Lush green native pastures, blooming wildflowers and yucca cactus flourish on the rolling hills of the Mortenson Ranch north of Fort Pierre. A tranquil, winding stream flows through the middle of one of the sections of the ranch, framing an idyllic setting for raising cattle.
Last week, our South Dakota Ag and Rural Leadership class visited the Mortenson ranch. Todd, the owner along with his brothers, is one of our classmates. We spent an afternoon learning about life in the center of the state and the focus on holistic ranch management.
The primary goal of the family has been to return the land to its condition prior to white settlement while maintaining a profitable cattle ranch operation.
Standing on one of the high points, to the east we could see the Oahe River filled to the brim. To the north, the Cheyenne River overflowed its bank, covering many acres of what would be pasture for the Mortensons. Todd and his wife, Deb, live near Foster Creek, a smaller stream. Their sons, Quint and Jack, have been involved in the operation, too.
We took pickups cross country to look at some of the areas, including a place where “cannonballs” came down Foster Creek. Todd described these anomalies as starting out as a rock that becomes covered with gumbo, picking up grass, dirt and other debris as it comes down the creek, and is eventually deposited at the outlet. Some of these grow to a couple feet across.
Grasses were lush. Todd said that he’s never seen it look so good. The area generally gets about 11 inches of rain in a year; this year it’s been closer to 25. The flora has responded. Todd told us, “This area is like a Serta mattress for the cows.”
In the 1980s, Todd learned about holistic management that moves cattle across the land similar to the movement of buffalo herds. In the spring, the herds graze on grasses in riparian areas while stamping seeds into the ground to help establish trees and grasses. In summer, the cattle are moved to the uplands. In the 1990s, researchers observed a substantial increase in native tree and shrub species along the ranch’s streams, as well as an impressive increase in wildlife populations. In addition, the Mortensons’ efforts have led to a significant decrease in sediment flowing through creeks on the ranch.
The Mortensons believe that plants produce more forage when about half the leaf material is left to grow.
Clarence Mortenson, Todd’s dad, is quoted in a publication as saying, “I started planting trees in 1950, hand-planting them down the length of Todd’s draw. In 1962, a very dry summer destroyed them all. I realized that without restoring the water table under the riparian area, tree planting was a futile effort.”
A series of relatively small dams were created to hold silt, yet leak enough water to flow during dry times. This work has resulted in trees and shrubs lining the draw. The natural areas provide areas for the cattle to go during storms and a cool shelter during hot days
It’s clear to see that the Mortenson ranch should be chosen for this year’s Leopold Conservation Award. It will be presented at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention on December 7 in Pierre.
Work well done!