As with so many other families in the past, Norma Headlee’s grandparents, the DeVries, came from the Netherlands to western South Dakota, now Jackson County, during Dakota Territory’s homesteading days and established a cattle ranch there. Succeeding generations of the Devries family, including Norma and her husband Bill, have made their home and established their own families in the area.
Norma’s father purchased his own land in Jackson County about the time World War II was coming to an end, around 1945. Norma easily recalls working on the ranch as she grew up. All the chores ranchers still tend to today introduced young Norma and her siblings to life on the range.
“I remember picking up a lot of small square hay bales,” Norma said. “Of course there was always fence to mend. We had quite a few horses, probably too many. I think that’s what really qualifies you as a genuine cattle rancher, if you have more horses than you really need.”
Norma and Bill both grew up on Jackson County ranches. After graduating from Kadoka High School, the two received their pre-vet college education at South Dakota State University before attending Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine. Graduating from ISU in 1978, the Headlees started their veterinary practice in Kadoka. In 1999, they added a clinic in Philip and helped their daughter, Dr. Corale Dorn, set up the Dells Veterinary Service in 2006.
Because their veterinary work kept them so busy, Bill and Norma didn’t launch a full blown ranching career. However, they saw value in making a rural lifestyle the cornerstone of their own family’s experience.
“We purchased a portion of Dad’s ranch and we run 50 pair of Angus cows and calves,” Norma said. “That connection to the land and the way of life here has really held everything together for us. Our five children have had an opportunity to learn where milk comes from, the process of raising crops and beef. They all had to learn how to help fix fence, milk cows and work in the garden. We firmly believe that explains the strong, positive work ethic they all possess and use on a daily basis still today. Four of our children are also doctors – one in agronomy, one in chemistry, one works as a veterinarian and the youngest is in her last year of medical school. Our fifth child is also involved in a rural lifestyle. We think we made a good choice by establishing our lives here.”
Their longtime background with ranching has given the Headlees an opportunity to measure advances in the beef industry, both from a producer and professional perspective. Norma believes present-day vaccines and medications give beef producers a valuable edge in their daily operations.
“We still see health problems in beef, but nothing like the death losses we used to see in cattle 30 or 35 years ago,” she said. “Our ability to prevent and treat disease has improved tremendously over the years. Genetic management is also greatly improved. Low birth weight calves with ability to achieve good gains means a lot fewer obstetric problems. Calves gain so well now that people sell weanlings at the same weight we used to sell our yearlings when I was growing up. We’ve also seen improvement in the quality of our finished product at the stores, with better marbling and flavor.”
The well-known Badlands border the Headlee’s ranchland, so they rely on horses to complete much of their ranch work because of the rough terrain there. Although basic ranching duties haven’t changed over the years, equipment advances have helped make the work more efficient and somewhat less physically strenuous.
“Hydraulic chutes have taken a lot of the physical backwork out of running 700 to 80 cattle a day,” Norma said. “Facility designs have also greatly improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is that people here work together to help each other, which makes the work go faster.”
Computers have made record keeping practices more efficient and effective than handwritten logs. Ranchers can keep detailed notes and analyze them more quickly and thoroughly.
“It’s much easier to keep track of which cows are better producers and which ones don’t do so well,” Norma said. “I think that has improved herd quality overall. The one thing we can’t control at all is our weather. We still deal with drought and blizzards. We know we just have to live with that.”
The process of marketing beef has changed over the years, but Norma said it hasn’t necessarily become easier.
“I’ve spent time wondering how we could avoid having so many cattle come to market at the same time,” she said. “Haven’t figured that out yet. It seems ranchers only have about two months to sell their only harvest, and it goes bellering down the road in a truck. I’d like to think there’s a more efficient way to manage the harvest process. If someone could figure that out I think we’d all be better off.”
Norma and Bill are very appreciative of the opportunity to return to their roots and live and grow next to family and longtime neighbors. They believe the rural atmosphere has given them, their children and grandchildren a rich and valuable heritage.
“Ranchers west of the River in South Dakota are pretty stoic,” Norma said. “We’ve learned we can laugh at bad luck, and we’ve had a lot to laugh about in 2012. Bill and I appreciate the clientele we work with through our clinic. We enjoy the great variety of work our veterinary practices provides. It’s been very mentally and physically stimulating and keeps us on our game.
“Neither of us would want to live anywhere else,” she added. “This is still a place where my sisters and their families come because it feels like home to them. We want to keep it that way for them and our extended family, too. It’s where we all have our roots.”
This “Ranching Legacy” depicts individuals, families and businesses that have survived the ups and downs of agriculture and continue to contribute to their community. Know someone that should be featured? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
n As with so many other families in the past, Norma Headlee’s grandparents, the DeVries, came from the Netherlands to western South Dakota, now Jackson County, during Dakota Territory’s homesteading days and established a cattle ranch there.