White Thunder Ranch restores rangeland
Can rotational grazing practices really restore life to eroded, weedy rangeland?
Dominic and Trista Harmon, of White Thunder Organics Ranch, Wood, S.D., say yes — absolutely.
• Couple brings back overgrazed rangeland with rotational grazing.
• White Thunder Organics Ranch produces grass-fed beef, pork and lamb.
• Family’s low-stress handling practices make it easier to work with their herd.
The couple has revitalized 2,000 acres of prairieland that lies along the White River and, with the grasses found there, are producing 100% grass-fed, certified-organic Tar-Angus beef; certified-organic, free-range Berkshire Pork; and natural, grass-fed lamb.
Dead, bare patches
When the Harmons bought their ranch, they were concerned about the effects previous overgrazing had caused. Dead, brown plants and bare patches of land had been abandoned by wildlife, and little besides thistles were found there. They turned to their local Natural Resources Conservation Service for advice.
“Leland Schoon’s assistance has been monumental,” Trista says. “He helped us identify funding programs to help with drilling our artesian well, putting in pipelines, tanks, fences and trees. Now, our bare spots are gone, the grass is lush, and we have very diverse wildlife again.”
“It took the first three years to construct our fence lines, pipelines, cattle tanks, and plant tree rows,” Dominic says. “We still fence every year as we continue to break our pastures down into smaller units and expand our grazing area. We’ll never be done refining our system. There’s always room for improvements.”
The Harmons use a network of 20 small pastures that average 80 acres each to graze their cattle. They also produce crops on some of their land. Cattle are moved through the pasture on a twice-over rotation, meaning the cattle visit each pasture twice each year and remain in each pasture for an average of four days per rotation, a total of eight days per pasture per year.
“Our pasture fences are constructed of high-tensile wire. We rotate the fences along with the cattle,” Trista says. “Some fence lines are two-strand tensile. Others are just a single strand. The cattle are very respectful of the fence lines because they’re always being moved along into a new grazing area.”
The Harmons use a four-wheeler to check cattle. Their low-stress handling practices have helped them work with their herd with little or no issues.
“Some ranchers using a rotational grazing system report that cattle bunch up and try to run to the next pasture every time they’re moved,” Dominic says. “This hasn’t been an issue for us because we have a cattle paddle we bring along and rattle when it’s time to move to a new pasture. If we don’t have the paddle, the cattle don’t pay any attention to us. We never rush them, so when it’s time to move, they locate their calves, assemble into a line and follow the four-wheeler into the next paddock without any fuss.”
Each paddock and pasture has a tire-tank trough with water piped to it from an artesian well. The watering system helps keep grazing more evenly distributed throughout the grazing areas.
“We also have water access points in our fields with portable automatic frost-free watering systems that we transport with the cattle through the fields,” Trista says.
The Harmons’ cattle winter in some of the fields where crops are raised, rotating through the fields over several winters.
“That allows us to get hay to the cattle and keep nutrients on the cropland,” Dominic says. “It also keeps cattle off the grass in paddocks during the vulnerable spring growth period before the plant has produced its third leaf.”
The Harmons market much of their beef through Panorama Meats, a company that supplies Whole Foods stores in Colorado. Some of the cattle are processed at Sturgis Meat Locker in Sturgis, S.D. The hand-cut, dry-aged, flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed meat is sold across the United States via the Harmon’s Facebook page; etsy.com; and their own website, www.whitethunder
“We haven’t found a market yet that meets our standards and expectations for our pork, so we direct-market our pork ourselves,” Dominic says. “For now we sell our sheep through local sale barns, but we are searching for an organic market and will sell it that way once we identify that market.”
The Harmons advise producers with a desire to revitalize rangeland and produce grass-fed meats to identify a workable plan and commit to reaching their goals.
“The market is ripe,” Trista says. “Customers are becoming more and more educated about where their food comes from and how animals are raised. But educate yourself, too. There’s much more to the process than just tossing cattle into a pasture.”
Sorensen is from Yankton, S.D.
This article published in the June, 2012 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.