South Dakota Grassland Coalition

By Kate Rasmussen

Larry and Julie Wagner run a grass-fed beef ranch in the Bijou Hills near Chamberlain, South Dakota. When I asked Larry where his interest in prairie conservation came from, he told me about the time his father planted a trial field of corn in 1958 on the same ranch the Wagner’s still live on. Rootworm took hold of the corn and Larry’s father planted the ground back to grass by 1959 rather than pouring money into insecticides. “I always hated seeing the corn struggle and die on dry years,” he added, “Grass seems to do better with the weather we have here. Grass requires low inputs, low overhead.” Larry has carried on his father’s passion for the resiliency of native range by running a grass-focused cattle operation while serving on the Grassland Coalition for nearly 20 years.

While Larry has been a long time steward of the land, grass-fed and grass-finished beef didn’t catch the Wagner’s interest until his wife Julie, a retired veterinarian, began researching cattle management centered on native prairie ecology. She found enough compelling data supporting the nutritional benefits of beef grown on the prairie to talk Larry into raising a “trial heifer.” Rather than shifting the entire ranch into a new market all at once, Larry pulled one heifer from his herd and let her run with his cows until she reached finishing weight.

Larry initially became a believer in making the change because of the quality of the meat in the trial heifer. It’s a slow process, he cautioned. Despite the challenges of the venture, the Wagner’s began finishing their cattle on grass by implementing a rotational grazing system on the ranch in 1991 and haven’t gone back to their previous business model that “had too many inputs, too much fiddling.” Both he and Julie like getting out of the “factory mentality” and working closer with the native plants and wildlife. In the last twelve years, the Wagner’s have added a retail enterprise to their business. They sell their packaged beef at local farmer’s markets and health food stores in the Sioux Falls area.

As Larry showed me around his ranch, I asked if his neighbors showed interest in his grass-focused approach to raising and finishing cattle. He gave a smirk that suggested he’d received plenty of skepticism but managed an optimistic response: “I think season-long grazing is fading out. People are starting to see there is an eco-nomic advantage to encouraging plant diversity. People can see there is a difference—especially on the dry years.” He joked that more land managers would make prairie conservation a priority if they received a bill in the mail for water runoff and soil erosion. “If they were getting billed for it,” he said, “like anything else, they’d see they were losing money.” Land managers, he explains, are losing money when they over utilize land: “It can be tough to see, though, especially when there are physical bills to pay sitting in the mailbox.”

No matter the means of finishing cattle a producer chooses or the market they sell to, grassland is essential to ranchers and the wildlife they share with the Great Plains. Functioning grasslands not only support rural com-munities and wildlife, but also stabilize soil, clean air, and filter water. In 2014, more acres of the Great Plains were lost to development than the Brazilian rain forest (Gage et. al.). Most of the Northern Great Plains are privately owned by individuals in a unique position to slow and reverse the decline of North America’s most endangered ecosystem.

Education, Larry believes, serves a crucial purpose in conserving the remaining prairies, which is why he has given so much of his time serving on the Coalition board of directions. “I haven’t been to a Grassland Coalition meeting where I didn’t learn something new,” Larry said. Over the years, he has connected with other ranchers and adapted their successful practices to his own operation. He has enjoyed watching the Coalition grow over the years, forming partnerships and new learning opportunities for members: “If we help one person on a pasture walk, it’s been worth it.”

Gage, Anne M., et al. “Plowprint: Tracking Cumulative Cropland Expansion to Target Grassland Conservation.” Great Plains Research, vol. 26, no. 2, 2016, pp. 107–116., doi:10.1353/gpr.2016.0019.

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