By Troy Smith
Both had been raised in south-central South Dakota, but each lived in a different community and attended a different school. Each knew who the other was, but they weren’t well acquainted. The day of her aunt’s estate sale was the first time Sara Sutton and Rich Grim had shared an actual conversation. It was a short one.
“The sale included between 40 and 50 ranch horses,” recalls Sara. “I think Rich ended up buying three of them. I know he bought one that was a favorite of mine.”
Sara was kicking herself for not bidding during the auction when her father suggested that the new owner might part with the animal if he were offered a profit.
“So, I went up to Rich and asked if he would sell the horse to me for fifty dollars over the price he paid for it. He flatly refused and it made me sort of mad,” tells Sara. “I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t sell that horse to me and make a quick fifty bucks!”
She didn’t stay mad for long. Soon after that day, Sara and Rich began conversing on a fairly regular basis. In fact, it wasn’t too long before he proposed and she accepted.
“I tell people that I had to marry him to get that horse back,” laughs Sara.
Asked if he might have sold the horse if Sara had offered a little more boot, Rich just grins and shakes his head.
“No; it was a really good horse,” he says, eyes twinkling. “Doesn’t matter anyway. Everything turned out okay.”
After about 40 years, things still are pretty “okay” with Rich and Sara Grim. They have raised and married off three daughters. One of them, Mollie, lives just a mile or so down the valley, with her family. She and husband Seth Andrews are involved with the Grim ranching operation located north and a little west of Bonesteel, South Dakota.
Through the years, careful grazing management and savvy marketing has helped make the ranch business resilient, even in the wake of the area’s periodic droughts and sometimes severe winter weather. Sara credits Rich for good stewardship – as good and maybe better than the management provided by her father and grandfather. For the next generation to carry on the tradition, however, Rich and Sara need to gain control over a serious threat to the ranch’s future – encroachment by eastern red cedar. It’s a worry that previous generations didn’t have.
You wouldn’t know it now, but when Sara’s Grandpa Sutton came to the Missouri River breaks and began ranching along the west side of the big river, trees were scarce. That was in 1929, and the rugged hills supported few trees of any kind during the subsequent years that Sara’s father ran the ranch. Things were changing by 1982, when her father’s accidental death prompted Sara and Rich to cut their college educations short.
“We were all going to school in Texas – Rich and I, and my brother Bill,” tells Sara, explaining how all returned to South Dakota and divided the ranch into two operations. In retrospect, the eastern red cedar population was increasing at that time, but few if any ranchers saw it as a threat.
The Grims got busy building up their own operation and working off-ranch jobs to help pay for the land purchased from Sara’s widowed mother, and additional land acquired over time. Sara worked in town for over 20 years, including a long stint as treasurer for Gregory County. Rich took a job he still holds, as a local brand inspector serving two area auction barns each week, and providing on-ranch inspections required for private treaty sales or removal of livestock from the west river inspection area.
Through the years, the couple built up their spring-calving cow herd, plus a smaller herd of fall-calvers. Two calf crops have afforded more marketing opportunity for calves backgrounded on the ranch and sold as heavy feeders. Annual forage crops have been grown to supplement the native hay harvest, while the custom-farmed corn ground yields grain for calf-growing rations.
Efficient use of grazing land often hinges on stock water accessibility. Like many west river South Dakotans, Grims make use of run-off water captured in stock dams. However, their portion of the Missouri corridor is blessed with artesian water activity that affords several flowing wells. Additionally, Grims have added stock watering sites fed, via pipeline, by a local rural water system. With water available, large pastures could be cross-fenced to create smaller pastures used in rotation.
But it’s discouraging to work hard and spend considerable sums of money to improve grazing land, and at the same time see the quality of that same land decline due to thickening stands of cedars. Rich notes how draws in many pastures became so cedar-choked that getting through was impossible, either by vehicle or on horseback. It makes livestock handling difficult.
“The only way to get through is on your hands and knees,” says Rich. “And there’s the loss of production. In some parts of these hills, the amount of land that once supported 10 cows now supports only three.”
Some people point to the fact that eastern red cedar is native to the area, and have blamed the cedar encroachment on poor grazing management. They claim overgrazing has weakened forage plants to the extent that they can’t compete with cedars. South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension Range Management Specialist Sandy Smart disagrees.
“Cedar trees can be found on acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (previously cultivated land that is not grazed). And cedar populations are increasing on rangeland whether it is grazed heavily or moderately,” explains Smart. “Grazing pressure has little to do with it.”
Then why are ranchers and other land managers seeing what some call the “green glacier” creep steadily across the landscape? According to Smart, it’s owed to a combination of contributing factors – both cultural and biological.
It started when this once tree-scarce country was opened to homesteaders – people from the eastern U.S. and European immigrants accustomed to the protection and aesthetics trees can provide. The U.S. government encouraged tree-planting by homesteaders through the Timber Culture Act. Later, in the 1930s, government conservation programs promoted establishment of shelterbelts. For decades, the hardy, fast growing (up to a foot per year) and inexpensive eastern red cedar has been a popular tree species for this purpose and for planting in and around recreational areas.
According to Smart, these collective efforts resulted in relatively large stands of trees that became bountiful sources of seed. Eastern red cedar is a prolific producer of fruit – small blue berries that are consumed by birds who spread seeds through their droppings. That’s why cedar seedlings commonly sprout along fencelines, under powerlines and just about anywhere birds roost.
Smart says a significant factor contributing to the spread of cedars has been the lack of fire. Historically, periodic fires ignited by lightning or by Native Americans controlled the spread of cedars on the semi-arid plains. But from homesteading days forward, an anti-fire culture has dictated that willfully setting a fire is foolish. It’s understandable that farmers and ranchers wanted to protect their land, livestock and improvements, but an uncompromising opposition to fire has had long-term consequences.
“The prevailing culture has seen fire as bad, but fire can be a good thing. It can be used as a management tool,” states Smart. “The idea of using fire strategically has been adopted in states to our south, and prescribed burning for control of cedars is gaining some acceptance here, not only by landowners but among government agency personnel and private conservation groups. In my mind, it’s necessary.”
Gregory County shares its southern border with Nebraska, so the Grims and neighboring ranchers had seen evidence of prescribed fire. They’ve seen smoke plumes rising from prescribed burns that a Nebraska landowner-group has conducted across the border. And while the South Dakotans had begun using mechanical controls (chain saws and tree shears) they were convinced that those time-consuming and costly measures might never stem the tide of cedars. They decided to follow the Nebraska example and get organized.
Grims credit fellow-rancher Dave Steffen for getting the ball rolling. A former Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) employee, Steffen knew which conservation-focused organizations and government entities ought to be interested in supporting prescribed burning and started making contacts. Among the first to lend a hand was the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, who helped fund a survey to gauge landowner interest in joining a cooperative effort to utilize prescribed fire.
Steffen says rancher responses were mostly positive, but some landowners were dead-set against the idea. The initial feedback from various state and federal agency folk was not encouraging, showing just how ingrained the anti-fire culture can be. Steffen, Grims and other pro-fire ranchers kept presenting evidence that cedars left unchecked crowd out prairie plant species important not only to grazing cattle, but to wildlife.
“It surprised quite a few people when we showed them how the cedar canopy already (in 2012) covered 30 percent of Gregory County,” says Steffen, explaining that the movement finally gained enough traction to establish the Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association, in 2016.
The Association, which includes Gregory, Charles Mix, Brule and Lyman counties, is led by a board of directors comprised mostly of landowners, but one seat is occupied by local SDSU Extension Range Management Field Specialist Sean Kelly. He praises the group’s focus on training the volunteers involved in planning and conducting prescribed burns. And with the successful completion of 22 burns for 11 different landowner-members, the Association has gained credibility. Kelly says interest in prescribed burning continues to grow.
“More agency personnel are starting to come around,” says Kelly, explaining that NRCS has been the main player so far, providing grants to fund training and purchases of equipment.
“NRCS has offered a program for sharing landowner costs of cutting or shearing trees, but they’re recognizing that it can be much more effective when followed up with prescribed burning. Now they’re offering to help compensate ranchers for deferring grazing of pastures prior to burning. The standing forage provides the fine fuel needed for an effective burn, but it represents a cost,” adds Kelly.
The Association has also applied for an NRCS grant to help fund fire-related research. The goal is to have SDSU graduate students gather additional evidence of the positive and potentially negative effects of fire on rangeland, as well as methods for safely achieving the most intense and effective burns.
“SDSU is supportive; it wants to be involved,” affirms Kelly. “I’ve been authorized to dedicate a third of my time to promoting prescribed burning.”
No one is more enthused about the Association’s success than its secretary, Sara Grim. She’s a vocal proponent of planned, strategic fire, especially since she and Rich are realizing its benefits on their own ranch.
“It just makes good sense to us. Fire is the most efficient and cost-effective tool for controlling cedar trees,” states Sara. “And we’ve got to control them if we’re going to pass on a viable and sustainable ranch.”