He acknowledges that money – specifically finding ways to cut costs but increase revenue for the ranch he and his wife, Mary Lou, operate – was one motivator, as well as the desire to create future opportunities on the ranch for their five children.

Their oldest is currently serving overseas in the military, two are in college, and two are at home in junior high and high school.

“We were looking for a way to make the ranch better and bring our kids home. So we started changing things, and it’s been a snowball effect,” Guptill says.

Today, the Guptills are being rewarded with a healthy landscape across their 7,000-acre ranch. They’ve noticed increased infiltration rates of the sometimes sparse rainfall they get, fewer weeds, abundant wildlife and re-establishment of native, warm-season grass species in their predominately cool-season pastures.

Additionally, in April 2013, their commitment to land stewardship earned the Guptill family the coveted South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award. It comes with a cash award of $10,000.


Holistic approach

In the late ’90s, Pat and Mary Lou began to attend a variety of holistic-type grazing management schools led by respected leaders like Allan Savory, David Pratt and Ian Mitchell.

The Guptills brought those ideas back to their own ranch and began to implement changes that would lower their production costs and enhance the health of their land.

One of their first changes was the transition from calving their 150-head commercial Angus and Red Angus-based cowherd from March to May.

“Our cost of production dropped, we use less hay and graze the hayland instead, which puts fertilizer back on the land,” Guptill says. He adds, “Our cattle are healthier, and our pastures are healthier. I would never go back to March calving.”

The switch to May calving and feeding less hay also means less need for fuel. In the late ’90s, Guptill estimates they were using 1,500 gallons of diesel per year.

Today, they average 294 gallons of diesel per year on the ranch – which also means fewer hours put on the tractor.

Additionally, the Guptills have focused their genetic selection over the past decade on grass-fed cattle. As a result, they do not supplement any grain. The cowherd grazes throughout the winter, and if they need supplemental protein, they are fed alfalfa hay.

Their grass-fed focus also aligns with their goal of marketing grass-fed beef. Currently, they sell some grass-fed beef through word-of-mouth to friends and family in Pierre and Rapid City.

But if one of their children eventually returns to the ranch operation, they see this as a venture that has the potential to grow in the future.

Flexibility with stockers

A more recent management addition to the Guptills’ operation was the introduction of intensive grazing using stocker calves from May through September.

Because of unpredictable weather and moisture patterns, one grazing season the Guptills may have ample grass followed by a drought the next.

Because of this, they realized increasing their cowherd would not offer them the flexibility they needed to utilize the forage they did – or didn’t – have for that year.

So three years ago, they maintained their cowherd and added custom grazing during the summer, which has allowed them to get additional income from their 7,000 acres.

They will run as many as 500 yearlings and move them to new grazing areas every one or two days. Guptill believes that the hoof action and manure from the high-density stocking is actually helping revitalize the ground and help native grasses get re-established in his pastures.

To implement their intensive, custom grazing system during the summer months, Pat Guptill invested $6,000 in cross-fencing and water developments – which he paid for without cost-share from any government programs. Much of this system is portable and will be used as they expand their grazing system.

The water for the livestock is from a rural water system, and they use overland pipe and a portable water tank on skids that can be moved with the four-wheeler.

Pat pays close attention to the ground cover or “litter” to determine if an area is being overgrazed. “Our goal is to keep the ground covered.

We aim for 800 to 1,000 pounds of litter (dry matter) left on the ground,” says Pat. He explains that litter is important to help shade the ground, keep the soil cool, retain moisture and enhance infiltration when it does rain.

In the drought conditions of 2012 when forage was sparse, the Guptills removed yearlings after only two months of grazing. In 2011, when grass was ample, they ran yearlings from May through mid-September.

That flexibility with custom grazing has allowed them to generate extra revenue while also caring for their land.

Pat concludes, “With high-density grazing, we are trying to bring the native grasses back. Western wheatgrass is coming. It’s slow, but working.”

Looking back on the last decade, Guptill notes, “The more we change, the more we learn.” Of the lessons learned, he says the most evident is that the health of their land coincides with the health of their cattle.  end mark

Editor’s note: The Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation.

Award applicants are judged based on their demonstration of improved resource conditions, innovation, long-term commitment to stewardship, sustained economic viability, community and civic leadership, and multiple use benefits.

In 2013, Sand County Foundation will present Leopold Conservation Awards in California, Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.


The Guptills have a healthy South Dakota landscape on their 7,000-acre ranch with increased infiltration rates in spite of sparse rainfall, and focusing their genetics on grass-fed cattle. Photo by Codi Mills.