The Anderson family hails from South Dakota with deep roots in the area and its rich agricultural history. As Dan Anderson tells it, his grandparents came to the United States in the early 1900s, and in 1959, Dan’s parents purchased the ranch that continues to sustain the family to this day.
The family operation was originally comprised of Dan’s parents, himself, and his four siblings. Like many young people in agriculture do, Dan left the operation to attend college and work on a different ranch before eventually returning to the family homestead in 1996.
“Sharon and I, my wife, bought this ranch from my folks, and we’ve managed it since then,” Dan says.
Together, Dan and Sharon raised four daughters on their ranch. Family ties to the ranch are important, as are their respective contributions. Whether it be helping manage the operation, the financials, or the internship program – needed during the rigorous lambing and grazing season – the Anderson girls remain involved in the family business in a variety of ways.
Conservation – A Family Business
Following their education, Dan and Sharon returned to Dan’s family’s operation and immediately began working to conserve their operation’s rangelands.
“Conservation has been in our family a long time,” Dan shares.
He and Sharon worked alongside his parents to set up programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), such as the Great Plains Program, which works to restore native grasslands and habitat.
Through these conservation programs, the Andersons were able to put in cross fences and water systems, among other essential management resources. “Doing” conservation was second nature for the Anderson family, who have a long history of conservation leadership. Dan’s father served 48 years on the board of directors for their county soil conservation district, which worked with producers to spearhead local implementation of soil conservation practices.
Grazing is Conservation
The Andersons are well-connected to their land and have a strong understanding of the best management techniques that can ensure both the land and livestock thrive.
The Andersons use an intensive grazing program called mob grazing, which requires frequently moving fences and waterers. As far as mob grazing itself, the definition can vary for ranchers. For the Andersons, it means moving the herd every 24 hours or less – ultimately translating to an intense stocking rate in a small area for a brief period of time.
The grasses on the Andersons’ ranch, and on public lands across the country, have developed over the course of millions of years. Each species serves a purpose, and these species vary from the grasslands in North Dakota to the sagebrush seas in Nevada. One thing they all have in common: grazing brings that purpose to life.
“That’s what we’re doing with our livestock is making those grasses actually contribute to the environment for the purpose that they were set there for, whether that be to hold the soil or to stop wind erosion,” Dan explains.
Soil and grass health is critical for their ranching operation, so after grazing a certain area, the Anderson family monitors the area, as well as the area they will graze in the upcoming months. In addition, the family further assesses the health of the rangeland and ensures proper management by utilizing technology such as a land EKG, which monitors rangeland productivity and habitat health through soil surveys, grazing indexing, surface cover percentages, and other methods.
As Dan says, “Management is a day-to-day deal.” Developing and monitoring goal achieving grazing strategies is of utmost importance, but it is having the flexibility to respond to swift and frequent environmental and situational changes that ensures successful management, rangeland health, and rangeland productivity. For beef producers, conservation aimed management is day in and day out, and the Andersons’ operation is no exception. Whether it is recording grass species, taking grass clippings, or assessing grazing strategies and management goals, the Andersons prioritize conservation every day of the year.
By combining years of experience and innovative techniques, the Andersons are able to efficiently manage their operation in a way that facilitates progress for their land and livestock each day, and even teach those skills to the next generation. The Anderson family has been proud to host an internship program for the last six years, taking students from a variety of post-secondary institutions and educational pathways, such as natural resources or animal science. The program provides a hands-on educational opportunity for young individuals, as well as allowing the Anderson’s to capitalize on an additional labor source during a busy part of the year. Interns learn to understand stocking rates, plant identification, and help manage grazing for both the cattle and sheep.
Not only do the interns get to learn from Dan, but they provide fresh insight for him as well. “We’ve learned something from every one of them… every one of them contributed something different.” Whether it be a technique from their own operation or a novel perspective, the internship program is a meld of long-held traditional management with an infusion of innovation and new perspectives that are key to the support of conservation development.
Preserving a Legacy
Farmers and ranchers across the country are focused on progress as it relates to environmental stewardship, and they are willing to show others the hard work they have put in. Over the years, Dan said he has invited agency personnel to attend range tours to see what the private sector is doing on federal lands and believes that others in the industry are willing to do the same.
As a public lands rancher and Vice Chair of the Public Lands Council Grazing Committee, Dan is passionate about land management and environmental stewardship and, through his investments and deliberate decisions, proves every day that active land management and on-the-ground expertise is a critical part of achieving conservation goals. It has been Dan’s family’s long-standing dedication to the land and methodical approach to management that has undoubtedly contributed to their family’s history of successful stewardship and will continue to expand upon their current achievements and goals in cultivating healthier, more productive rangelands for years to come.