Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Prairies: Part 1

South Dakota has vast areas of prairie land. It's dry, with less than 15 inches of rain annually, winters are freezing cold, interspersed with lethal snow blizzards, summers are scorching hot, and there are winds that blow constantly. Towns are few and far between and it's an unforgiving place to farm and graze cattle.

Consequently, as in much of upland Britain, rural communities are dying out: Youngsters see the daily grind of work their parents have to do and decide it isn't for them. They depart for the easier life of nine-to-five work in the larger towns and cities. Some retain an interest in the land, and when they inherit, will turn a few cattle out in the spring, never seeing them again until the autumn gather. Land is understocked and grass is wasted.

The Savory Institute is trying to change this. True to holistic management principles, they are working on a farming project which aims for "Triple Bottom Line" returns, namely financial, social and environmental returns. They are looking to improve the soils on the prairies, and the diversity of species (ie the environmental). They are looking to make ranching easier and more attractive to the younger generation (the social) and, of course, are looking to make it profitable once again.

With this in mind, they have joined forces with East Coast financiers John Fullerton and Larry Lunt under the banner 'Grasslands LLC'. This vehicle raises funds with a view to investing and managing ranch properties and the far-sighted investorts are focussed not only on return on capital but also on providing jobs and work for local people and in healing the land through best practice farming. (More can be read about the project at

Currently they have two ranches, one in Montana which, from memory, is 30,000 acres and a second in Newell, South Dakota, which is 14,200 acres. I visited the latter and met up with manager Brandon Dalton and his assistant, Colin Boggess.

Brandon (foreground) and Colin in the middle of the prairie on Grasslands LLC's ranch outside Newell, South Dakota

Cattle are run on a planned grazing system, usually staying in paddocks for three to four days before being moved. The emphasis, as with all holistically-managed enterprises, was on giving the grazed area a rest period long enough for the plants to recover fully before being exposed to grazing again. A fully rested plant will have massive energy reserves in its roots and will be able to grow rapidly when an animal defoliates it once again. A knock-on benefit is that the rest period also allows other, slower growing species to emerge - these are often extremely attractive to livestock and in a shorter rotation get selected for and overgrazed, which eventually removes them from the sward.

Custom-grazed cattle on the Grasslands LLC ranch

The ranch was only in its second year of management and it had been an exceptionally wet year (by South Dakota standards) so whilst species diversity was increasing, it was too early to say whether this was driven entirely by management or by the year's weather pattern.

It will be interesting to follow their progress to see whether they achieve their triple bottom line goals. The visit to Phil Jerde's ranch, the following day, gave me hope that they will.

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