Fourth-generation rancher lives dream career

Provides Natural Resources guidance on Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation

Connie Sieh Groop, Special to the Farm Forum

A fourth-generation rancher, Kelsey Ducheneaux, 25, crisscrosses the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, living her dream career while working to provide tools and education to those across Indian Country.

Kelsey Ducheneaux discussed soil health, rangeland productivity, and plant biodiversity with a group of students at a Native Youth in STEM camp on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. We had just completed soil infiltration tests on a piece of abused, overgrazed ground and then in this very healthy, robust pasture. The youth were blown away with the demonstration and we started talking about human medicinal uses and livestock/wildlife forage uses of rangeland plants immediately after. Photo by Jenn Zeller.

She serves as the Natural Resources Director for the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Kelsey and her team identify the broken pieces in native food and agricultural systems and work to develop solutions. Tools are being rolled out to producers across the country to help them in their production efforts. “I am absolutely blessed to work for such a phenomenal mission,” she said.

By working her day job, she said she can afford to ranch. “I’m really a girl who just wants to watch her cows eat grass,” Kelsey said. “But there are a lot of cool things that I get to help make happen.”

In addition to her role with the IAC, she works with her family to raise sustainable beef on Tribal land that has been home to Lakota land stewards, wildlife, and four-legged, cloven hooved animals for centuries.

This was one of the best brandings Kelsey Ducheneaux took a part in coordinating. “It was my first where I had a significant share in the cattle on our ranch. We were waiting for our ground crew to give calves their vaccinations and I felt a calf behind me start to lean into my shoulder. My dad taught me to never be afraid of being close to animals and to just treat them like you're one of them. I calmly leaned back into it and sure enough, it started to smell my neck and lick my arm. One of those unreal moments where you get to connect with an animal in a way you hadn't really before.” Photo by Jake Ellis.

Kelsey earned her degree in Range Science at South Dakota State University and her Master of Agriculture in Integrated Resource Management at Colorado State University. Her knowledge of the land and people are valuable assets in doing what she can to enhance the lives of those around her. Her focus is on planning, not just to conserve natural resources, but on how to make operations efficient in all areas.

“On the ranch, we are transitioning from a cow-calf operation to providing direct beef to consumer sales. Currently, the packaged beef in our grocery stores travels an average of 1,200 miles from birth to burger. Our goal is to offer access to locally, sustainably raised beef at an affordable price. I’m working on identifying the markets and figuring out how to meet that need.”

The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation boundary encompasses around 3 million acres, which is home to 70,000 head of cattle, so developing a market for a value-added beef product can provide a huge economic benefit.

“We grow kick-ass cattle in Indian Country. There is definitely a fault in the current system. We want to develop a model to rectify it. We’re working with processors and finding producers who are interested in investing in processing facilities. This is not only about providing a quality beef product, but also having the ability to care for the animals all the way through processing.”

In her job with Natural Resources, her job is to act as an “on the ground expert,” meeting any need of the producers and tribes, assisting them in working with USDA programs. The IAC has developed a Technical Assistance network for producers which spans the country and fills the significant unmet need while shedding some light on challenges producers face, like inequitable access to financing.

IAC staff and youth at the Society for Range Management 2019 Conference in Minneapolis, MN. The three youth and Kelsey Ducheneaux participated in the opening plenary session which highlighted tribal nations as the original steward of this continent. Courtesy Photo

Kelsey said they are providing outreach education to allow better navigation of USDA programs. The goal is to have producers increase their bottom line, by using all levels of resource planning. This is driven through land stewardship and management. She explained, “We provide educational outreach materials to producers and one-on-one training for free. On completion, they will receive a conservation planning toolkit, table-top sized laminated maps and continued support in conservation planning.”

Throughout the country, there are a lot of outdated approaches to production and these practices need to be examined. She explained that some producers face outdated stocking rates, which do not account for the improvements that the producer’s conservation efforts have inspired. Much of the landscape needs an updated grazing management system, with more intense grazing pressure followed by longer periods of rest. In promoting these systems, Kelsey encourages producers to understand the changes they’ll see and how to actively monitor their resources.

One practice becoming more popular is instinctive migratory grazing. Kelsey referred to the fact that bison grazed this ecosystem as one large, close-knit herd. Now with fences and minimal predators, cows don’t feel the need to be in one big herd, and their impact on the land is not as effective. The idea is to get the animals to instinctually graze as a herd and to mimic the pressure of a bison herd roaming across an area and then leaving the area to rest for a long period of time.

Another factor to be considered when developing conservation plans with Tribal producers is that many are operating on leased land units. Length of lease period can vary from one tract to another. Some have access to annual leases which are only guaranteed for 1 year. Others are for up to 10 years. The shortened timeframes reduce the improvement that a producer can confidently make. However, if they know they have 10 years on the land, then they can afford to place greater investment in enhancing the pasture.

Tribal governments and various land offices are recognizing the ways in which policy improvements can better help producer’s operations and the overall natural resource base of the Tribe. “This will shift how we navigate resources planning in the future,” she said. Kelsey anticipates Indian agriculture continuing to become a larger and more sustainable aspect of agriculture as a whole. “This is because the idea of stewardship and our connection to our lands has been there as long as we have existed as a people,” Kelsey expressed.

“In my job, I share the vast opportunities that exist for native peoples in agriculture. From economic development to improving food systems, from cultural preservation to using technological advances; agriculture can – and will – bridge the largest gaps in Indian Country and beyond.”

Shown gathering cattle at her uncle's branding this June, Kelsey Ducheneaux rides McLovin, the first horse she trained from start to finish. Photo by Jenn Zeller.