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Serving: West

South Dakota ranch family continues a legacy

Photos courtesy of South Dakota Farmers Union Combine in wheat field
CROPS AND COWS: Kyle and Kim Harris raised crops and cattle on their operation, and their children now raise a 400-head cow-calf herd and farm 2,500 acres of corn, sunflowers, wheat and millet.
Fourth generation now working the land in Bennett County.

In their 30s, the Harris kids are still old enough to remember the days before air-conditioned tractor cabs. In fact, when they talk about how growing up on their family’s ranch in Bennett County, S.D., taught them responsibility and work ethic, Kalen, 36, Klay, 33, and Kelsie, 31, give quite a bit of credit to an old 300 International tractor.

“When we’d rake hay, it wouldn’t go up the hill, so you had to go all the way around and go back and forth,” Kalen recalls.

“And when you were done, you had to park it on a hill so it would start,” Klay adds.

“I remember I had to let it roll down the hill to start it,” Kelsie says. “And my brothers only let me rake because they were so picky about everything.”

Klay and Kalen were 6 and 8, respectively, when they started haying. Kelsie says she was closer to 13. They all learned how to drive on that old 300 International.

Ranching foundation

Summing up the value of growing up on a western South Dakota ranch, their mom, Kim, says, “You learn to work hard and deal with what you get.”

Growing up raising crops and cattle together, with their parents, Kyle and Kim, ranching full time became the career of choice among the Harris kids.

“We have worked side by side since he was 8 and I was 6,” Klay says about himself and Kalen. “We knew we were going to do this since forever.”

“Dad always wanted to put this place together to give us a chance to do this together,” Kalen explains.

“We have always been a tight family,” Klay adds. “Dad was always a together man. He always said, ‘If we don’t do this together, no use doing this at all.’”

Kyle’s plan is working. Today, the brothers raise a 400-head cow-calf herd and farm 2,500 acres of corn, sunflowers, wheat and millet together on the ranch where they grew up. Kelsie and her husband, Luke Meeks, ranch with Luke’s family near Interior.

“This is what he always wanted, and they do a really good job,” Kim says. “We were just holding things together; they have brought all the knowledge of their generation into the ranch. They do a much better job than we ever did.”

Klay explained that his dad encouraged them to leave the ranch, get an education and then put their ideas to work on the ranch. “The thing about Dad, even when we were younger, he was the boss, but he never talked down to us like we were his employees.”

Loss of father

Talking about Kyle — his calm presence, fun-loving spirit and the way he mentored his children — was difficult for the family. Kyle, 61, passed away Jan. 7 from complications due to COVID-19.

“Everything I do brings memories of him,” Kelsie says. “I have peace in knowing where he is.”

Klay adds, “I miss hearing his opinions.”

“You try to figure out what he would say. You know what he would say, but I want to hear it,” Kalen says.

Kim and Kyle were married 40 years. Kim says her children and eight grandchildren give her comfort. They are what keep her going and moving forward. “My kids and family are everything to me, absolutely everything.”

Cattle helps in drought

The ranch has been in Kim’s family for four generations, since her grandfather Harry homesteaded the land. Once high school sweethearts, Kim and Kyle after getting married decided to continue the tradition. They began by working for Kim’s dad, Edward Henschel, and eventually bought the ranch from him in 2006.

Like their children, Kim and Kyle’s grandchildren enjoy the outdoors and the freedom growing up on a ranch offers.

“Living out here is really the best way to teach responsibility,” says Heather, Kalen’s wife.

Her sister-in-law, Kasi, agrees. “It is just open, and there’s freedom to run and play. I grew up in New Mexico, where you have neighbors and a fenced-in yard.”

When Kalen and Klay returned to the ranch after college, they began increasing the cow numbers from around 150 to 400 head. They also began implementing no-till field management. “We were tired of watching our fields blow away,” Klay says.

“And we don’t like tilling the ground because you lose moisture. Our fields that have been no-tilled the longest; that is where we see the biggest yield boost,” Kalen says. “We used to raise 30-bushel wheat. Now, with no-tilling, on a good year, we can hit 60- to 70-bushel wheat.”

The Harris family

HARRIS CLAN: Gathering on the farm are (from left) Kasi and Klay with son Rhyder; Kim; Kalen and Heather with children Dean, Kade, Koby, Jace and Harley; and Kelsie and Luke Meeks with children Narley and Radley.

Retaining moisture is key, especially this year. Like many South Dakota ranches, the Harris ranch hasn’t received much rain this summer. “As soon as the corn got planted, it quit raining. We got a rain May 14 and early August, but that has been it,” Kalen says.

Due to the drought, they were unable to harvest their spring wheat, so they hayed it to feed their cattle instead. The brothers say because of dry conditions, they will probably end up chopping and feeding at least some of their corn acres as well. “Cattle are an insurance policy for crops. If you don’t get anything out of them, you can find a way to feed or graze them,” Kalen says.

The drought also impacts the way they manage their cattle herd. This summer they decided to wean and background their calves earlier. “It makes your pasture go further and brings the cows into winter in better condition,” Klay says.

2020 was the first season the brothers had backgrounded calves. They said it worked out well for them, and they were able to market their cattle at a premium. And because their herd is known for maternal traits and stability, they use Bangs vaccine on all the heifers they market so buyers have more options.

“When we were young, we flew by the seat of our pants. We would turn cattle out on the reservation in the spring and gather them in the fall. Now we pay more attention to them,” Klay says, explaining that like every other aspect of their operation, the brothers put a lot more planning and management into their cattle herd and use rotational grazing to maximize grazing acres.

Roti writes from Sioux Falls, S.D.

Source: South Dakota Farmers Union, which is responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and its subsidiaries aren't responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

 

TAGS: Crops Beef
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