Lessons Learned South Dakota Style, continued

Here are some more things I learned while living in South Dakota.  

I realized the abundance of wildlife that rangelands produce.  It is so different for me to be out in a pasture on the fourwheeler and see a flock of pheasants fly up, or see rabbits and deer.  I’ve seen a coyote and a badger.  When I ride a fourwheeler through my parents’ farm at home I am lucky to see a deer nibbling in an alfalfa field.  It just really hit me that all of this rangeland does so much good for the wildlife in comparison to farmed fields, and it should be protected not only for those animals but for the soil and water benefits it provides. 

Because I didn’t see a lot of wildlife at home I never realized how much habitat a hay field produces, especially for pheasants.  I was reminded of this every time I cut hay this summer and ran over a pheasant nest full of eggs.  It was like pulling a calf that doesn’t make it.  There was nothing I could do, but I felt bad anyway.  It just reminded me of nature’s life cycle and how humans have altered it so much.  Yet it is in our nature to alter the world we live in to survive, and without altering it we would not be anywhere near where we are today.  It almost seems like we have given ourselves a higher status than we deserve since we can decide the fate of animals and the land. 

When I came here I had hoped to learn to ride.  Turns out Mittens and Elmer had different ideas.  The first time I rode Elmer Lyle saddled him up for me, gave a few instructions, and turned me loose.  We only went around the yard, and it seemed to go ok.  After that I didn’t have time to ride for a while, and by the next time I did, Elmer had been taken to Luke’s and Mittens and Nelly the driving horse were brought over here.  When I wanted to ride Mittens Lyle had me saddle her with his supervision and off I went.  Well, that was what I hoped would happen.  Mittens decided she wanted to stay with Nelly and she kept trying to turn around.  We made it out to the nearest pasture and I figured once she couldn’t see Nelly she’d be more cooperative.  I underestimate horses apparently.  She not only wanted to go back to the yard, but she would take off running in that direction every chance she got.  This happened the next time I took her out as well.  Lyle told me to show her who was boss and to give her a kick when she was naughty.  Since I wasn’t raised with or around horses, I was afraid that if I gave her a little kick that she would go off running.  So I didn’t.  Moral of the story is that Mittens got the best of me this summer and I still haven’t learned to ride properly.

If I learned that South Dakota horses aren’t all that good to me, it is the opposite when it comes to the people here.  I have met nice people everywhere I have lived, but this is the smallest town I have lived near, and maybe that is the reason for everyone’s kindness. 

I have gotten lessons in gardening, baking, cooking, and canning while living with the Permans.  The women of this family are training me well to feed a future husband.  I learned that you shouldn’t plant potatoes in the same place two years in a row.  I learned to make homemade bread, caramel rolls, and kuchen.  Living out here has taught me to make use of what you have and that making homemade meals is really appreciated among family and guests alike. 

I have also gotten it in my head that I want to learn to be better with tools, be able to do some woodworking, have chickens and some cows, make as much of my own food as I can, and have an assortment of animals running around.  I am contemplating the benefits of staying home to raise your own kids versus sending them to a daycare.  I have been told my whole life to get a good job, but now I wonder if it wouldn’t be so bad to stay home for a few years to raise kids.  It would seem like those first years of a child’s life would be more important that some career.  That is how I grew up, how my boyfriend grew up, and how both my parents grew up.  And we all turned out pretty darn good.  There must be something there to attest to that.  It’s just one of many things that I have second-guessed by being here.

I also second-guessed my plans for after I graduate college.  I figured I would find a full time job with the NRCS right away, or maybe even try out some temporary jobs for a year or so.  I had no intentions whatsoever of going to grad school.  Last year I was so sick of college that I wanted to be done with it as soon as I could.  But the more I learned from working here and from the people I met this summer, the more grad school and doing research is interesting me.  I have no idea where I will go or the specifics of what I will study, but now at least I am thinking about it, and am pretty sure I want to spend another two years of my life in school.

Lastly, I learned that it is most definitely worth it to buy a $600 plane ticket or drive most of a day to see someone you love, even if you are a poor college student.  My boyfriend is 1200 miles and 20 hours of driving away and will be that way until Christmas.  My parents are 10 hours away, and my sisters are scattered.  Skype and phone calls can only do so much.  Perhaps being so far from everyone I love has made me appreciate the times I have with them so much more.  

Lessons Learned South Dakota Style

I’m having a hard time trying to organize my thoughts for this journal entry.  I was told to write about what I have learned and gotten out of this summer.  But it shouldn’t be just about work.  I was told, “For example, maybe write about what it was like to live an hour and a half from the nearest Walmart.   People like to hear personal stories.”  When thinking about what I have learned or experienced, Walmart never once popped into my mind.  But here are a few things that did.

I learned that even if everyone says tick season is over, it never actually is.  I’ve been hearing this for the past couple of weeks, and two days ago I pulled eight off in one day, and one a day for the three days before that.  I have yet to get Lyme disease, but that is only by the miracle that no ticks have made it up into my hair where it would take shaving my head to find them.  I’ve also experienced my first chigger bite, or I should say my first dozen chigger bites. 

Just yesterday it was reinforced that I could do things on my own even if I have never done it before and if I felt like I couldn’t.  I went out to record the different species of plants that were found near the creek that runs by the driveway using something called the step-point method which is where you take a predetermined amount of steps in one direction and at the last step you look at what plant is touching your boot tip.  My plant ID has gotten better than when I first started here, but I still didn’t think it would be sufficient to name the plants I saw.  Another problem that presented itself was that the method I was using would have worked better in much shorter vegetation.  When I stepped what ended up touching my boot was a bent over piece of grass instead of the base of a plant.  I ended up trying to dig around to find exactly what plant I needed in order to be as accurate as I could, which was time consuming.  It was also frustrating when I couldn’t find the plant in the ID book I had with me.  But lo and behold, I completed my task and what didn’t get identified I took home for a second look-through with the book.  I’ve had many similar cases throughout the summer where I think to myself, “Luke honestly thinks I can do this alone?”  And most of the time it turned out that he was right. 

Most everything I did here probably took me at least twice as long as it takes Luke or Lyle to do, but it was all a learning experience for me.  I knew it before this summer, but it was reinforced that if you want to do something right, you may need to take extra time to do it.  And the extra time will be reflected in the output and its quality. 

Along with taking the time to do things right, asking questions is strongly encouraged especially if the answer will speed up your project.  I remember the first or second time I had to roll up the temporary polywire and something went wrong (actually something usually goes wrong when I roll up polywire, but that’s a whole other story).  Instead of calling the house and figuring out how I could do it faster, I rolled it up by hand which seemed like it took 2 1/2; hours, which it very well could have.  When I got back I showed someone the spool that wouldn’t turn for me, and easy enough they showed me how to make it turn which could have saved me an hour and a half. 

I learned to be prepared.  If I get sent out to do something on my own chances are that I would forget some critical piece of equipment.  Whether it was a spare pen to write things down if I lost the one I had (which happened more than once) or if it was a post pounder that I forgot I needed because 5 1/2; foot steel posts don’t just drive themselves into the ground.  Many times I was far from the thing I forgot, so I had to waste more time going back to get it.  Needless to say, I have been getting better at double checking my equipment before I leave the yard.

There is more that I learned, but I don't want to bore you all in one sitting.  Stay tuned for another exciting post about my experiences in South Dakota.

To be continued…

Drinking from a fire hose

On Monday I drove a van load of people (including Dad and Kelly) to the Bismark area to attend a grazing tour.  It was part of the three-day Grassfed Exchange Conference happening this week in Bismark.  We toured two ranches that are progressive in their grazing and cropping systems.  Several speakers, in addition to the ranchers themselves, spoke about a variety of subjects.

We're not really into the grassfed thing.  Not that we are opposed to it, rather we just aren't set up for it.  Regardless, the information presented was outstanding.

There was a lot of knowledge present at the tour.  Seed selection, forage management, carbon to nitrogren ratios, fungi/bacterial interactions, animal performance and management, soil health, insects, chickens, winter feeding options, pH of cow urine…the list just went on and on.  If the 100 degree August day didn't fry my brain, the information overload took care of whatever was left.

I don't yet know how to apply about 85% of what I learned…it was more of an introduction to new ideas than anything.  However, here are a few takeaways I had:

– Grass finishing takes more than just some grass and a critter.  It takes skill in animal selection, forage management, and animal management.  Not to take away anything from conventional feedlot managers, but it appears to me that grass finishing requires a higher level of skill regarding feed management due to the variability present in a grassland environment.  Corn is corn, no matter if it is July or January.  Forages change not just season to season, but hour to hour.

– Nature has purpose.  Gabe Brown, whose ranch we toured, spoke about his diverse cover crop mixes (16 or more different species planted in a field at the same time).  He is basically trying to mimic native rangeland by planting many different crops at once in order to feed the variety of below-ground soil bugs.  This is what creates healthy soil.  When asked about weeds, he said he doesn't mind them at all.  He figures weeds are nature's way of telling him "hey, you forgot something!" 

– It's complicated.  I heard different people say we should be measuring soil fungi levels, soil organic material, plant brix levels, cow urine or dung pH (depending on who you ask), water infiltration rate, soil biology levels, carbon:nitorgen ratio, and soil nutrient levels.  I think I forgot some too.  That's in addition to what I'm already measuring: rainfall, forage production, ground cover, and plant species diversity.  How does anyone keep track of all that, much less manage for it?  These are all probably worthwhile things to measure.  I find it interesting that we as humans like to find that "one thing" that seems drives everything else and then tinker with it…until we find the next "one thing." 

I came away with a renewed appreciaton for the importance of diversity in our range ecosystem.  What can I do to maintain and/or improve diversity?  It sounds counterintuitive, but I think by working on creating a diverse landscape, it makes my management simpler.  Nature can manage the complexities rather well when we get out of the way it seems.  That doesn't mean leaving it alone – it just means playing by the rules.