Standing up for Standing Rock
August 25, 2014
Ideal cattle production strategies and conditions on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation remains an unsolved puzzle but the pieces may be starting to come together.
Two land grant universities, one historical ranch, one local college, the federal ag department, local ranchers and other interested stakeholders each serve as unique pieces to the puzzle, filling in niches within a research project that began four years ago.
According to Robert Maddock, North Dakota State Universitiy Associate Professor of Animal Science, his college, along with SDSU, Sitting Bull College of Fort Yates, N.D., USDA Ag Research Service of Mandan, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others are working toward a common goal with their cattle production research. "The ultimate goal is to increase beef production and food production in that area," Maddock said. "The whole purpose is food security. Beef is a high quality food."
On reservations like the Standing Rock, there is a lot of land and a lot of people, he said, and the best utilization of that land is probably grazing. The research group picked cattle as their grazer of choice.
A working ranch offered up by the McLaughlin family serves as the research site and has been home to about 150 head of yearling steers purchased for study the last three summers. In an effort to begin raising their own grass cattle, a group of bred heifers was added to the ranch this spring, and the calves will be weaned and backgrounded on site this fall. A small amount of hay is put up on the operation and will be used this winter to feed both the calves and the cows.
Maddock said that researchers specializing in range, soil, animal production and wildlife are all working together to learn how to maximize the potential of the reservation grasslands.
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Rancher and tribal council member Ron Brownotter said he likes the research and looks forward to learning from the studies. "I'm one-hundred percent behind it," said the former NDSU student who now sits on the board of trustees for Sitting Bull College. "I'm interested in it because I'm in agriculture myself. Their research with cattle and prairie dogs and all that will help us learn how to graze, and how certain stocking rates affect cattle weight gain and so on."
The prairie dog problem is the focus of many of the studies right now, Brownotter said. His daughter worked on the research ranch last summer, catching prairie dogs and helping with the grazing studies.
"The rangeland was somewhat degraded, primarily because of prairie dog infestation," Maddock said of the reservation landscape as a whole.
When the on-the-ground research started three years ago, prairie dog control was a part of the research. Then an endangered black-footed ferret was reported to have been sighted on the reservation, and all control efforts within the study halted.
Brownotter said that the tribe had been utilizing federal funding to control prairie dogs up to that point but that prairie dog control is not financed or allowed now on tribal land.
Because prairie dog control was no longer allowed, Maddock said the research strategy shifted and the team began to study stocking rates on the prairie dog towns, in hopes of learning how cattle and prairie dogs can co-exist.
Cross-fencing has allowed the team to study individual pastures to determine soil quality, production and cattle weight gain both on and off prairie dog towns.
"We are watching to see if prairie dog numbers increase or decrease with cattle grazing among them. We are seeing what we can do to increase forage production in those areas. We are asking ourselves, 'do we have to poison prairie dogs or can cattle and prairie dogs co-exist?'"
Another aspect of the research is the feeding of the yearlings after they are taken off summer grass. Maddock said that because feeding facilities are not available on the ranch, the steers are taken to an NDSU research site in Carrington each October where they are fed a high roughage diet that changes from year to year but has included silage, long-stem hay, distillers grains, barley and field peas. Most of the feed is grown locally.
The researchers make a concerted effort to conduct outreach within the local ag community, Maddock said, to determine where the native ranchers would like to see them focus their research efforts. "We are asking them, 'what kinds of things do you want help with, what questions do you want answered.'"
Brownotter said he's hopeful there will be progress regarding managing cattle with prairie dogs. "I've been in on the listening sessions, and heard about their year to year progress."
Down the road, one goal of the research team is to develop the potential for a successful processing plant that could provide locally grown food to the local people and, they hope, economic enhancement, with the opportunity sell high quality beef.
But even more important than the cash component of beef production is the health component, Maddock said, and food scientists have enjoyed the chance to teach the locals about the nutritional benefits of beef. One teaching strategy has been a youth camp which has proven popular. "We are doing outreach, talking about proper cooking and storage methods," Maddock said. "We've put on youth cooking camps for ten to fifteen year olds, they have been a cool thing." A final camp is scheduled for late summer.
Brownotter supports the research wholeheartedly, hoping it will produce useful information and help develop opportunities for the next generation of ag producers.
"It is difficult to get started in ag production, especially in livestock production on the reservation," he said. "We'd like to see current ranchers stay in the business and also young people interested in agriculture to come in and get a start in it."