Not the Same: Intern Conclusions

The following entry will be the last from Garth Gatson, our summer intern.  I hope you've enjoyed the perspective he's shared here, at least as much as we've enjoyed having him with us.  Hopefully he benefited as much from his time with us as we did from having him here.  Keep his name in the back of your mind, you just might hear it again someday.  Garth has a bright future ahead of him.  



Incredibly enough, summer has come and gone and I find myself back in class at the University of Missouri. After spending three months at RHR, I have been back in my own backyard for over a week now. I have a week of classes behind me, I’ve looked over all the cattle here at home, and things are back in the groove as if I had never even left.

Well, almost.

 When I was researching the philosophers for my last entry I ran across a quote that fits pretty well here.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”-Heraclitus

I don’t know if this is true for rivers, but I can tell you for certain that it is true of farms and ranches. In many ways both quantifiable and abstract, I did not return to the same farm that I had left in May. The rains came early and often in Missouri this summer, and as a result our crops look better than ever. Our corn has a chance to average 200 bushels per acre, and our beans look fantastic as well. The calves that were quite small when I left gained a couple hundred pounds over the summer and now look quite different. What was an empty space of lot behind my house when I left for South Dakota has been covered with gravel, and piers have been poured for a big new shop that is about to be built. 

The people have changed too. My sister lived off the farm during the summer for the first time and worked at a bank in Columbia. My cousin was married over the summer and moved from the farm to Kansas City. This was the first summer that I hadn’t spent on the farm, so Dad did several things differently without me around to work. It also gave him a chance to look at the farm and its future a little differently.

The biggest change, however, is in me. The things that I learned and experienced this summer affected me permanently.  I’ve learned that there are different ways to do almost everything. From working cattle to cutting hay to establishing long term goals for a business, everything can be done a little differently. I have learned to do things differently, but also to think about things differently as well. Luke often talks about paradigm shifts and cultivating the ability to see opportunities in what once looked like challenges.

I’ve learned that you don’t really have to know how to do something to give it a try. Several times this summer while working on a project I would ask Luke how he wanted me to do something. He would often reply with something like, “I don’t know; I’ve never done this before. What do you think?”. It wasn’t that Luke had no idea what he was doing; it was simply that he was trying something for the first time and ironing out the process as he went. I learned that if you only do what you already know how to do really well, you end up limiting yourself. At some point planning and research can only take you so far, and it is time to try new things out for yourself.

And most importantly, I’ve learned that it is people that really make the difference. I am someone who can get along just fine spending all day by myself baling hay or fixing fence. While I certainly enjoy being with my family very much, I can also learn to spend my summer 800 miles away from home. But being with people you enjoy certainly makes a difference. While I rarely left the ranch this summer, plenty of visitors made their way through RHR. Garnet tells me that the number for the summer is approaching 500, and I have had the opportunity to visit and spend time with many of them. I appreciate the knowledge and entertainment that each of them brought to the ranch. What I enjoyed the most, however, was simply being able to live and work with the Perman family. Lyle, Garnet, Luke, Naomi, Isaac, Ella, and Grandma Vivian all played a special part in making my summer enjoyable. For trips to Akaska, lunch in the tractor, warm kouchen, pictures from the summer, a portrait from Ella to “Mr. Garth”, and a thousand other things large and small, I owe the Perman family a very big thank-you. Most of all, I am thankful simply to call them my friends.

I am happy to be back on my own farm again, but it is not the same farm. And I am not the same man.

Ranching with Philosophers

Our resident expert on classical philosophy and high culture, Luke, quoted Aristotle a couple of mornings ago. As I was trying to put together this journal entry I knew what I wanted to write about, but I wasn’t quite sure how to spin it. After several frustrated attempts, I remembered Luke’s quotation and it seemed to fit. I found a couple more quotes from famous historical philosophers, and I think that they outline my thoughts pretty well.

(Note: As far as I know Luke isn’t really an expert on classical philosophy or high culture, but he did quote Aristotle.)

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.       -Epictetus

This quote goes to the heart of nearly everything we do here at the ranch. A few overarching principles are an important foundation for decisions. These include things such as a desire to promote soil health, protect water quality, provide habitat for wildlife, manage productive grasslands, and cost effectively produce quality beef. Determining goals such as these fits with the first half of the above quote. The second half gets down to the application. It is important to remember how daily tasks such as estimating forage production, moving electric fence, and checking water tanks fit into the big picture. Without a guiding plan these tasks become meaningless. Without proper application the big goals become hollow. This summer I have learned the importance of both of them, and the necessity of teaming the two together.

 It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.       –Aristotle

Last week Lyle and I attended a North Dakota Grasslands Coalition ranch tour of Fettig Land & Cattle Company near Napoleon, ND. The Fettig family runs a unique and somewhat unconventional operation. From May to October they custom graze over 1100 head of yearling heifers. These cattle are all kept in one herd that is moved to a new pasture at least every other day, and sometimes as often as every 6-8 hours. Their pasture sizes are quite small (never more than about 35 acres and sometimes as little as 3-5 acres), meaning that their stocking density is very high. Over the course of the summer this one herd will graze more than 70 different pastures. On the Fettig operation every permanent fence is a single strand of high tensile smooth energized wire, which is also somewhat uncommon.

The Fettigs have been able to entertain a thought, or in this case a century’s worth of traditional ranching thoughts, without excepting it. Instead they have evaluated for themselves what methods best allow them to reach their management goals. Similarly, we work to explore new ideas here at RHR. Some of them are accepted and implemented on the ranch, others are discarded in favor of other techniques. I have always enjoyed toying with new ideas, and I have been given plenty to consider here.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.       –Plutarch

This quote represents the most valuable things that I have garnered from my time at Rock Hills Ranch. That is not to say that I haven’t picked up directly applicable skills and knowledge. From grassland management to grazing system development, from hay production to livestock handling procedures, and from equipment operation to fence construction, I have absolutely learned things that I will take home with me and put to use. These are the small end, however, when compared to the new way I have of looking at all aspects of ranch management. Now more than ever I see the opportunities that abound everywhere. I have come to recognize that there are different ways to do almost everything. Whether the old way seems perfect as it is or less than ideal but stubbornly unavoidable, I have learned that there are other means to reach the same end point. Some of these ways may be better. Some of them certainly aren’t as good. But at the end of the day there are other ways, and at least some of these methods merit further consideration and exploration.

(Author’s note: I am down to my last 96 hours here at RHR, but I will have at least one more journal entry sometime in the next couple of weeks. That entry will likely be some sort of a summary of my internship.)

Hay by the Numbers



July has been hay month here at Rock Hills Ranch. With the tours, rain, and pheasant hatch behind us, we are free to put up hay at a pretty good rate. I've always kind of been a numbers guy, and lately I have been noticing all the numbers surrounding hay production. I happened to have the camera with me on the baler yesterday, so I took some pictures of a few of the numbers I came across. My little numbers list here is in no way exhaustive, but I hope that it is enough to give you a taste of life on the baler.


4.7 mph 591 rpm 6:34 CDT

4.7 is my speed. I usually bale at about 6 mph over good smooth ground, but I will go slower if the ground is rough, I am starting a bale, or I am trying to take a picture of the control panel. 591 is the revolutions per minute of the power take-off shaft, and is a measure of how fast the baler is picking hay up off the ground and spinning the new bale. I try to keep it about 600 in most cases. 6:34 is, of course, my time of day.

11.8 percent moisture

The black probe pictured here is a hay moisture tester. I insert the two foot long probe into the round side of the bale and push the moisture button to get a reading. Ideally, we will bale hay when it is between 10 and 20 percent moisture. Wetter than that and we run the risk of hay spoiling or catching fire in the stack, dryer than that and we lose a lot of the high quality leaves in the baling process. If hay gets too dry we will quit baling until evening comes, at which point the rising humidity will make the hay wet enough to bale again.


1020 bales

This is my bale counter on the baler. 1020 is the number of bales that we have made for the year. We will probably do somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 or 1600 bales this year, so we are well over half way done now.

90.7 degrees Fahrenheit

This is the infrared heat gun that we use to check bearings on the baler. At the end of the day I will usually check all the bearings to see if any of them are abnormally hot. In addition to causing mechanical problems within the baler, a hot bearing can start a fire in a hurry with so much dry hay flying around. At home in Missouri I have had to use the fire extinguisher on baler bearing fires more than once. Detecting them early with this heat gun is a better way to go.

A few other numbers from hay season:

32 or 38– number of bales that go in a stack

1500— approximate weight, in pounds, of a bale of hay

7090— New Holland baler model that we use

40— approximate number of bales that one bundle of twine will string

1420— dial position of ESPN radio, my tractor entertainment source

18— width, in feet, of one swath cut by the hay mower

There are plenty of other numbers that surround hay season, but I think you get the idea. Doing hay is something that I enjoy, and this summer I have done quite a bit of it. I have seen and done a lot of interesting things here at Rock Hills Ranch over the past two months. I hope to communicate a few more of them to you over the rest of my time here, now down to less than a month.