Winter Cattle Journal 2020: Rock Hills Ranch focuses on holistic range management

Ruth Wiechmann, Freelance Contributor
Rock Hills Ranch focuses on holistic management to make the most of today, and prepare for tomorrow.
Rock Hills Ranch

Rock Hills Ranch is as old as the hills: literally. The contours of the hilly landscape strewn with granite boulders were shaped by the last glacier that melted, carving out the drainage of Swan Creek as it meets the Missouri River in Walworth County, South Dakota. Homesteaded by the Gottlieb Holzwarth family in 1906, the place has seen over a century of agricultural production. 

Lyle and Garnet Perman have called Rock Hills Ranch home for over forty years and put down deep roots, both figuratively and literally. These decades have seen their share of changes to the management practices utilized on the ranch. Questions such as: ‘How does it impact our ecosystem?’ ‘How does it impact our quality of life?’ and ‘Is it profitable?’ drive the decision-making process.  

Lyle grew up just a few miles east of the ranch near Lowry. His family roots run deep in the area; all four sets of his great-grandparents homesteaded within thirty miles of Rock Hills Ranch. He and Garnet met while attending SDSU in Brookings, SD.  

“The only thing I was interested in doing was coming back to ranch,” Lyle said. “My parents, LeRoy and Vivian, bought the original 960 acres of our place in 1975. Garnet and I got married in 1976 and spent the summer here. After I graduated in 1977 we came back to stay.” 

LeRoy began transitioning some of the fields of poorer quality soils back into grass and alfalfa. Lyle and Garnet purchased the ranch from Lyle’s parents in 1979 and raised their two children, Luke and Kajsa, there. Dry years in the late ’70s and early ’80s prompted them to question the traditional “seasonal grazing” of their pastures and look at other options. 

“When you’re young you want to try something different,” Lyle said. “The way we were doing it wasn’t working.” 

Rotational grazing was not a common practice in the early 1980s, but Permans heard about the concept at workshops sponsored by the Extension Service. They built their first cross-fences in 1985.  

Attending Holistic Resource Management workshops also helped Permans develop livestock and land management practices that were sustainable, helped to conserve water, reduce erosion, and rebuild the native prairie ecosystems that had been lost to farming of marginal soils and set stocking or seasonal grazing. 

Permans became frequent attendees of South Dakota’s Rangeland Days in the early 1990s. This event gave the whole family an opportunity to learn more about identifying range plants and soil types and actively participate in range judging in varied locations throughout the state. Although they were already seeing evidence that their rotational grazing practices were changing the landscape on the ranch, this helped them to see the picture in greater detail. 

“Rangeland Days really increased our knowledge of what was happening in our pastures,” Garnet said. 

Over time they began to see a decrease in the bare spots between the grasses in their pastures. They also started to see more of the warm-season grasses and forbs native to the prairie.  

“I can show you places where we used to have a lot more bare soil,” Lyle said. 

“Probably the biggest thing we noticed was an increase in the warm season plants,” Lyle said. “We started seeing more big bluestem and sideoats grama grass.” 

Concurrently, they noticed a decrease in runoff when they would get a heavy rain. 

“Every time it rained hard it would flood across the lower part of our road,” Garnet said. “This year, with our unusually high amount of precipitation, is the first time in twenty years that we’ve seen it flood.” 

Thanks to better ground cover and healthier plants with stronger root systems, more moisture has been able to soak into the soil; besides reducing runoff, Permans have also seen springs that disappeared in the early homesteading days return in their pastures.   

Conversion of grasslands to farm ground has happened at an alarming rate in recent years. Rock Hills Ranch is located in the Swan Creek watershed (368,842 acres), and in this area alone over 21,000 acres were broken up between 2006 and 2012. Permans are striving to reverse this trend on the land they manage by replanting areas of marginal soils to grass, and using no- till farming methods and cover crops on their tilled acres. 

For Luke, the current manager of Rock Hills Ranch, rotational grazing practices have been a given, yet continue to be driven by a continuous learning process. 

“When I was growing up we were always building fence and putting in water tanks,” he said. “That’s what I always thought grass management was about: making the cows ‘clean their plate’ so to speak, and then giving the grass time to recover. As I took on more of an active role about fifteen years ago I got to help figure out where and how long to keep the cows, figure stocking rates, figure out what to do in dry years, and so forth. Our management has changed over the years, and it is still changing.” 

Like Lyle, Luke has a passion for the land and the livestock. He and his wife, Naomi, are raising their four children on the ranch. Luke and Naomi officially took over the active management of the ranch in 2011.  Lyle sees his current role as a helping one; while Luke is responsible for the management decisions, Lyle is available to help with everything from fencing to shipping to spraying weeds to moving cattle. 

“He calls himself the ‘project manager,’” Garnet said.  

Rock Hills Ranch’s predominately Angus cows start calving at the end of April. Heifers are bred to calve right along with the cows, but are exposed to bulls for only thirty days, with the goal of adding only the most fertile females to the cow herd. Roughly half of the cows are bred Angus for keeping replacement heifers for the herd; the other half of the herd is bred to Wagyu and Akushi bulls for a terminal cross that will help with calving ease for first calf heifers and add marbling to finished cattle. Most of the Angus heifers and some steers are carried over and run on grass. Permans also run stocker cattle, purchasing yearlings to go to grass early in May through sometime around Labor Day.  

This year saw some experimentation with custom grazing sheep on the ranch. 

“In farming, rotating crops and having different plants on the landscape improves our soil health,” Lyle said. “We think there’s value in diversifying grazing species in our pastures too. Sheep eat different plants than cattle do.” 

While Permans have encouraged and “trained” their cows to eat plants that ordinarily cows might pass by, they have found a limit with noxious weeds such as leafy spurge and wormwood. Sheep, on the other hand, enjoy browsing on forbs, and Lyle was amazed at how they completely defoliated the spurge plants in areas they grazed. 

“We think bringing in sheep will make our pastures better for our cattle in the long run,” Lyle said. “We confined them to small areas, roughly four acres per day, and concentrated on areas in the pasture that had leafy spurge, wormwood, western snowberry, leadplant, and Canada thistle.” 

“The sheep really do a good job on the spurge, and on reducing the canopy of the thick buckbrush patches,” Luke added. “With all the moisture, this year was a good year to try it out.” 

Lyle and Garnet are sharing their story in a big way through McDonald’s Flagship Farms program.  

“People want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced,” Garnet said. “McDonald’s is one of the beef industry’s biggest customers; every year they buy nearly a billion pounds of US raised beef to serve in their US restaurants. The Flagship Farms program is all about informing and educating consumers about where their food comes from and the ethical and sustainable management practices used to produce it.”  

Permans continue to share their experiences on the ranch with annual interns who come to help Luke with the daily work and learn first-hand about holistic range management. Garnet also has accepted “cultural interns” who want to experience life on the ranch but don’t necessarily have the skills Luke needs to be practical help.  

“I wasn’t much of a cook when we got married,” Garnet laughed. “Thanks to Lyle’s grandma and his mom I learned to butcher, to garden and can, to cook and bake bread.” 

Garnet enjoys sharing these skills with her summer interns, but says she may be done now that her grandchildren are old enough to be doing these things with her. 

Management of Rock Hills Ranch is a learning and changing process that continues to evolve. 

“I feel like I haven’t been able to do the same thing twice,” Luke said. “That’s probably because no two years are exactly the same. Managing a rotational grazing system is sometimes characterized by just being able to manage the chaos and then mark the differences you notice. We have definitely been able to extend how long we can graze by saving fresh pastures for the cattle to graze in the fall. We usually have cornstalks we can turn them onto, although this year the harvest is so late we haven’t been able to do that yet. Sometimes we can graze all the way into March.”  

Originally Permans focused on grazing plans to improve utilization of pastures, with intense stocking rates for short periods followed by a long rest. Now, Luke said, he is experimenting with grazing lightly and then coming back to a pasture later in the same season. 

“I’m looking at the plants as solar panels,” he said. “I’m trying to maximize the photosynthesis potential and the productivity of the plants. My grazing plans are more complex than they used to be. 

“Watching what the cows are eating is another important aspect to think about when making grazing plans. I used to think cows wouldn’t eat Kentucky bluegrass, but we’ve found they love it in the early spring and in the fall.” 

Permans have been recognized nationally for their conservation and range management practices.  In 2014 the family received both the South Dakota Leopold Conservation award and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award, recognizing their efforts toward water conservation, preservation of native prairies and natural wildlife habitat, and sustainable stewardship of the land.  

“I don’t think there is any other part of ranching that has as much impact on long term profitability as grazing management,” Luke said. “Our land is our most valuable asset. If you can increase the productivity of your largest asset by even five percent that’s huge. We ranchers tend to focus on other highly marketed aspects such as genetics to give us higher weaning weights, feed products to make our livestock perform better, or machinery that’s supposed to make our operation more efficient. These things are important but they can be overblown. I think our industry needs to focus more on the increase our land can give us when it’s healthy. This is a great message to share with the public, it is good for the profitability of our businesses, good for the environment, and builds sustainability in both that we can pass on to the next generation.”