Stewards of the land
August 9, 2017
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community…wrong when it tends otherwise." – Aldo Leopold
The afternoon of May 1, 2017 is soggy on the Blue Bell Ranch. That effect, accomplished by a snowstorm-chased rain accumulating eight white inches, proves South Dakota weather can do whatever it pleases. The good Black Angus cows are equally independent, with 20 robust calves on the ground before nightfall in defiance of the July 27 bull turnout date noted on the ranch's 2016 calendar.
There's nothing to indicate the ranch and owner/operators Herb and Bev Hamann, son Breck and daughter Arla were pleased with themselves when the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, South Dakota Grassland Coalition and Sandy County Foundation named them 2017 recipients of the coveted Leopold Conservation Award.
The honor, named for conservationist Aldo Leopold, goes to a farming or ranching family practicing outstanding natural resources conservation leadership. The State of South Dakota chose its first annual winner in 2010, making Hamanns the eighth family so honored.
According to Pete Bauman, SDSU Extension Range Field Specialist at Watertown Regional Extension Center, "The Hamanns, along with the suite of past Leopold Conservation Award winners, set the example for how we are to interpret these terms [holistic, sustainable, land ethic, etc.] in relation to meaningful definition — on the ground."
That's exactly where we found Breck and Arla for this interview back in early May – "on the ground," tubing a couple of the ranch's freshest calves!
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"The Hamanns' story is an impressive one," Baumann said.
The approximately 5,000 acre ranch located on the southern end of the Prairie Coteau Hills in northeastern South Dakota is diverse and yet maintains native vegetation on much of the place.
The entire Hamann family loves the land and takes pride in Blue Bell Ranch. Bev's father, who also owned ranches near Wall, settled there when he got married, in 1941, she recalls. "It just grew. Dad would add a piece of land if one was coming up for sale and he could make a good deal on it. He'd bid at auction or whatever…Now the ranch is totally contiguous. We had Herefords at first but now we run black Angus. We've always had good cattle, whatever the breed."
"I grew up in the outdoors on our ranch North of Wall," Bev says. "I taught elementary grades a couple years in Wall and went back to get my degree." That happened in Spearfish, known in those days as Black Hills Teacher's College; then the graduate joined the workforce in an elementary classroom.
"I had an opportunity to teach in Wyoming, at Riverton, so that got me out in the spaces somewhat," Bev smiles, "but it was still not like South Dakota."
Missing the land of her roots she gravitated homeward. "I got a job in Rapid teaching third graders, but I was getting tired of the city life," Bev said.
As South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard relates it, "In 1973, a woman by the name of Beverly Gabriel decided to leave her profession to get back to her roots…Her parents were growing older and it was becoming difficult for them to manage their two operations in separate parts of the state. When Bev's father approached her about managing Blue Bell Ranch near Clear Lake, she readily accepted."
Bev recalls that turning point, saying, "I thought I'd go back after a years' rest or so in the country." That's what the school system in Rapid was hoping! "When I left, the school handed me a contract and said I could come back in the middle of the year if I wanted, and I'd have a classroom," she remembers.
But then this deer hunter came along….
As Governor Daugaard related in his recent congratulatory column, "The year Bev took over Blue Bell Ranch she met Herb Hamann, who was out deer hunting with his brother. Herb saw Bev standing near the gate to her property and his brother introduced the two of them. Two years later, the couple married and began to jointly run Blue Bell."
Bev and Herb's daughter Arla grins, "Dad still always insists he really was out here to pursue the four-legged kind of deer."
Whatever the reasons, they're a great team and have multiplied the ranch eight times over. Herb works toward good grasslands through conservation of both grass and water saying, "We try to work with nature as much as possible."
Arla says their cattle operation is unique to them and designed around the ranch. "Our pastures are all permanently fenced," she explains. "We run three separate herds or bunches. Each is the size to fill a pasture, or series of pastures, because everything is contiguous. Everything that's in a bunch in November will stay a bunch until the same time the next year.
"Not calving until May can save a lot of work. This wet storm came, but the ground is warmer, temperatures aren't so frigid, and the snow is already melting off. Twenty four hours can make a lot of difference," she says.
"One bunch is calving on one quarter now. They'll move into a short half-section in a month or six weeks and on to a full section for 90 days. Basically we've set it up to accomplish the same goals with maximum efficiency and minimum labor," Arla says. "We save grass in each pasture so there's some for them to graze and we don't have to feed every day if the weather gets bad. Once the June grass and cool season grasses head out, we will move into another pasture."
The Blue Bell puts up its own alfalfa and grass hay, usually two cuttings finished in big round bales, along with some haylage. "Some of our alfalfa fields are 20 years old, but we have a couple new seedings too," Arla explains.
"We combine and silage cut our own corn too…we never expected to have 200-bushel corn on our sandhills," she quips. "We put cattle on our cornstalks – a gravelly 70 right behind the house that should've never been broke, but where it was we've continued to farm it."
No matter how good their conservation practices are, ranchers can't control the beef market. Arla has her hopes, though, "If everybody from the cow-calf operator to the feedlot guy could make a little money each year it'd be great…but it's changed so much even in the last 25 years it's hard to even envision the future. I figure there's enough work to be done around here we can't worry about it, just do the best we can and hope," she says.
Arla says, "My husband and I have a house at Ree Heights, about 2 and a half hours from here." They obviously don't see each other much during calving season. "I'm pretty much here for the next 60 days," Arla quips. "The rest of the time it's kind'a half and half."
But much of the family was at Blue Bell Ranch for the big celebratory open house and ranch tour August 1 and is invited to the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association Annual Convention in November when the crystal depicting Aldo Leopold and the $10,000 award is presented to the Hamanns.