Close to twenty years ago, I drove from Miles City, MT to Belle Fourche, SD. For some reason it struck me as the place I needed to live. Western South Dakota in my mind is one of the really great ranching areas in the U.S.
I also found at the time it was one of the least expensive places to purchase land. We bought a place North of Nisland, SD. It was the perfect place for all the things I wanted to do. Things in my life changed and we ended up selling it. We have been back and forth to South Dakota several times and have owned some real nice places but I think we made a big mistake in selling the place in Nisland. Another word for mistakes is experience.
Rial, my Son always liked South Dakota and went to work on a ranch near Faith. He learned a bunch about the harshness and the productiveness of the environment. We were discussing the recent South Dakota storm and he questioned the running of livestock there.
He always has a way of looking at things that set me to thinking. We were tearing out some old fence on a place we had in Newell, South Dakota. He wondered what the people that put it up some 30 or 40 years before were discussing. It probably had something to do with the weather.
It was just a few years back that many of the ranchers in that area lost a lot of the livestock due to an late spring storm. Then 2011 had the huge drought in the south and hay prices were very high. Most of the excess hay was sold and trucked out of the country. Then South Dakota had a terrible drought and the hay crop and grazing was real short. Hay prices doubled if you could find any at all. 2013 was a great crop year and pastures were very good. When I drove through the area in August it was like driving though it in May.
Everything seemed to be great. Then this storm hit. It is so incredible how hard Mother Nature can be. It is also incredible how in this day and age of communication, technology and equipment how we still have no real defense against the power of nature.
Looking back on the last five years of extreme weather in South Dakota, Rial may be justified in his statement. We may need to ask a few more questions and try to make management decisions based on these questions.
Has the weather always been this extreme or are we in a different weather pattern?
Can we change management practices to deal with extreme conditions?
If we do experience losses should the government be obligated to help financially even though history shows the risks?
What will public opinion be?
We hear all the time how animals should be free range. Now I hear how people are questioning the ranchers care of the livestock. They are being criticized for not having them in shelter.
Weather has always been the big influence in profit or loss in agriculture. It seems it will always be. South Dakota is extreme climate country. It can be bitter cold in the winter, and scorching hot in the summer. Flooding, drought, snow, wind – South Dakota has it all.
From what I have seen, it is wise to have a years worth of feed in stockpile. With the uncertain weather conditions it looks like it is real difficult to have a set stocking rate. With the extreme climate conditions I think I would want to run all my livestock from about the middle of May to about the first of September. From what I have seen in the past this is the only way to keep from the extreme harshness of South Dakota weather from getting you.
What I am going to say now is as harsh as the climate in South Dakota. We must be honest and face reality. When you are in the livestock business there are chances for loss from extremes in the weather. If we keep doing things over and over and it is not working that is crazy. This last storm was a terrible thing. All these storms are terrible and devastating to ranchers especially if they are impossible to prepare for.
I go back to Rial’s question of “Should we be trying to ranch in Western South Dakota?” I think so, but we better really pay attention and maybe the best thing to do is to shut off all the technology and get to the highest point on the ranch, sit down and look and think things over for a few hours with no distractions. Ask the important questions and find the best answers. We must blend today’s technology with yesterday’s traditions.
South Dakota ranchers are tough people. It is a terrible thing they have gone through. I really feel for them, but know if they are tough enough they will stay and continue, if not they will go away. This is called the survival of the fittest, and it’s the way of the land in South Dakota. It always has been and it always will be.
For the rest of us, let this be a lesson. The power of nature should never be forgotten. Don’t get careless. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
If you want to help you can check out the South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund started by the Black Hills Area Community Foundation.
~ Curt Pate