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.

Gully Washers and Goals


                “Man, oh man!” my teen age cousin exclaimed as he slipped out of the bed in our basement bedroom and stepped into ankle deep water.  Outdoors the wind blew and  an inch of rain poured from the heavens.  Water spurted from the cracks in the foundation and leaked in the east windows. We spent the next hour cleaning up the mess. 

 Mopping up our old house’s basement after a heavy rain happened on a fairly regular basis in the early years of our life on the ranch.  The house sat about halfway down a slope that empties into a creek that runs through our corrals.  Every time Mother Nature unleashed a gully washer water ran in the basement.

Mostly what we remember about the late 1970’s and all of the 1980’s is the dry years, but even in the midst of the dry, there were significant rain events.  May 9, 1986 was memorable.  Everyplace else in the area might have had the wettest May on record this year, but the Lowry area got 12 inches of rain that day.  Bridges and culverts along Swan Creek washed out.  The Jim Gregory family evacuated their house in Lowry, and Donna gave birth to JT later that day.   Everybody had water in their basement that night.  That was to be expected, but Rock Hills Ranch had water issues whenever it rained enough to make the creek run.  If the creek ran, our driveway usually flooded accompanied by heavy water erosion in the waterways.

Last Sunday (6-14-15) morning we had a gully washer like we haven’t experienced for a while.  With 1.35 inches in a little over an hour, the rain was a heavy gray curtain that obscured our view of the far corrals.  The house stayed dry –only a rain of Noah like proportions will flood the basement of this house. The creek ran wide.  A few years ago we wouldn’t have gotten to church because the creek would have run over the driveway.  It wasn’t on Sunday. The culvert by the mailbox should have been gushing onto the neighbor’s pasture.  It wasn’t.  By evening, there wasn’t a puddle anyplace.  The water all soaked in.  So what changed between our nephew’s night time wading experience and now? 

When we first started running cattle, bare spots could be seen between clumps of grass in our pastures.  Thirty years ago we switched to a rotational grazing system.  The healing process takes time but now the ground is completely covered.  The grass residue slows the water down and allows it to quickly infiltrate.  My rancher’s stated goal is to not let a drop of water leave the ranch.  Last Sunday was a goal realized.  

New innovation will make your haystacks grow!

Have you ever heard of a rancher giving his cows all the hay they will need for the entire winter on December 1?  Of course not, they would waste way too much of it.  Instead, cattlemen will spend lots of money to be more efficient at feeding harvested feeds.  It bothers us ranchers to see cows wasting a bunch of hay in the winter.  That's because we worked dang hard getting that hay put up, racing the thunderstorm to get it baled before the rain.  Then we had to fight the cold weather and the gelled-up tractor to get it hauled out to them, and now they are just pooping all over it and standing at the gate wanting some of that second-cutting alfalfa they know is in the yard.  Ungrateful cows!  So we buy bale rings, bale processors, feed wagons, feed-efficient bulls, etc in order to cut that winter feed bill.  Some solutions are cheap(er) such as bale rings (but the "haysaver" bale rings cost more, of course!).  Others are expensive to buy, and expensive to operate, such as grinders and processors.  And yes, these things help efficiency.  But none of those things make the haystack actually get bigger.  Few of them make the cattle healthier or gain weight better.  All decline in value over time. 

There's another "innovation" out there to increase feeding efficiency.  This innovation has the potential to do the following:

– decrease feeding losses by up to 30%
– increase animal performance
– increase the size of your feed pile (yep, you read that right!)
– make your feed stocks less suceptible to drought

Before I reveal this ground-breaking innovation, how much do you think that would be worth?  INCREASE the size of your hay pile?  That's crazy talk!  Less affected by drought?  30% less feed waste?  What kind of miracle machine or tool are we dealing with?   Where's the nearest dealer?

The tool is a really old one.  It's called "fence" and "water".  (Ok it's really two tools.)

Let's go back to that dumb rancher who gave his cows the whole winter's worth of hay on December 1.  How short-sighted of him!  Yet, how many neighbors do you have that do the exact same thing with their summer "feed"?  You see, the same rules apply – plus a few new ones. 

Fence and water allow you to restrict what cattle have access to.  Controlling the availability of forage the cattle have access to makes them eat things they might not otherwise.  This is akin to only feeding your cows a day or two's worth of hay during the winter.  You want them to "clean up" their plate before you give them more.  Same thing applies on pasture.  Season-long grazing averages around 20-25% harvest efficiency (that means the cow actually only eats 20-25% of the production).  The rest gets over-mature or pooped on.  That 20-25% probably comes from the same plants being grazed over and over again, weakening their root systems.  More intesnive grazing systems can have harvest efficiencies of 40-60% without damaging the plants being consumed.  The reason is that the plant has adequate time to recover before being eaten again, unlike the plant that is bitten off over and over again in the season-long system. 

Fence and water also allow us to place cattle in the right place at the right time, and keep the cattle from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  By allowing pastures adequate rest between grazing events, the quality of the feed goes up.  There will be less overly mature, unpalatable grasses.  The amount of feed increases as well, because the plants are able to develop more extensive root systems.  (This is where your "feed pile" actually gets bigger!).  When the grass has a chance to rest, it can compete with weed pressure better as well.  More developed roots allow them to weather droughts better, and absorb more moisture in wet years. 

Fence and water tanks decline in value over time too, just like other feeding equipment.  However, they increase the value of the land by helping the rancher to grow more grass and to harvest it more efficiently.  And they can cost substantially less than winter feeding equipment.  I would argue that a dollar wisely spent on summer "feeding equipment" could return ten times more than the same dollar spent on winter feeding equipment.

I hope more cattlemen start viewing their summer grass with the same attitude they do their winter hay.  It has the potential to be a real game-changer for many operations.