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The South Dakota grassland nerd

There’s a wildfire spreading across the rough Missouri River breaks on the Smikle Ranch north of Herrick, South Dakota.

No smoke, no flashing lights. Not the kind of wildfire you’d expect from an out-of-control burn or even a forest fire. It’s a wildfire-like spread of knowledge, and Jon Smikle is fanning the flames of it. So far, it’s caught on with his wife Abby, his two sons, and his hired man.

“I was trying to figure out how I can improve this ranch, to learn how I can make it more efficient,” he says from the shade of his ranch house. “I went up to the South Dakota Grazing School at Totten Ranch with only one question in mind: to find out why I had worms killing my sod.”

Photo by Mitch Kezar.

On random south facing slopes on his pastures, the ground was dead. It didn’t matter whether the land was overgrazed, under grazed, or not grazed at all.

Although he didn’t find a direct answer to that question initially, he learned that through proper rotational grazing practices, the soil will correct itself.

“Cheat grass began to grow on those areas and I put cows out, and they ate the cheat grass off when it was young. Now, it’s all back to native grass,” he explains.

While the South Dakota Grazing School wasn’t what he expected, he loved it, and leaned into this new passion to understand the grass and ecosystem on the land.

Abby, Jon, Tucker, and Dale Smikle. Photo by Mitch Kezar.

The Smikles’ sons Dale, 11, and Tucker, nine, help out on the ranch and often stop to observe the grasses and question their dad about what is growing.

Abby says, “They'll say, ‘Hey, look at that, look, this is Bluestem, sensitive Briar,’ or they'll say, ‘Dad, what's this grass? What does it do for the cattle? Is it really good with this kind of mineral?’”

She says the boys notice more because Jon has become a “grass nerd.”

“The boys are actually turning more into botanists and environmentalists! They’re not just ranch kids. They're really aware of the ground around them because their dad is sharing his knowledge. They’re already going make this place better than what they’ll inherit,” she says.

Abby has made several observations of her own, but about the changes in the operation Jon has made. “My husband handles the cattle herd in a very calculated way now. It's a very calm process. He knows where he's going to put them, why, and when. I've also noticed that he's become extremely aware of the environment and knows what having the water in certain places allows to him to do.”

This new approach has generated improvements.

“When we wean the calves, what we're sending into the market for people to eat is really good meat. I noticed this new information has changed how Jon has been able to say, “I need more water or I need to stop putting the cattle here this year.’ He can make those decision now because he now knows what the grasses are doing,” Abby says.

Photo by Mitch Kezar.

Evaluating the Terrain

Sean Kelly, a Range Field Specialist with SDSU Extension who’s based out of the Winner regional office, walks up. Kelly also is the liaison officer for the Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association.

“I presented at the grazing school a few years ago and met Jon there,” he recalls. “We have breakout sessions in the evenings and Jon brought maps of his ranch. We had good discussions about his pastures, about spraying, and more. When I met Jon, I just knew right away he was attending the grazing school for a purpose. He wanted to learn.”

People like Jon are really passionate about accomplishing their goals. Smikle even took the follow-up program offered by Kelly and Dave Steffen.

Through his liaison with the NRCS and the Grasslands group, Smikle was advised on an increasing problem the ranch has with an invasion of cedars trees. Cedars, invasive species, take over, covering valuable grassland acres.

“Jon needed a prescribed burn on his ranch,” Kelly said.  “I became much more involved with planning, which took about a year. I did three or four field visits on the section to burn. One of the first steps is to examine the terrain, and this is some of the roughest country in the state.” 

Kelly says they quickly learned, through a ranch inventory, that it would be a much easier and safer burn if three more landowners got involved. That way, labor and ground disturbance would be maximized instead of wasted on cutting firebreaks for just a section of Smikle’s ranch.

“You quickly realize when you're doing an inventory on a ranch like this that there are a lot of limitations due to the rugged terrain, especially if you want to set up a rotational grazing system,” Kelly says. “Jon has figured out the threshold to get a return on his investment. 

Kelly continues, “After Jon went to the school and did the follow-up, he became more aware of what's happening out in the middle of each pasture. He’s sharing that with the next generation and it's been nice to see that develop. He’s a real grass nerd now.”

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