The Mortenson Ranch, in central South Dakota, used to be a barren place. The trees that dotted the land and filled draws had been cut down or killed by drought in the 1930s and too much grazing since settlement of the area in the 1800s. But once Clarence Mortenson, and then his sons Jeff and Todd, began experimenting with erosion-control devices such as check dams and grazing cattle in a more controlled manner that kept them away from streambeds in the summertime and moved them from pasture to pasture, native grasses and shrubs and trees began to come back. According to “Restoring the Range” (Yes! magazine, spring 2009), “more than 90 percent of the 19,000-acre ranch is back in native vegetation.”
The Mortensons still run cattle on their land; in fact, they’ve doubled the number of head per acre.
Not everything is perfect about this cattle operation: they still send their cattle to a feedlot to be fattened on corn. According to Yes! magazine, “More than half of the nation’s corn crop is produced to feed animals.” Todd Mortenson wants to feed his cattle grass and nothing but, if only he can keep them gaining weight on such a diet. It’s not an easy thing to do in the Dakotas, but he will continue to work on it.
For more information on the Mortenson Ranch, watch the short episode of Our Changing Planet in which the Mortensons were interviewed. The Society for Range Management magazine ran a short article about the ranch in its August 2005 issue.