A Picture Worth 789 Words

Earlier this month marked 3 months that I’ve been at Rock Hills Ranch. I’ve learned a lot and I can’t wait to see what else I will learn.


I was going through my photos the other day and realized that I have lots of photos of grass now. Luke made the comment that we take care of the grass; and this is true, but it has also taken care of the breed of humans who are called cowboys. We are just about done cutting hay here at RHR and normally I listen to a country music stations as the Twins game have an extremely annoying squeal. I was cutting hay down on the flats and I heard a couple songs that inspired this journal.

Jason Aldean’s song “Fly Over States” has always been a favorite of mine, but especially the line that says “Feel that freedom on your face, breathe in all that open space.” Jamey Johnson sings “In Color” which is the story of a Grandfather explaining all of his black and white photos to a grandson and he states “They say a pictures worth a thousand words, but you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered, you should have seen it in color.”   Lately I’ve been trying to get a lot of work done during the day light hours so I can take the dusk time to go check cattle when it is cooler and there is more activity. I sat there on Elmer (one of the horses here) and I saw a pretty nice sunset- if you like cows and hills and grass like I do. I’ll see if I can paint the picture for you.

The golden sun was almost done with its descent down the western half of the sky, about 45 minutes from dropping behind the top of the ridge covered in grasses and forbs and sedges and other plants. There were wispy clouds piercing through the baby blue sky and at times covering the sun and negating the warmth for a few seconds.

The air was still for a few minutes and the sound of the mature cows munching grass and calling to their calves, who were about 100 feet away running and jumping and fighting their herd mates, filled the air. Across the valley you could hear the bulls bellowing to establishing their rank on the totem pole for the remainder of the breeding season. The air was still enough and my perch atop Elmer was just right that you could feel the vibrations from the low sound waves coming from the bellies of the bulls.

The grass is more tan than green this time of year; it’s dry here. – We are very grateful of every drop of water that we get. – The Kentucky bluegrass has headed out and is maturing to a tan color and the brome grass is hanging onto every ounce of green pigmentation that it has. A light, light green appears every now and then in a patch of wormwood. The only really green patches are the buck brush leaves and just up stream from dugouts.

I sit atop of a sorrel (kind of a reddish color) gelding with a white blaze on his face and 3 white socks on his legs. My striped brown saddle pad and my big Hereford saddle cover his back. The sun is just right to blind me by the glare that comes off my spurs and I think “man, that’s bright”. I look up at the western horizon and determine that it’s time to head back into the yard. I signal for Elmer to move and cue him to start long trotting most of the 3-mile journey home. I had things a little backwards from the typical cowboy and sunset picture, as I was riding southeast and the sunsets in the west southwest. There I am, long trotting a sorrel gelding through grass that almost reached his belly and my cinch, my spurs jingling and the leather squeaking. It was like I had rode right out of a John Wayne Movie.

I am very fortunate to be spending this time here. There’s just something about the wide-open spaces that help a young man sort through all the things on his mind. The rolling hills, the rocks bigger than my car, the ocean of grass. Rock Hills Ranch has numerous places that you can look out from the top of a hill and see what freedom looks like. I wanted all of you readers to try to paint that picture in your mind before you got to a picture I snapped while on my way back in to the yard earlier this summer.

So I Described my ride on a reddish horse at sunset, but I like this picture better.
So I Described my ride on a reddish horse at sunset, but I like this picture better.

Keep your cinches pulled tight everyone.

Robservations and Toilet Seats

When I was a child, my family drove to the Black Hills to pick my  older sisters up from bible camp. It was a full day’s drive across the state, which seemed like an eternity to my brother and younger sister. I remember that we were driving through Western South Dakota and I asked my parents: “Why do the people have big grain bins in their yard? All I see out the car window is pastures, cows and hay bales.” My parents explained that the fields were far enough off the road than what we could see, but that that was a very good observation for an 8 year old boy. Since then, I’ve always liked observing things around me.  The rest of this journal is going to explain some of the “Robservations” I’ve made around Rock Hills Ranch and don’t you worry; the toilet seat part of the title is where we’ll start.


Our story starts in the Brookings, South Dakota Runnings Farm and Fleet store, where I worked in college, in the middle of February. It was a Saturday Morning, and I had just gotten out of the office with my boss. He told me that I needed to make sure I said hello to any customer who came within 15 feet of me and not get “tunnel vision” about my task at hand. I returned to the electric fence aisle where I was putting away insulators for attaching the wire to steel fence posts and mumbled to myself “Why are we starting to stock this? Fencing season isn’t for another several months.” That’s when I made the observation that a gentleman was pushing a cart at the end of my aisle and he appeared to be looking for something. That was the very first time I met the man named Lyle Perman. I walked up and said “Hi, can I help you find something?” Lyle said he was looking for the plumbing aisle and Rob laughed “We have 6 plumbing aisles, what specifically are you looking for?” You guessed it. I led Lyle over to the toilet seats, he said thank you and turned to look at the selection. That’s when Rob made the observation that started his adventure. “Excuse me sir, but is that the name of your operation and your brand on your hat?” Lyle turned back to me with a smile and said “Yes, my son and his wife ranch with my wife and me. Why do you ask?” I then explained that my family is neighbors with the Kopriva family who won the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award in 2012, and that I looked up the award and I knew that the Permans had won it in 2014. Lyle’s smile got even bigger and we began to talk about what I was going to school for and what I wanted to do in my life and Lyle said “You should apply for our ranch internship. I want you to apply. This afternoon since our deadline was earlier this week. I’ll call Luke and tell him to watch for your application.” I said that I would and we parted ways… for 20 minutes. Lyle came back into the store and tracked me down and handed me a business card with Luke’s phone number hand written on the back and said “My son is waiting for you to call him this afternoon.” The rest is history because here I am now!

Ok, so now that we got the toilet seat part out of the way, I can write about what I wanted to focus on what I really wanted to elaborate on: observations.


I’ve been here a month now, and a lot has gone on; we’ve has had numerous chances to observe. I’ll highlight some of the observations the gang has made. If I made a list of every one of them, my friends would call me shaggy- more on this in the list.

1. During one of our quick “check in with each other” meetings, Luke was explaining how he wanted me to use the grazing stick and he made the comment, “The cows take care of themselves for the most part, yes we occasionally have to step in and help by giving vaccinations or doctor something, but they take care of themselves. We take care of the grass.” Since then, I’ve observed that the tasks on my weekly to do lists are focusing on the grass. They range from doing rangeland observations where we measure the grass before and after grazing to tasks such as cross fencing pastures so the cows use the grass more efficiently.

2. Isaac and Ella are super observant. The first time they saw me after I shaved for the first time in several weeks they right away said “Mr. Rob, your face looks different.”  Garnet has observed that Rob is really good at saying he will try to be in at 12:30-because that’s when he was told food would be ready- and not actually showing up until 1. Thank goodness she always saves me some food!!

3. When we move cattle into their new pastures, we measure the grass with the grazing stick and take photos at observation points(a big rock or other landmark that won’t move) and we use the information from these observation points in our record keeping. We also go to the same observation points after cattle have left and we can use the information together to determine how much we took.

4. I’ve observed that there’s something in the water here at Rock Hills Ranch. Luke and Naomi have 2 sets of twins, the family that lived here before them had a set of twins, when entering the calving records into the computer I noticed a fair number of twins. I learned that I’m not the first intern to give themselves a hair cut. Something in the water makes families have twins and makes the interns cut their own hair…. Don’t worry mom, I didn’t cut my ear off and it grows back and I’m always wearing a hat anyway!


I may have just graduated from college, but my learning is never going to be done. Observation is one of the oldest ways of learning, and we all learn from observation; whether we realize it or not.  There are many more things to observe in my time here at Rock Hills Ranch, and for the rest of my life. I challenge any of you readers out there to stop and think about something you observed today.


I hope you guys found the story of how I got to Rock Hills Ranch interesting, funny, and agree that someone with more power than Rob played a role in the meeting with Lyle. It just goes to show that you never know who you’ll meet and never know when. It also shows how much it pays off to be observant.


As promised, I’d find a unique way to end my posts; ’til next time pardner, keep your cinch pulled tight.

Polywire cross fences are one way we take care of the grass.
Polywire cross fences are one way we take care of the grass.

Lack of ideas, not so much.

It has been a long time since I have actually posted here myself, so I thought I better before you all thing I don’t do anything around here.  I’ve enjoyed delegating the website journal to the interns but I don’t have any here now, so it’s up to me.

In an industry as steeped in tradition and history as ranching, you might think not much changes from year to year.   That may be true on some levels, but in many ways it is false.  For our operation, there are constant changes.  We are always looking for new and better ways to do things.  Innovation and adaptation to the environment we do business in is as important to ranching as it is to any other business.

“Lack of money is not an obstacle.  Lack of ideas is an obstacle.”
Ken Hakuta

“Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”
Albert Szent-George

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”
W. Edwards Deming

These quotes, and others similar to them, have rolled around in my head a lot this winter.  I have some new ideas we’re trying out this year.  Here’s a few of them.

Tire feed dispenser
Last week I cobbled together a rolling grain feeder to supplement some corn and soybean hulls to the young cows.   They are still growing themselves, plus feeding the calf in utero, so they could use a little extra feed.  You can see the feed dispenser in the photo below.

Every time the tire goes around, a small pile of grain is left on the ground.  The cows clean it up very well.  The “feeding frenzy” where I feed with this also helps break down the old dead grass, allowing those nutrients to cycle and feed the new grass coming up.

Breeding Heifer enterprise
An new venture we’re trying this year is bred heifer development.  We’ve always done our own, but this year we are doing it with the intention of selling them.  Since we don’t start breeding until July 15, our bulls are unemployed during the month of June when most other ranchers are breeding their heifers.   I bought a load of heifers to breed in June, which will then be sold as bred heifers this fall.  This allows us to pull double-duty from the bulls, spreading their cost out over more heifers.  It also allows us to better match our forage supply with our cow inventory.

Wagyu genetics
This spring I’ll be calving out a group of heifers bred to Wagyu bulls.  It’s the first year we’ve done this.  The calves will be destined for white-tablecloth restaurants and the Japanese market.  These calves will be fed for about 500 days after leaving here in the fall to maximize their meat quality.  Over 95% of them will grade USDA Prime (about 3% of cattle grade prime normally, although our Angus calves have done up to 20%).  The immediate benefit to us is they are very easy-calving.  This makes it easy on the first-calf heifers and easier on me, not having to help as many deliver their calf.

Double-cropping forage & grazing
The slim (or negative) profit margins on some crops has caused me to try an alternative plan on one field.  We will plant oats and peas in the spring, cut it for hay in June, and then plant a multi-species grazing crop immediately following the hay crop.  Assuming we get enough rain, this second crop will provide high-quality forage next fall for our young bred cows.  It will feed the soil as well.  Multi-species cover crops help sustain a diverse population of below-ground organisms, which in turn keep the soil healthy and productive.  I’ve seen this done successfully on other progressive operations, so I’m optimistic it will work for us.


Not everything I try works out.  I could do a multi-part journal series on those ideas that didn’t.  But I always learn something – even if it’s just what not to do.  That’s still a success in my mind.

I’ve survived so far.

“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Edison