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As I sort photos for a newspaper story… it seems a good time to share the random thoughts and images recorded while driving through America’s Heartland from deadline to deadline the last few summers. Much of it, the things I see, but don’t have time to stop for picturing, as I’m always running late for the next deadline. Feel the copious doses of Vitamin D, long days, warm sunshine, rural lands…
Birds of flight soar between tufts of congregating clouds. Snowy white egrets glow sunset silver above crystal blue lakes… Appearing out of nowhere, they punctuate the landscape and reflect the vivid sky.
Working metal parked by barns take on the rust red hue.
Birds dance atop fields of corn … a burst of orange Tanager, brilliant Blue Bird, the acrobatic, ever-present Swallows, A woodpecker’s crisp white-wing slices the air…
and swallow-like … the sweeps and turns of the yellow crop-duster — left side, right side. Now you see him. Now you don’t.
Sunlight plays off green waves of midseason soybean.
Corn, gold-fringe tasseled under the brilliant moon.
Tractors on a mission up and down the road… Everyone waves.
From Wisconsin to the Buffalo Ridge of Minnesota to Sioux Country and the Western Skies Scenic Byway…
Rolling, potholed landscape almost like that of the Dakotas — where wheatgrass shimmers silvery and sage brushes gold the green sheen dotted by low cedars. But in western Iowa, gentler are the dips melding to the flat, allowing crops to be planted in organized rows that curve to the contours of the land.
Proud large Hawk atop a Green Barn. No time to stop.
Cattle graze juxtaposed with large wind turbines of the Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota.
Rising tall and metallic from the carpet of green… grain elevators every 20 or 30 miles.
Lines of tractors and implements in a rainbowed density of reds, orange, greens and golds.
Small towns fringed with angularly parked pickup trucks – clods of dirt between treads as the creases of hard working hands at the wheel.
Flags diffuse light on front porches… proud fabric flies in the midst of cornfields, lining small town streets, atop grain elevators and silos.
Synergy: old barns juxtaposed with new. Wood, weathered by age, what stories have they seen, will they tell?
An old man’s grave from the 1800’s, buried right where he fell walking home from church… a family farming there now farms around the odd space each season.
From the pushed up earth to the flats where one imagines torrents of water resting to round sharp edges into mounds that become smaller as they come together in a swath that eventually lay across miles so flat as to suggest no horizon.
Radio on. Squawking the town’s happenings: a Saturday night fire hall dinner. The local softball standings. A community parade. Radio commentary so thick with farm talk and market reports, suggesting an area, an era, insulated from the coldness of an outside world depending on them for sustenance.
Delicate hues soften weathered wood.
Sandpipers and plover find morsels of grain amid a stiffened manure lagoon.
Two white ducks peer into a farm shop door. Two pigs laying on the concrete stare back… and the chorus that accompanies the leisurely standoff.
A sun-bleached road like ribbon punched through rain-fed emerald green soybeans disappears into another sea foam green of a grassy knoll, meeting the blended hues of the evening’s summer sky.
Imagine millions of buffalo thundering across grasslands extending into what seems infinity….
There are a few billion more humans on the planet today than when settlers first homesteaded the Great Plains. Buffalo numbers dwindled, but over the past 100 years, herds like the one at Custer State Park, South Dakota, have bolstered the North American population to half a million.
On September 25, 2015, a record 21,000 people watched 15 park staff and 30 volunteer cowboys and girls gather-in around 1200 head of buffalo during the park’s 50th annual Buffalo Roundup — a far cry from the 200 people attending the first roundup in 1965.
While the roundup has a purpose for vaccinating, sorting sale stock and branding, it is also an event shared with the public to appreciate.
A month-long process, the work begins with locating the bison throughout the park so that on Roundup Day the groups can be easily brought together and pushed past droves of spectators to the corrals for the variety of annual management tasks.
The event is both practical and “spiritual” notes Craig Pugsley who has since retired from the park service.
He has been here for at least 40 of the 55 annual roundups and he says the attendance really ramped up after the movie “Dances with Wolves” recaptured America’s appreciation of the West and its buffalo. The event also spawns a weekend of art festivals and activities that bring end-of-season tourism dollars to the local economy.
One year (2016), cattle rancher and then Speaker of the House Dean Wink was the South Dakota flag bearer. He has ridden the buffalo roundup quite a few times, but bearing the state flag was a special honor in 2016.
Two years previous, in 2014, both Dean and his wife Joan rode as they have several years before.
In 2018, I was surprised to learn I knew someone else riding, cattle rancher Scott Phillips, in appreciation for his work on the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission.
In 2016 year, I met this interesting old-timer, Bob Lantis. He has ridden in at least 42 Custer Roundups. He was for many years the herdsman. In 2016, I found him surrounded by the international press pool of photographers and reporters fascinated by him and his ‘killer horse’ Chip. They were hanging on every word Lantis said as he gave this advice on avoiding the prairie dog holes when there’s no time to pick your path. What a metaphor for life.
“Dig your heels deep in the stirrups, keep your eyes forward, and go!” — Bob Lantis.
Wish you were there? Me too. So…. ‘saddle up’ and ‘ride’ along (photos, captions and slideshow below from 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018!)
The morning is crystal clear and cold. At 31 degrees, I need my ice scraper to lift the frozen film of overnight dew clinging to the windshield!
Sometimes it even snows, like in 2018.
By 6 a.m. as the line of cars snake into the park, the temp reaches 45. Some years, the temp will go from 30 in the early morning to topping 80 by mid-afternoon!
Crowds assemble and enjoy a pancake breakfast. The media area includes journalists from around the world and two documentary film crews, including Smithsonian.
In the media area, we are each given a number designating a truck to hop on when the herd passes by… to follow along. 8 trucks. Lots of cameras.
A delayed start safely clears the park of vehicles and riders not working the roundup. I fiddle with photographing grasslands onto which the thundering herd will appear. Rainbow ribbons of color evidence of the year’s moisture.
We wait… Then special guests arrive from down off Mount Rushmore. An entertaining foursome!
Harbingers of the thunder to come, prairie dogs perch and listen while the ‘begging burros’ of the park high-tail it out ahead of the horsemen and a first set of buffalo on the ridge.
That first glimpse of the accumulating herd… and then the flag bearers… light gleaming through proud fabric in the late morning sun.
Things go smoothly until they reach the merging point when the run for the corrals gets intense. 40 odd head successfully double back a few times over the hill. This makes for some crowd-pleasing wrangling by core leaders of the cowboy brigade.
There’s buffalo herd manager Chad Kremer on the dark horse.
Again the rebels break loose and double back. Bison run fast. Good horses and smart riders run faster and manage to head them off.
The crowd goes wild when deer and antelope mix into the fray. Guess the park animals soon realize it’s not a normal day at the park!
Safety is critical… Riders learn behaviors to watch for as the buffalo mill about between two hillsides full of spectators.
A line of riders forms to protect the media after we have jumped off the trucks.
Once the Bison are well collected and moving together in the right direction, it’s time to squeeze them closer together and speed up the push to the corrals. Run the gauntlet, if you will. Don’t be fooled by the whips. They are used simply to make noise to get the bison moving in the desired direction for the desired goal.
Buffalo — like other species living in finite resource areas — are as much mythical creatures as they are animals whose survival requires some practical management from humans. The Custer Buffalo roam 71,000 acres, but herd manager Chad Kremer and resource manager Gary Brundige evaluate the grasslands to decide how many buffalo to overwinter.
Using a random selection process, they pull for sale a portion of the calves of a certain weight as well as some of the non-pregnant females. They also pull a portion of the bulls to leave the herd with a 1 to 5 ratio of bulls to cows. The goal is to get the winter herd to a number that matches what the grasslands can support. For 2014 and 2015, the winter herd targets were 950. For the previous two years, the winter herd targets were 800 due to drought.
Custer State Park was established in the early 1900s after the 1874 Goldrush left in its wake a depression and decimation of resources, Pugsley explains. The Park was established by Governor Peter Norbech. 2014 was the Centenial Year for the buffalo herd’s reintroduction at Custer State Park. The bloodlines go back to 5 calves rescued by Fred Dupree from an 1881 buffalo hunt. Dakota territory rancher Scotty Philip eventually bought that herd (about 70 head). Then, in 1914, Custer State Park purchased from that herd as the root of the 1200 to 1400 head herd at the park today.
Pugsley gives both men a lot of credit for having the foresight to save the buffalo. Today, “the buffalo play a pivotal role at the park in managing the grasslands,” he says, adding that they are vaccinated to maintain a Brucellosis-free herd.
An auction in November of the animals selected for sale will yield funds going right back into managing the herd at Custer State Park. Buyers come from all over the world. The animals bring good prices as breeding stock and for harvest because of their management and the pure bloodlines back to original herds.
“There is a science to this,” says Pugsley. “Buffalo are nomadic. They move and graze. When managed properly, bison keep the grasslands healthy and the grasslands sustain the buffalo.
Perhaps most important, in the absence of predators “culling” the herd, or hunters as in the case of elk and deer; cowboys take care of managing the buffalo similar to the way they manage their cattle — so the herd can not only survive, but thrive.
I’ll leave you with a slide show below from 2018, the year it snowed overnight into the wee hours of the morning. It was the last Custer Buffalo Roundup I attended.
Photo caption: 40 bred heifers were donated, commingled, preg-checked, and readied for travel by the Rockingham Feeder Cattle Association. They left Virginia last Thursday, Feb. 6 from Rockingham Livestock for the first leg of their journey. With the freezing temperatures and sub-zero windchills in the East this winter, they’ll be ready for western living. The Heifers for South Dakota Project strives to make a difference delivering “Hope with the hide on” and operating by the tenets of Galations 6:10. Photo by Jessica Koontz
“I read about the number of cattle lost and about the Heifers for South Dakota project. I got to thinking how really blessed we’ve been the past two years here,” said Koontz in a phone interview with Farmshine this week. “We’ve had super crop years, marvelous corn and cattle prices. What better time for us to take advantage of good times to help ones who fell on hard times?”
He recalled how years ago, he and his dad had dry years, “and those boys out West would load hay on rail cars and ship it East,” said Koontz, wanting to return the favor.
So Koontz, who serves as president of Rockingham Feeder Cattle Association, talked to Ty Linger, founder of the Montana-based Heifers for South Dakota project.
“There’s some desperation out there, and they would take anything with a heart beat,” said Koontz. “But we wanted to give of our best. What they really need right now is pregnant bred animals because they need something that will put money in the pocket — this fall — right away.”
The window of opportunity was short because spring calving gets underway in both regions this month. In late December, Koontz put the word out to fellow cattlemen that he was organizing a western cattle drive of sorts. He and his children donated some of their own bred heifers and asked others to do the same.
Koontz received donations of 40 bred heifers and cash from more than a dozen cattlemen in Rockingham and Augusta counties, and local businesses gave toward transportation costs.
“People told me it couldn’t be done — moving heifers out there from the East,” he said. “But I’m a little stubborn and made up my mind to do it.”
He recalled the days when he and his father still had dairy cows — milking up to 120 before getting out of the dairy business. “We used to ship heifers from here to Florida all the time,” Koontz recalled. “I’m just glad we’re able to do this.”
The 40 heifers have been commingled by Koontz at his farm near Rockingham County Fairgrounds. They were preg-checked last week and readied for transport. At dawn on Thursday, Feb. 6, they’ll board a truck at Rockingham Livestock on the first leg of their journey with a stopover at Greenville Livestock near Hugo, Illinois on the way to South Dakota.
That stopover will break the trip into two 12- to 14-hour rides. Lifelong friends Clem and Doris Huber of Illinois — with whom Koontz stayed as a kid in the 4-H exchange program — helped him locate the place to yard the cattle just off the Interstate in Illinois.
“That was the deal maker,” said Koontz. “We can let those girls off for rest, hay and water.”
Bred heifer donations are a substantial investment in young ranchers hard-hit in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. To pay current values at auction ranging $2000 to $3000 due to the national beef herd being the smallest in over 60 years and sky-high cattle prices creating stiff buying competition, makes the donations by ranchers to ranchers through the Heifers for South Dakota project even more significant. The project specifically targets young ranchers to receive the donated cattle under the mantra: “Hope with the hide on.”
To-date, Heifers for South Dakota reports delivery of 714 head of cattle to 68 ranchers with 176 head of pledged cattle still yarded. They have also received about $265,000 in monetary donations to help with transportation costs and to purchase quality bred heifers for donation.
“Value of cattle delivered into the hands of those who are hurting is in excess of $1.25 million,” according to the project’s Facebook page.
While this is a drop in the bucket — in real economic terms — the hope these donations bring has been absolutely huge. For Koontz, it’s not the cattle losses he is focused on. It is the loss of young ranchers he is hoping to help prevent.
“Like somebody told me years ago, when there’s a barn fire, as long as the problem stays in the barn, you’re in good shape,” he said. “With Storm Atlas, the real loss is where we have a young family that has put everything they have into it to get started in ranching.”
Some of those young families lost it all in October just before they would have sold that calf crop, plus they lost the cows to have another calf crop this season. That’s potentially two years without income because the fall sale of the calf crop is the income for the whole next year.
“If we lose those young ranchers out of production agriculture, that’s when we incur the big loss — losing that young person out of farming,” said Koontz. “We can replace cattle, but we cannot replace that person back on the farm. If I had the ways and means, I’d be gathering up cattle until the first of April, but I’m just one person.”
Koontz and his wife Kim operate their cow-calf and cattle backgrounding operation, along with two broiler houses and crops. The participation in Heifers for South Dakota has been a family affair with son Bud and daughters Lacey, Katlyn, Jessica, Cindy and Vanessa all pitching in.
Koontz is working with cattlemen in other parts of the state to do a later round of open heifers for donation this summer. To learn more about Heifers for South Dakota, visit their website at http://helpforsouthdakota.com and “like” the “Heifers for S. Dakota” page on Facebook to see how ranchers are helping across the country.
Looking over the past year, and especially the past few months, the needs seem so great in the wake of weather events that have surpassed expectations. An early autumn blizzard in the Plains, a typhoon of immeasurable proportions in the Philippines, scores of tornadoes unleashed unseasonably in the Midwest — each event bringing its own form of devastation to a location, a people, a community.
And yet, folks in the midst of ruin are thankful. Reading the accounts or speaking with those affected personally, one common thread emerges… People who have survived a devastating event often have a more thankful heart than those of us going about our daily lives without having to face such immediate danger and loss.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving in a few days, we talk about what we are thankful for. We look around at family, friends, home, hearth, sustenance, and the Lord’s blessings in our lives.
But do we have a thankful heart? Are we full of gratitude? While giving thanks is an action we are reminded to engage in, a thankful heart, on the other hand, is a state of mind.
One example for me is the rancher in South Dakota who — when selected to receive heifers from the Heifers for South Dakota project — instead said no, let me give four of my best to someone who needs that spark of hope. In that case, the rancher had lost nearly half his herd in Storm Atlas October 4-5, but he said he would pull through. With a thankful heart, he gave four heifers to the project so that someone else in a similar situation could benefit.
After the tornadoes last weekend, farmers in some areas of the Midwest lost buildings, communities lost schools and homes. Within hours, neighboring communities and farm groups had mobilized cleanup efforts to help with the first step and most difficult step in rebuilding — grasping the devastation and sifting, sorting, cleaning up to regroup and move forward.
An ocean away in the Philippines, an even darker picture emerges, with a staggering death toll and untold survivors without food, water, shelter. As organized aid finally is able to flow to that region, stories of thankfulness follow.
We live in a world today with all the bells and whistles. We have so many distractions from the things that are most important. Each of us can be one moment away from a change or loss unexpected, which is all the more reason to not just give thanks for what we have but to embrace an attitude of thanksgiving, to have a thankful heart.
The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was such an occasion. The celebration was of the first successful harvest, preceded by a winter of loss, disease, hunger, and fear and a spring and summer of drought but trusted still to be blessed with a harvest.
I am reminded of the Rose Kennedy quote: “Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?”
A thankful heart then paves the way for optimism, faith, hope. A thankful heart allows us to see the new sunshine and sing instead of remaining quietly in the dark of the storm.