Cows and climate change

Recent stories on my news feed have made bold declarations about how cattle are even bigger contributors to climate change than they previously thought (they already thought they were bad).  Their conclusions are mostly focused on greenhouse gases – how much methane cows produce, and the carbon implications of raising cattle.  I’m not a scientist, so it would be presumptuous of me to offer my opinion of the data or research they are using.  I think I can, however, point out some data points that are absent from virtually every anti-cow article I’ve ever read.
Should cattle be removed from certain regions, namely those which historically have had large grazing ruminants like the Great Plains, what would the impact be on the other species that depend on their presence for ecosystem function?  Is it logical to believe that removing cattle would not have a negative effect on these environments?  What will be done to fill the hole left by cattle?  They provide biological and mechanical services which are critical to a healthy prairie ecosystem.  (Bison and elk, which occupied this role prior to European settlement in the Great Plains, are both ruminants, so the methane component would be similar to cattle.)  And there are other aspects of climate change that would be impacted by an unhealthy prairie – less plant growth (less carbon sequestration), higher soil temperatures (less below-ground biological activity & more evaporation), poor water infiltration (more erosion and poorer water quality downstream), to name a few.
Speaking of bison and elk, I have yet to hear someone opposed to cattle for environmental reasons say that the vast herds of bison and elk that grazed North America prior to European settlers were ever a problem, and their near-extinction was actually a good thing.   If the methane cattle produce is so terrible, would the bison not have been equally as bad?
I would agree with those who oppose cutting down rainforests to make room for cattle.  Wholesale change of an ecosystem by man is something that generally has consequences.  For those who wish to critique modern beef production, there is room for that discussion.  However, to completely write off all beef production as detrimental to the planet’s health demonstrates a lack of critical thought and understanding of how different ecosystems function.
There has to be a balance.  Any rational person believes this.  Unfortunately, the cows and climate change debate is as polarized and dogmatic as any topic you’ll find.  But really, it isn’t rocket science.  When man makes drastic changes to an ecosystem, it’s generally a bad idea – whether that be putting cows where they don’t belong, or removing them from where they do.  We need to become observers of nature and mimic what it does, rather than believe we have all the answers.  We might find a more nuanced approach is the right one.

5 Pieces of Advice for Future RHR Interns

As I enter the last two weeks of my stay here at Rock Hills Ranch, I can’t help but look back on all that I have learned from the Perman family. It has been a truly unique and special summer for me and I would be lying if I said that it has been anything short of life changing. While RHR is far from a school of hard knocks, it has afforded me the opportunity to better myself not only as a cattleman, student, and employee but also as an individual through mistakes, long hours, hard work, and Lyle’s lectures of course. If RHR was an institution for personal development, the diploma it bestows would be one of the most coveted and respected around the nation and perhaps the world. It pains me that only a few short days stand between me and a few lonely plane rides back to the place I call home. However, it helps me to think that my leaving will provide an opening for future interns to partake in this once in a lifetime opportunity that I have grown so fond of. It is this thought process that has led me to the topic of my last blog post. Without further adieu, I give you (in no particular order): 5 Pieces of Advice for Future RHR Interns. Enjoy!


  • “Never look down the barrel of a gun.” – Lyle Perman

If you were lucky enough to grow up with a military grandfather like myself, then you know that this is one of the first topics of fire arm safety and marksmanship. What you might not know is that it makes for a great analogy when castrating calves. While we were working calves, my job was to hold the hind-left leg of the bull calf steady to prevent Luke from getting kicked as he operated. It only took one time of getting covered in bowel excrement from chest to toe for me to figure out that the proper place to stand while restraining the leg is closer to the calf’s front side (away from the barrel of the gun) as opposed to the back side (directly in the line of fire).


  • Develop sound orienteering skills before arrival.

Out here on the prairie, or at least Lyle and Luke’s piece of it, the directional terms “left” and “right” don’t exists. “Turn north at the sign.” Not, “Turn left at the sign.” Should a perplexed and disoriented intern accidentally use the term “right” or “left”, the terminology will be met with a confused facial expression that I personally perceived as a bit ostracizing. Just practice your “Never Eat Stale Wheaties” and you’ll adjust.


  • Always check the Diesel Exhaust Fluid before you take the Kubota out.

This lesson was learned the hard way. It was a warm Saturday in June. I was the only one left on the ranch as the Permans had gone to a wedding. I was tasked with cutting approximately 75 acres of winter wheat for hay. I quickly learned that the Kubota was running low on diesel exhaust fluid which Luke happened to be out of. No big deal, right? Well it wouldn’t have been but for the next 12 hours a piecing alarm would sound in the tractor promptly every 2 minutes. That was a long day.


  • Pack your coat.

Despite what South Dakotan’s tell you, It DOES get chilly in the summer time. Due to the typical low humidity of the region, even when the daily high is in the 90’s, it is not unheard of for it to be in the 50’s when you wake up. Also, if at all possible, try not to let the Permans see you wearing your Carhartt in the morning or you will catch a lot of grief for being the intern who wore his Carhartt in July.


  • Get ready to learn.

This one may seem like a no brainer but none the less worth a mention. Between Luke’s thoughtful competence as a manager and Lyle’s years of experience, the Perman men are a gold mine for information for those interested in beef production as well as management of the prairies. Whether its pouring concrete at the perfect time to avoid cracks during the drying process or cutting a hay field in a particular pattern so that you don’t unnecessarily expose pheasants to predators, I have found that there is at least one thing to learn with every task you are given during the day. Most things here, no matter how minute they might seem, are done for a reason. So, I implore you to stay observant, ask questions, and absorb as much as you can!

“No cows, no grass, no birds.”

Greetings from the 100th Meridian! I am overjoyed to inform you that I have now survived the first six weeks of the Rock Hills Ranch 2017 Summer Internship. “Survived” might sound like peculiarly strange diction to use while describing your dream internship. However, when Lyle found out I was attending military college in the fall, he promised me that he would make military school seem easy. Mornings begin with Lyle’s piercing wake-up whistle and holler at 6 a.m. sharp. At this time I chug 2 cups of black room-temp coffee and begin the morning PT session which consists of sit-ups, pull-ups, and a sub-25 minute 5k run. Occasionally, my routine PT session is accompanied by an additional hour-long workout designed and enforced by the ranch’s new one-month intern, Alexi Galber, who happens to be a former Israeli Defense Force soldier who trained to be a drill instructor. Lucky me, right? With this in mind, I can assure you that many mornings by the time I report to Luke for work at 8 a.m., survival is largely on my mind.


Things are not all bad here on the Northern Great Plains though. If you overlook the ongoing six-month drought, fences are being built, hay is being made, and cattle are being worked. There is no doubt that June has historically been, and continues to be, a busy time for the nation’s cattle producers. Here at Rock Hills Ranch, the already slam-packed month began with a visit from several donors, staffers, and scientists from the World Wildlife Fund. The group came on an overnight visit to the ranch to learn more about the role that ranchers play in the prairie ecosystem. There is a lot to consider and learn when talking about grassland conservation and Rock Hills Ranch is the perfect place to start.


One of the reasons that this internship stood out among the panoply of ranch internships I applied for was the value that Rock Hills Ranch placed on the prairie ecosystem. From day one of my time here, I have experienced so much about the role that ranchers play in wildlife conservation. In a nutshell, I have learned that the importance of grasses to both the prairie ecosystem and also to the environment as a whole.


Grasslands make up one of the world’s largest sources of carbon sequestration (the process of taking carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis). Sure, monoculture suburban horticulture and ag crops will also take carbon out of the atmosphere. However, if you consider the carbon cost of producing each of the stands (think fuel and fertilizer), the grasses have a much more beneficial impact on the atmospheric carbon levels because they require considerably less mechanical and chemical management. Grasses on prairie lands also contribute to water quality. Grass stands greatly contribute to soil health through increasing soil structure and infiltration (the ability of the soil to collect and hold water and nutrients) as well as reduce erosion. This reduces the loss of nutrients (mainly P & K) through runoff and leaching which ultimately prevents eutrophication in our water systems. Last, but not least, grasslands are home to bobolinks, meadowlarks, pheasants, and hundreds of other bird species that don’t nest in monoculture crops. Lyle says, “No cows, no grass, no birds.” If there is a reduction in the number of head of cattle, we lose prairie. That means we also lose air and water quality, as well as the wildlife that makes this region so special. The bottom line is that, contrary to popular belief, cows ARE good for the ecosystem of the Great Plains because they keep grasslands intact. So the next time you’re feeling environmentally conscious when you’re ordering food, think of the Northern Great Plains and get a burger.