Ranch life at its best
A bawling herd of Angus cattle floats like an apparition through a damp, heavy fog. The cattle scamper here and there in the thick grass as horses and riders prod them northward, a kaleidoscope of gray shapes in the mist.
A yearling heifer cuts out on a dead run for the road, only to be cut off by a young cowgirl, fast on her bay gelding. The heifer was no match. She turns back, melting into the herd.
Such is the daily palette of action on the Gilbert Ranch. For six generations, the Gilberts have worked this harsh land in the center of Harding County near Buffalo, South Dakota. The ranch is 25 miles from Montana and 25 miles from the North Dakota line, in an area rich in dinosaur bones, surrounded by the Cave Hills to the north, the Slim Buttes to the east, the Short Pines to the south, and the Long Pines on the Montana border.
Archeologists say their ranch was once the bottom of an ocean, giving them unique soil types and resilient grasses. Family matriarch Linda Gilbert says, “This area has a very harsh climate. Tough people live here. You have to be. We have very harsh winds, extreme hot and cold temperatures.”
Winter brings -45 temperatures with 60 mile-an-hour winds. Looking out over the windswept prairie, Linda remembers one April snowstorm. “We were almost done calving and a snowstorm came, pushing the cows as they drifted with the snow. We lost over 100 cows and calves during that 5-foot snow. The hurricane-force wind shifted directions at over 100 miles-an-hour.”
The aftermath of that storm, along with economics, prodded the family to look for a new way to increase cattle numbers, grow profits, and ride out nasty storms.
Ray Gilbert leans his wiry frame against the end gate of his UTV, and explains. “We’re in short-grass country. Our grasses are similar to those in the Sandhills of Nebraska. We have a sandy soil type with hard grass. When our grass starts curing, it’s really easy to put 2 pounds or more a day on the calves. The drier it is, the fatter and heavier our calves get. Buffalo grass is our main grass and we have a lot of blue grama.”
Riders and horses trot up as the cattle disperse over the vast prairie in their new pasture, tall grasses waving in the breeze.
Ray continues. “We started rotational grazing in the mid-1980s. We did some research and were thinking about making changes. Between high interest rates and with acres we added by expanding our ranch, we had to increase our herd somehow. We had a lot of prairie sand reed at the time. With a little research we found that we could really graze that species hard in the spring then resting the pasture and get some good use out of it. There was downturn in the oil business at that time, too, which worked to our advantage. We got an EQIP program (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and were able to get help with labor through a company here in Buffalo that was trying to keep their employees busy. With that help we put in several miles of pipeline, about 20 miles of electric fence, and dug a well.”
All of their neighbors, says Ray, were old-time ranchers. “They were saying, ‘Boy, are those kids going to make a desert out of this country.’ By the time they all passed away, they had all incorporated some type of form of rotational grazing. We’d kind of proved to everybody that it would work.”
Their new water systems allowed them to “add to our numbers way more than what anybody even dreamed we could do,” says Ray. Getting adequate water for that many additional head of cattle became an issue at that point, he explained. “We really had no reserve of water, so it was critical for us to check our wells every day. In the last 15 years we’ve started tying two wells into every system, so we now have good backup. And we have added a lot of tanks.”
The diversity of grass on the ranch today is phenomenal, says Ray. “Prairie sand reed patches are still there, but within those patches there’s blue grama and now western wheatgrass. Very seldom do those patches head out, so we’re getting basically year-round use out of the prairie sand reed patches. We’ve basically eliminated the grazing in between patches where we used to go through three times a year. Now we graze them twice a year.”
They operate three systems with 350 to over 400 head to a system, says Ray. By grazing each system only twice a season, they eliminated fences and made some pastures bigger. “We’ve got the pastures set up so that we’re grazing them a minimum of seven days with a maximum of 14 days. Then we double that going through the second time. We’ve found by doing this we’re getting a lot more diversity of our grasses.”
Each pasture gets rested a minimum of 45 days. “We have no tame-grass pastures, so basically what we do is take a pasture out of each rotation, use it for three weeks to a month before we go in early in June,” explains Ray. “We want everything in the three-leaf stage before we go in. We take one pasture out of rotation every four or five years. Some pastures get almost a year’s rest before we’re using it again.”
A meadowlark chirps its signature notes from atop a fencepost, then flies down, skimming in low flight over the sea of grass, giving a second stanza as it flies.
“We’re seeing a lot more birds, now,” Ray says.
Linda adds, “One of the programs through the NRCS that we became involved in was the Sage Grouse Initiative. We had some traditional leks or breeding areas here years ago. I think they’re nesting here more now because we have grass that’s left over every year. Habitat. We never have a pasture that’s grazed completely down, and they adapt well in that environment. We’re pretty lucky to have the ability to see them coming back here.”
Nodding toward a nearby water tank, she continues. “The antelope and the deer certainly are a big fan of the fresh water that we provide through our pipelines. We will see antelope walk through a muddy dugout and they’ll leave there, go to a tank and drink just to get fresh water. It’s the same with raptors and other birds, too. We’re blessed to see the fruits of our labors with the wildlife. We see directly what happens when you change their environment a little bit.”
Another change the Gilberts made involved calving time in the spring. They used to fight spring snows when calves were born in March. Now, heifers bear their young during early April, and their cows mid-month in April. “We’re really not decreasing our weights any, surprisingly,” Ray says. As a result, they don’t feed hay much in the winter. “We do hardly any hay making. Our replacement heifers will get some hay, but we try to graze the year round if we can. And by calving later, we can do it with a lot less feed.”
Another change turned out to be key. “We used to always wean the calves the traditional way,” Ray says, looking out over the herd. “We’d spilt them off their mammas, bring them in, and lock them in a corral. It’s dirty. You get sick calves. About the third night something spooks them and we end up crippling a calf or two because they run through the fence. We decided we needed to do something different, less stressful, so we did a little research. The pasture that we wintered the calves in is right next to a set of corrals where we do all our shipping out of. We put in woven wire to an existing fence and put an electric wire on the top. We brought the cows in and processed the calves. Then the calves go out one gate into the lot, and the cows go back out in the pasture where they were. They’re across the fence from each other on this 1/2-mile stretch. Within two days, we set feed bunks down along the fence on that stretch, and in only two days about every one of them goes to the feed bunk. In two days the cows might still be walking the fence, but most of the calves are clear at the other end of the pasture. They’re not even looking for mamma. There’s no dust. As a result, we never doctor a calf. With this system, there’s just no stress on anything. Usually within three, four days, we gather the cows and go to the winter pasture with them. They never look back.”
Rodeo is a big part of Gilbert Ranch life. “Our kids both had full rides to colleges on rodeo scholarships,” says Ray. “Both of them were quite successful. Lloyd was in the top 20 in steer wrestling in the world several times. My daughter Andrea was a tough, tough roper. She got hurt with a horse pretty bad one year, which eliminated her from roping, but she went on and got her master’s degree. She’s a principal in Wyoming now and my son Lloyd ranches with us. He has two kids, Sawyer and Grey, and they’re both pretty good hands. They have either won national championships or been reserve national champions. I’m pretty proud of them. Eventually - hopefully one or both of them will come home to this ranch. They’re the sixth generation, so hopefully they’ll want to keep coming back.”
Linda reflects. “When you’re involved in agriculture, you have to be willing to constantly learn new things and adapt. Regenerative agriculture is just like nature, it’s unpredictable. We never know what’s going to happen next, and we have to be ready at all times to make that change that we need to make.”
Regarding changes they’ve made over the years on the ranch, she summarizes. “Through trial and error, constantly tweaking, constantly studying the grasses, and monitoring, we developed a system that worked for us. We ran our cows on one system and we ran yearlings on another. Pretty soon we were running more yearlings and we were still adding to our cows. I truly believe financially it saved us. Had we continued the same unsustainable practices, I don’t believe we would be here today. I really admire my husband for realizing there are other ways to do things. At the time we started our grazing program in the ‘80s, it was not nearly as well publicized. For us it was a trial-and-error system.”
She talks about how the NRCS personnel gave them good ideas. “We used the NRCS to help do the EQIP program, working with the electric fence and water issues,” she says. The Gilberts had to make decisions about holistic practices, grazing schedules, mob grazing, and grass growth. “We are hands-on, with no hired help,” says Linda. “It’s strictly family members that do all the work. Every day, somebody is in some pasture moving some cows or doing something that requires us to take a look at the pastures and notice what’s happening out there. Nature changes all the time, so every operator that choses to make these decisions has to be willing to change,” she says. “We are constantly tweaking it. We learn new methods and we’re very lucky in this day and age to have all the amazing apps that are out there for the smartphones.”
Lloyd jumps in. “Dad went to a grazing school in Dickinson eight years ago, and then I went to it the next year. I grew up in the grazing system, but that was the first time that I really got to see the science behind it and saw actual data to support the concept. I learned the why to what we were doing. We aren’t just arbitrarily moving some cattle around and trying to leave a little grass. I learned right down to a single plant level what we’re doing, how the plants actually grow, and how it all works together.”
The Grasslands Coalition works through their grazing schools to teach producers how to use grazing sticks and other tools for figuring formulas to increase utilization of grasses to benefit livestock production. “We are in a wonderful time and a wonderful era right now,” Linda says. “You just have to be open-minded and be willing to make changes to any system that you have.”
Ray explains, “We don’t sell cattle, we sell grass because we’ve harvested the grass. Our cattle are harvesting the grass, and when we sell our calves and cows, they have already grown by harvesting this amazing resource. You have to take care of that resource. You have to constantly monitor the grasses to make sure that it’s working and it’s sustainable.”
Sawyer and Grey trot off back to the homestead, disappearing from view below a grassy hill. Linda recalls a speech she gave once that showed a video of the young grandkids moving cattle by themselves on horseback. “People in the audience could not believe children that little could do it,” she says. “It was eye-opening for me to realize just what we expect of them. But when kids are born into a family operation, you just pick them up and take them with you every day when you do things. Sawyer and Grey are both kids that really wanted to be with us. They never went to the babysitter much. They learned how to drive tractors, pickups, and most of all they learned how to ride and how to move cows.”
When you live in a sparsely populated area and you don’t have help, family members need to be all in, says Linda. “One of the things about multi-generational ranches, it’s really important for people to realize you are the caretaker for your generation. You can’t own it and then hand it off. You’re just a caretaker. Then the next generation takes it and they’re the caretaker. You have to be willing to step back and be that caretaker for that next generation.”
Watching the sixth generation of Gilberts trot their steeds back toward the ranch house, she sums it all up. “In 75 years it’ll be a real testament to our hard work and sheer tenacity. I think there will be cattle here and there definitely will be wildlife here. People driving past on Highway 85 will be able to look out and see nature at its best. And on the Gilbert Angus Ranch, that’s grass.”