“In this part of the country we have a saying, ‘You’re either one day away from rain or one day away from drought’,” says Deb Brown. “We are in drought mode right now. It’s part of our life as ranchers. We always have a drought plan in place.”
That plan has been implemented this year, as western South Dakota deals with 4 inches of rain over the past 8 months, compared to an average of 17 inches per year, in one of the worst droughts to hit the Western US in decades. This followed a winter with little snow, which the area depends upon to help fill stock dams, replenish ground water, protect forages over the winter and get the grass started.
“We didn’t put any hay up this year,” says Deb. “We’re just hoping for enough moisture for grazing without breaking off dry grass with every step and enough water to keep natural prey alive for the predators. And no fires.”
Long Pines’ emphasis on sustainability and the addition in recent years of several solar range wells helps ensure grazing animals will have access to water, though they may have to travel farther from the wells into the hills to find grass.
Efforts to protect forage lands and provide adequate care for animals on the ranch started with heavy culling last year in accordance with the drought plan, with more culling this spring, when 86 commercial cow/calf pairs went to town. Deb and Sterling expect more this fall after pregnancy checks – they cut the bull-in days to only 30 days. They expect the need to cull to about 150 cows compared to the 330 in 2020.
Deb and Sterling could look at these deep culls as a major problem. Instead, they are looking at it as an opportunity for improving the herd’s genetics. They will retain cattle that weather the extreme conditions. “If I have a cow that is not keeping her body weight on and has a calf that doesn’t look the best, she’s going to town, because she’s not going to survive this drought as a productive animal.” This will help breed in a “drought resilience” that helps cattle better utilize forage resources under stress.
“In very simple terms, we’ll have less mouths to feed,” says Deb. “And with less mouths, there is less trampling on this very dry grass. That’s important going forward. It’s why we have to be good stewards of the land, so we can get through a drought and come back. Once we get rain, our soil should be in good shape because of measures we are taking now.”
“We can rebuild a commercial herd from the registered stock,” says Deb. “But it would be hard to start a new registered Irish Black® herd.”
Feed efficiency is a hallmark of the Irish Black and Red breed, as is a moderate frame. Long Pines tries to keep cows at 1050-1100 lbs., and bulls at 1750-1800 lbs. The prolific breeding of Irish Black and Red bulls, averaging 50-75 cows each, compared to other breed averages of around 25, means less bulls to feed, too.
Culling the herd and focusing the breeding program are only part of the changes at Long Pines. Calving for next year has been moved to May 1 in hopes of green grass to feed those mamas. They’ve shortened the caving period from 45 days to 30 days to “make life easier and produce a more uniform calf crop.”
Deb and Sterling have adjusted their profit unit from per pound to per head basis at market. And they’re learning culled cattle are their own income generator. The steers are, and will be, the first to go as they have the most fall market potential, and retained heifers offer the best marketing flexibility. They can be bred and the calves that best suit the Long Pines program retained, sold as bred heifers, or with calves at side.
Or, they can be fed out and processed for consumption at the latest Long Pines venture. In August 2021, they became owners of the main grill and bar in the area – Over the Edge in Camp Crook. Deb says she is excited for the opportunity to give people a great eating experience, and excited because she knows how that animal was raised from the time it was born until it is on the dinner plate. Furthermore, animals slated for eating will be genetically tested for tenderness, a new technology that will help tailor the breeding program.
Deb is also exploring other types of locally produced proteins. The effort is aided by a local USDA inspected packing facility in Camp Crook, and an experienced restaurant staff that knows how to use the ingredients for customers’ pleasure.
Deb and Sterling are even looking at adding goats – both as a tasty protein and a means of weed control when pastures come back from the drought conditions.
“Like any rancher, I have such passion for the land. I really consider it an honor to be on the place we’re on. It’s such a beautiful place and such a productive area, and it’s our job to take care of it,” says Deb. “Some look at selling their cattle as a failure. It’s not. It’s a chance to target the genetics of the herd and create animals we want to pass on. So, tough as things are right now, this is truly an opportunity. We need to think outside the box and change the way we do business – for the better.”