Black Hills Beef: Following one herd's journey through the hills

Alex Portal
Black Hills Pioneer

SPEARFISH — The cattle industry has played as major a role in the history of the Black Hills as early as the gold rush of 1876, and it continues to shape that history to this day.

Aaron Thompson is one Black Hills rancher keeping that history alive by managing the same land his family has worked since 1888.

“We’re dug in pretty well out here,” Thompson said.

The Black Hills Pioneer will check in with Thompson throughout the year as he navigates the highs and lows of raising cattle in the Black Hills.

“I look at what I do as it’s just a series of hurtles,” he said with a laugh. “Once you clear one goal, you have about 15 seconds to go, ‘Phew, glad that’s over,’ then immediately you’re thinking about the next big thing (you) gotta be prepping for.”

Thompson said that raising cattle always presents unique challenges based on a ranch’s location, and the Black Hills are no exception.

“We operate a little bit differently than the guys maybe say, out in the prairie,” he explained. “Typically guys closer into the Hills will calf a little bit earlier.”

Calving in mid- to late February and into early March may seem at odds when compared to spring time, which is generally associated with birth and renewal; however, Thompson explained that in order to give his animals the best chance at a strong and fruitful life, the sooner, the better. And fortunately, there are genetic apps for that.

“Modern science has given us some tremendous tools to use, so our genetic selection can be pretty precise,” he said.

Cows who are giving birth from the first time, generally referred to as heifers, are often times still growing and developing during their first gestation cycle, which can make giving birth to a big calf very difficult. Ranchers would have to wait between five and seven years for the animal to be fully developed for calf rearing. To combat this, the industry developed genetic lines, which account for lower birth weights and give the new mothers a bit of a break for their first few calving cycles. As Thompson explained, however, you can’t really cheat Mother Nature.

“What happened was, it wasn’t really low birth weight, it was short gestation,” he said.

The shortened gestation period means the calf will need as much time as they can get post partum, to build up enough strength in order to make the 14-mile journey to the family’s grazing fields on the outskirts of the Black Hills National Forest for the summer. It can also affect the bond between the mother and calf, which could be detrimental during the calf’s first few days in the world. So during calving season Thompson said he’s on full alert to make sure his calves get the best start in life they can.

“The number one goal, this time of the year: get it alive,” he said. “Everything else is completely secondary to us when we’re calving. I mean kid’s concerts, wife’s birthday, our birthday, funerals; all this stuff is out the window.”

Thompson said when the weather is mild, generally he can check on the herd a couple of times a day to see what the stork has brought; however, when the weather goes south, it’s all hands on deck, checking the herd every hour.

“You don’t want to have a cow dump a calf in a snow bank and then roll it around licking it off, because it will just get cold and die,” he said.

If the weather becomes too harsh, Thompson said he’ll move the expecting mothers into the barn to keep a more watchful eye on their progress.

Once Thompson discovers a new life has joined his herd, he tags the newborn and gives it a shot to help boost the calf’s immune system. This also provides him with an opportunity to assess the mother’s wellbeing and maternal approach.

“Not every cow is mother of the year,” Thompson said. “When I tag a calf, that’s a really good time to look at that cow and appraise her at an individual level.”

Thompson keeps track of the cows that underperform as parents; this helps him evaluate and cultivate the genetic lines he’s looking to produce and maintain the integrity of his herd.

“The second you know a cow on an individual level, (generally) it’s for some negative reason and she’s on her way out,” he said. “When a cow is so good that she’s just automatic, you note that, too.”

The beef industry has had a tumultuous relationship with the general public recently. In many respects it can be difficult to reconcile the process of cultivating a life with the explicit purpose of ending that life to produce food. However, Thompson said there is a growing movement within the beef industry to ensure that the animals being raised for that end are treated with the kind of respect that all life on this planet deserves.

“If you look at an animal welfare perspective, I think (the beef industry has) got other protein sources absolutely demolished,” he said. “Our cows get to spend 10 years up on a hillside with better health care than most people have; having someone cart them food hand and foot all along; and they’re happy. And that’s a life that wouldn’t exist if we weren’t eating them.”

Along with incorporating procedures of best practice throughout the industry, there is also a consorted effort for ranchers and cattlemen to open their barn doors more to the public and allow folks to meet their meat and gain a better perspective of their place in the food chain.

“There’s definitely a segment of the consumer that wants that relationship with that chain that their food is coming off of,” Thompson said. “I think there’s opportunity there for us; I think we’ve got a great story.”

Aaron Thompson tags a 2-hour-old calf on his ranch as the animal’s mother looks on.
Aaron Thompson’s family has been ranching in the Black Hills for more than a century, with roots extending back to the 1880s.

This is the first story in a multi-part series that takes a look at ranching in the Black Hills. It will run on occasion in the Farm Forum.