Justin Thompson began managing a ranch on his own in July 1998 after moving from his family ranch near Akaska, South Dakota.
He was hired by an absentee landlord to develop a buffalo and quarter horse ranch, but a poor buffalo market and bad 2002 drought eventually forced his sale.
“The last few years I worked on the buffalo ranch were so dry that almost every day we were rounding up the buffaloes in different areas to keep them from leaving,” he recalls. “There was no grass. You could cross this ranch as fast as you wanted because you could see every hole and every bump. We just didn’t know how to solve the problems that existed.
Thompson, who was eager to continue ranching, was able to purchase his own land with the help of the absent owner who gave him his first chance. Thompson, his wife, Mickey, and their children are living their dream working together on the ranch.
“We had this incredible opportunity to raise a family while I manage these grasslands and to be able to make a living doing it with a chance to improve the land there,” he says.
Preserve the Earth
In the vast acres of Thompson Ranch near McLaughlin, South Dakota, there are dramatic differences in soil, plants, and water. Caring for the grass is both a privilege and a responsibility for Thompson.
Ryan Beer, a range management specialist in northwestern South Dakota for the National Resource Conservation Service, has been helping the Thompsons for nearly 20 years.
Together they worked on their grazing plans and natural resource development through cover crops, bale grazing, grazing rotations, plant identification, and more.
“I remember Ryan first coming out and advising us,” Thompson recalled. “There were only three pastures in the whole place, so we started building cross fences and I started going to pasture schools, which I enjoyed. I was really excited about improving the range.
The benefits of developing the earth’s natural resources accrue not only to the rancher, but also to the earth’s original inhabitants, wildlife.
“When there’s nothing left to eat, of course, the wildlife won’t stay,” notes Thompson. “When you rotate the pastures, the cattle came out of the nests and all the places where you often see deer with fawns. In fact, we had elk this year that stayed all winter. It’s something that definitely wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t forage out there for them I can’t say we’ve been successful for the elk but we certainly see the benefits and appreciate them really here.
They also located three leks where prairie chickens dance during mating season – a relatively new phenomenon.
Water retention and use is another key component to the health of the Thompson Ranch ecosystem.
“We added pipelines to the wells that were there, in line with Ryan’s plan to get the most efficient water line to the places that needed it,” says Thompson. “It was probably 19 years ago when we had the very first EQIP contract to start building a cross fence, adding water pipes and tanks, and we started changing our season of use and our rotation.”
Due to these changes, the eroded banks have become grassy. They also converted much of the marginal cropland back to hay and eventually pasture acres. This land has volunteer trees and native grasses growing.
“I used to think this land wasn’t as good a grass ranch as the others. I didn’t see or think the potential was there to do what he’s doing now,” Thompson says. “I wouldn’t say we are drought resistant, but since we changed our practices, we can handle a dry year when before we couldn’t. I am encouraged.
One of the most notable changes to the Thompson’s prairie has been the continued decline in water levels on their storage dams.
“All of our dams have water levels several feet lower than before,” he says. “And it’s not like we have more rain. We received less. But the dams no longer overflow because there is no more grass to stop them. Grass keeps water in the ground.
Challenges and Tips
The biggest misconception Thompson overcame was that rotational grazing was too complicated and expensive to be beneficial. “I didn’t think I could do it,” he says.
Beer, who works with many breeders, says, “My best advice for new breeders is to talk with people who have already made changes. At NRCS, we are happy to get out there and work with anyone on ideas and plans. Building that first fence is usually the hardest, but you see the most benefit from just starting slowly, working your way up to get a good spin.
He also recommends the South Dakota Grassland Coalition and in particular the Mentorship Program for information on fence and pasture rotations.
“You get what you pay for with the first fence you build,” says Thompson. “Once you see the results, it excites you, and you want to get it all done as fast as possible.”
Thompson says putting the pieces of the puzzle together through observation is the most effective.
“As we started documenting the grasses, taking pictures and measuring the pastures as the cattle came in and out, we started to learn a lot more about what was going on.”
Here is a list of one-liners Thompson uses to guide his pasture management.
What works in some places will not work in others. Adapt the idea, don’t throw it away.
You can sell grass or use livestock to harvest it.
Take half, leave half. Make sure the sheet is there for the solar panel.
If you only rotate pastures once, at least change the season in which each pasture is used.
Fence pastures according to species if growing in monoculture.
Think about how much hay to set up as a moving goal. It is possible to put too much and too little.
Range management is management, not just input manipulation.
“I love and appreciate the history of our ranch,” says Thompson.
There is evidence in this story of past generations who lived, dreamed, worked and died there. While roaming these acres, the Thompsons found petrified wood, seashells, teepee rings, medicine wheels and arrowheads.
“We found stakes, ax heads, wagon parts, mule shoes, a pre-1910 Dutch oven and deep wagon ruts, carved into the landscape by the labors of early settlers,” says -he.
Standing with his children atop a cliff overlooking the hills, he continues: “I know of nine house foundations here, perhaps built with their thought that this would be their forever home, for their children and grandchildren.”
They also found ridges of fences that were washed away during the dust bowl era.
“We drilled post holes that touched the 3 wires 3 feet deep and found mountains of piles of rock. There are rusty threshers parked in the meadow to suggest it may have been- being from a temporary stop – surely – we will try again next year,” he adds.
The railroad bed that is now their driveway contains a few thousand spikes, which Justin says, “I pick up one at a time with our tires.”
With nostalgia, he adds: “From these clues, I conclude this: we are here for a short time, we do not know what tomorrow will bring, it is my turn to take care of this grass. The next generation will suffer the consequences or benefit from the decisions we make right now.