop his bay horse on a rocky slope with his face into the wind. If they look closely enough, they could see prairie wildflowers in bloom.
What passengers would not see is the complexity.
The complexities of parents and children, fathers and sons. Generations. The complexity born of a thousand decisions made. Decisions about machinery, fences, water, interactions with government agencies, calving dates, sale prices of beef, insect control, soil stewardship, horses, pollinators, and the never-ending worry about money. Money to make it all work, to be sustained, to keep the family income viable. Timing. History. Weather.
Ranchers Mark and Deb Hove love the challenge. Working cows from good horses along the rough hillsides of the Coteau Hills makes this their happy place.
Complexity is just part of the landscape.
Mark is the third-generation rancher to care for this ground. His father, Calvin, has loosened the operational reins, as his father did. The ranch has been in the family since the 1940s.
As ranchers go, the Hoves are unique. The family rents their pastures to beef owners who pay them to care for the cattle.
Mark is an auctioneer with Hub City Auction in Aberdeen, South Dakota. “I’m fortunate enough to travel around the country looking at people’s livestock that sell through our livestock market,” says Mark. “I’ve taken things I’ve learned on those ranches and brought some of those practices back to our ranch. It’s neat to go around the country and see how operations vary from place to place.”
Rodeo is a hobby. Deb does barrel racing and Mark does team rope.
The family has partnered over the years with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in two programs: the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). “Both programs assisted us greatly with improving livestock water and cross-fencing to facilitate rotational grazing,” says Mark. “We now have water systems in pastures that bring water almost a half mile in some places. By bringing quality water to the cattle our eye problems and foot problems have really gone down. Cows will walk right past ponds they used to drink from and stand in to get to the clean water.”
Pete Bauman from the SDSU Extension in Watertown helped them with weed issues, says Mark. “He knows which plants are beneficial, and what purpose they serve. Cows are eating some of those weeds. This leads to a decrease in spraying.”
Mark says that with improved pasture management he’s been able to increase the size of the herd on some areas from a carrying capacity of 130 head to 145 head. “In other pastures where we used to run 220 head, now the grass is so good we’re up to 250 head. Even on some of the dry years we’re finding that it’s still working.”
Bauman looks at the Hoves as partners. “I always cherish producers who make us think very deeply about their profitability and their resilience on the land,” he explains. “It’s easy to talk about the wildlife and the animals, but if we don’t keep the people profitable, knowledgeable, and above all things sustainable, everything we do as resource professionals really doesn’t matter. We need to have producers who are partners.”
Mark stretches out in the saddle and talks horses. “The land that we run our cattle on, it’s rougher ground. We’ve got some steeper hills that would take out four-wheelers and side-by-sides, so those really won’t work for us. We are trying to keep this as Western as we can, so we move our cattle by horseback. It sure seems like it slows the cattle down and we can round them up faster. We always take a buddy along. The horses make sense for us. We enjoy it and it keeps the cattle quieter.”
Looking over the horizon, he says, “Regarding the future of the ranch, we’re hoping that someday, somewhere along the line, someone in our family will come back here after I’m done, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
He looks over at Deb, her horse busily chewing on a thistle. “My wife has been a real good push behind me,” he says. “She works in town, but loves to come out here. She always wants me to wait till she gets home to move the cattle. We’re a good team!”
Deb rides up and chimes in. “Calvin worked hard his entire life to build what we have,” she says. “Mark worked with his dad from the time he’s walked, been a part of that lifestyle, and learned a lot from his dad. His dad always helps us, encourages us, and puts us in the right direction when we need to. I’m excited for the projects and ideas that better our operation, keep our grasslands healthy, and grow our cattle.”
She gazes out over the rocky terrain and sloping hills, grass waving in the breeze, Mark’s tall horse trailing up to hers. “I love it here,” she says. “The cattle I truly enjoy. The horses even more so. This morning was cloudy and cool. The horses are feeling good, the cattle are feeling good, and you go out in that pasture where the grass is belly deep on the horses, and the cattle are content, fat, and happy. When I’m out there with them, that is the best day I can have.”
Nothing at all complex about that.