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Passing down more than the ranch

Photos by Joe Dickie Sheep graze at the Rock Hills Ranch in Walworth County, S.D.
NEW THINGS: Luke Perman says that broadscale use of chemicals on their pastures don’t fit the grassland health goals the family is working toward.
Rock Hills Ranch transitions to a new generation while keeping healthy grassland practices.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth of seven stories on the relationship between landowners and tenants, and how soil health goals can be achieved more efficiently if both parties are on the same page.

Lyle and Garnet Perman can’t talk with their son Luke and his wife, Naomi, about what they’re doing today on the Rock Hills Ranch in Walworth County, S.D., without considering how those actions will affect the operation tomorrow, and days and years into the future.

More than ten years ago, Lyle and Garnet started the business arrangements with Luke and Naomi to begin a transition of the ranch to the next generation. Lyle also began working for Luke, who now serves as manager and co-owner of the ranch. All have been involved in many a conversation during the transition, which has focused on regenerative practices that will stand the test of time and keep their rangeland sustainable far into the future.

“I’m really excited about the next generation coming in,” Garnet says. “There’s a lot of land that’s changing hands and will change hands. The younger people are more interested in a more natural way of doing things. They don’t want the chemicals. They can see the stress and then the hassle that conventional agriculture has put on their families.”

She includes her son and daughter-in-law in that group. For more than 10 years, Luke and Naomi used flea beetles as a biological control to contain leafy spurge instead of widespread chemical use.

“The more we learn, the more we’re willing to try something new,” Garnet says. “Luke didn’t have a choice. He grew up brainwashed in that way, and he’s still trying new things and looking at things in different ways.”

Jumping in

Luke and Naomi are following in the footsteps of his mother and his father, Lyle, who also pioneered new grassland practices. “I’m not saying I am the world’s greatest manager by any means, but I guess I’ve been able to swallow my fear enough to jump in and try it,” Luke says.

“We spot-spray some, but broad-scale use of chemicals, just broadcasting over the whole pasture, is something that really doesn’t fit what we’re trying to accomplish as far as having a healthy forage base,” Luke says. “We’d be taking out our problem plants, but we’d be taking out a bunch of beneficial ones, too. That doesn’t meet our environmental goals, and I just think it’s chasing the wind to think we can kill all of the weeds with a sprayer.

“Biological control —which I would suggest isn’t necessarily killing all the ‘bad’ stuff, but instead finding a natural balance in the system where nothing is going unchecked — is the only long-term strategy that makes sense to me.”

Spot-spraying and using flea beetles gave limited control of leafy spurge for about 10 years, but as control began to fade, Lyle urged Luke to bring sheep into the operation. “The sheep are a lot better alternative in our mind,” Lyle says, “because they can move through a patch that’s a 100 square feet of leafy spurge, and in a matter of minutes, it’s gone.”

“I said to Luke, ‘We just have to do something different,’” Lyle says. “The idea of keeping a 1,000 sheep contained and protected from predators had always kept me from bringing sheep onto the ranch, but Luke invited Trevor VanWell [of VanWell Livestock] to come up to our ranch to talk over the idea of grazing their sheep on the ranch. Luke said, ‘Yeah, we can make this work.’ And we decided to move forward with the sheep project in 2019.”

Fence repair at the Rock Hills Ranch in Walworth County, S.D. with sheep grazing in distance

DOUBLE GRAZING: The Permans have the ability to graze both cattle and sheep on their ranch, as the sheep will eat the forage the cattle don’t.

“We’re not at all interested in destroying the plants our cattle don’t eat, but the interesting thing about it is sheep will eat a lot of them,” Lyle says.

The Permans envisioned more than doubling their grazing carrying capacity by running sheep on the same acres, because sheep graze forbs that the cattle won’t.

The Permans went to their first holistic management conference in the early 1980s. “I remember they said we all need to be happy and be on the same page — that includes mom, dad, the kids and the in-laws,”

Garnet recalls, “I thought that might not work because communications between generations can be difficult. It is especially important for the new people coming into an ag family business. In 1976, that was me. In 2007, Luke’s wife, Naomi, joined the ranch team.”

“We do a ranch meeting at least a couple times a year. We should do it more often. We talk about how did things go, did we meet our goals, what about the next five years and how are we going to meet the long-term goals we have,” Garnet says. “As a family, to talk about all that has been really, really good.”

Those discussions include how they measure progress, and the condition of their land and forage are central to the conversation. “I always say the land talks to you,” Garnet says. “We’ve been able to measure progress by knowing what’s out there. As native populations have increased, that gives us confidence in knowing that our management techniques are working.”

Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.


TAGS: Soil Health
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