Finding balance: Ranch couple does more by letting nature do the work

Dean Lockner, center, speaks with audience members following his presentation with his wife Candice at the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition conference in Watertown, S.D. last month.

Turning a ranching operation into a success takes a lot of hard work, but when Dean and Candice Lockner changed the way they managed their ranch in the Ree Hills of central South Dakota, they made a conscious decision not to work harder.

Following a presentation about their operation at the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition conference in Watertown Jan. 16, curious members of the audience gathered around a cork board covered in neat rows of Post-it notes. On the yellow squares were listed chores and tasks that typically need attention around the ranch. The Lockners decided not to do them anymore.

There was baling hay, buying netwrap and hauling silage. Vaccinating spring calves and branding were on the list. Dragging manure. Paying the fuel bill. The list went on.

The goal was to do what really mattered, and for the Lockners that was spend time with their kids and grandkids. Making that happen involved changing the way they had managed the Thousand Hills Ranch for a long time.

“Are you willing to challenge your traditions?” Candice asked the crowd listening to their talk in Watertown.

In doing less work, the Lockners found more time for themselves. They also found their management style was more profitable and better for the soil.

They started doing strip grazing, where cattle have access to a fresh paddock every so often. In the winter months, they switched to bale grazing, where winter forage is provided right in the field. The major advantages include reducing the time it takes to haul bales and relying on cows to replace the nutrients for the next crop by leaving their manure behind.

“We incorporate livestock as employees,” Dean said. “Livestock like to spread manure every day of the year and why not let them work for you?”

Before changing their system, their pastures were overgrazed, Dean said. Only switchgrass and big bluestem thrived. It was basically a monoculture, he said, and the land doesn’t do well without diversity.

His first move was to interseed alfalfa and wheat grass. Soon other species such as native forbes started coming in.

“You know the seeds were there,” he said.

By reducing the competition, they flourished. Pollinators have flourished, too. The Lockners host 300 hives of honeybees each season.

“They’re real happy with the diverse mix they find in our pastures,” Candice said.

Diversity also helped improve the soils around their ranch, and it’s also helped prevent water damage. Some points of the Ree hills are 350 higher than their land, making potential for a lot of runoff. During a wet spring in 1997, Dean counted road washouts in 14 places.

Since planting fields back to grass and fostering plant diversity, that’s changed. Twenty years after those washouts, another wet year brought 12.5 inches of rainfall, and 2019 broke records for wetness with 26 inches of precipitation recorded on the ranch. But the Lockners had no prevent plant acres, Dean said. He attributes their grasslands.

“Perennial plants drink deep,” he said.

While the cattle and the soil have begun to work harder for the Lockners, it’s also paid off to cut out the jobs that weren’t paying off.

The Lockners stopped treating their cattle for flies. For instance, they rubbed just as much as when they were treated, Lockner said.

“None of it made any sense,” Dean said. “It didn’t work.”

Now, by rotating pastures more often, the cattle move on to new grass before the flies hatch.

The Lockners used to be in the club calf business and would artificially inseminate their cows. They now let the bulls do the work.

They also took some of the work out of calving season. They pushed calving dates back to later in the year — May and June — when they don’t have the battle the elements. And his lighter weight calves bring a premium at the sale barn, he said.

“I would never go back,” Dean said.

Janelle Atyeo can be reached at janelle.atyeo@lee.net.