March 3, 2023
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on Shawn and Kristy Freeland’s Dry Creek Farm & Ranch and their management focused on soil health.
Walking through the vibrant pastures of Shawn and Kristy Freeland’s Dry Creek Farm & Ranch in Caputa, S.D., you’d never guess how their first-generation ranch got started.
An ordinary trip to the sale barn looking for rodeo cattle led to Shawn’s spontaneous purchase of 10 cows — and a changed life trajectory.
“Of course, you tell your buddies your dreams of ranching,” and then one buddy “elbows you at the sale barn and tells you to ‘Buy those cows.’ And I just raised my hand and bought them,” Freeland says. “I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a trailer to take them. Nothing.”
After borrowing a trailer, he got his first herd back to a friend’s pasture outside of Rapid City, S.D.
“Took us two trips with that little bumper pull to get those 10 cows back to my buddy’s place,” Freeland recounts. “His dad comes home all surprised, but he still supported me all the way.”
Hay purchases, along with lots of trials and tribulations, came with those first cows, which eventually led them to the cattle and pastureland they own today, Freeland says.
Now, the herd at Dry Creek Farm & Ranch is almost entirely Angus and resides in three separate pastures. What Freeland refers to as “headquarters” contains a few hundred irrigated acres, while the others contain dryland crop and pasture acres. “The goal is to use two places one year and rest the third,” he says of their pasture rotation.
Freeland’s definition of what makes a quality cow herd has changed over the years. “I always used to say, ‘I want 600 cows,’” he says. “Our definition of quality has changed from high-input cattle to cattle that fit our environment and management style. So, we have less cows and a lot less work.”
He says their goal now is to continue to improve cattle quality for their current management. “We started downsizing our bulls and trying to get the cow’s frame down to be manageable,” he explains. “We’re getting there bit by bit.”
From conventional to conservation
While the benefits of holistic management can now be seen in the cattle, Freeland says they originally ran a conventional operation. “We had a feedlot setup. We grew a lot of hay and chopped silage, and it was a lot of feeding the cows and hauling manure,” he says.
A frustrating day haying led to the thought: “Maybe there’s a better way.”
Attending the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition Grazing School got the holistic ball rolling for their operation. Cover crops were just growing in popularity at this time, and Freeland’s interest was piqued.
“I thought wow I could grow a lot with just water and cover crops,” he recalls.
After a full year of irrigated cover crop grazing, Freeland was sold. “We sold all of our haying equipment and set up electric fencing and grazed through cover crops,” he says.
The benefits of their work could be seen right away with different biology appearing in the soil. “We started seeing earthworms, macro-pores and how the water moved,” he says. “We’re learning all this stuff at the same time, and it’s like, ‘Holy cow, this really works!’ And we were sold moving forward.”
Their current headquarters has been irrigated since 1889, and while Freeland still uses irrigation on the diverse grass mix, he’s working toward another goal: to continue building organic matter and carbon in the soil. Using the highest carbon plants assisted him in building the organic matter.
“It’s hard to just build from the top down,” he says. So instead of focusing on what is occurring aboveground, Freeland focuses on what’s underground. “Building the soil starts with living roots, providing liquid carbon to the soil, which in turn feeds the soil’s biology,” he says.
Now serving as chairman of the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, Freeland says he started his time with the organization by attending a meeting. He drove over six hours to hear a speaker, who bowed out due to food poisoning. But Freeland got the chance to visit with Bryan Jorgensen from Jorgensen Land and Cattle in Ideal, S.D.
“Bryan took over for that speaker and just talked about their operation and practices, and I was just blown away,” Freeland says. “I walked up to Bryan, and I shook his hand. And as we talked a bit, he asked me if I wanted to sit on their board.”
With a full schedule sitting on other local boards, Freeland originally declined. But somewhere along that six-hour drive home he changed his mind. “I just thought what an opportunity to be around like-minded people that I can learn from, and the amazing knowledge they have.”
Freeland says one reason he enjoys his time with the coalition is being able “to tell everybody what can happen if you get your soil better” — no more tillage and fertilizer passes, and money saved just from increasing soil health. “The board isn’t here to tell anyone what to do; we’re just there to plant the seed of interest,” he adds.
Taking care of the soil continues to be No. 1 at Dry Creek Ranch, and they’ve seen benefits beyond the ranch from their management changes.
“What’s really neat is to see the quality of life go through the roof,” Freeland says. “We don’t have a lot of chores anymore,” by removing the need for many time-consuming tasks each day.
Their pasture rotation and healthy grassland means the majority of hands-on daily chores include moving electric fence and cattle. “It just takes less time to do everything, and you can feel how healthy the land is when you’re on it. In the summer when I’m moving cows, the birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing, the cows are munching, and you just get this warm feeling.”
Freeland says starting something new and different can be a nerve-wracking endeavor. But “the Lord said take care of the land and I’ll take care of you,” he says of what reassured him throughout his journey. “Our first priority is the land, and having healthy animals as a byproduct, and then having healthy people.”
For those interested in building soil health on their operation, Freeland says just start with one thing. “Our neighbors look over our fence and see what we’re doing,” he explains. “If you can get someone to change one thing on their operation, then their neighbor sees it and maybe makes the same change.”
From there, Freeland always hopes for producers to be more profitable at the end of the day — and for the soil to heal just a little at a time.
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