This is a post I meant to make almost two years ago in September of 2022. In the craziness of 2023, I had neglected to post it – so here it is – a year late!
Not long ago we were designing some shirts for our farm that had our logo on the back with the words “Mesta Meadows Ranch Hand” on the front. My wife, Terri, quickly pointed out that we have a ‘farm’ not a ‘ranch’. She said we are too small (we only farm 200 acres) to be a ranch, so we are a farm. Now, I’m not going to say that the fact my wife is a native Texan influences her opinion (remember – everything is bigger in Texas!)… but, we just kind of had to agree to disagree on this (although I won – I had the shirts printed with “Ranch Hand”).
Well, I may just have been wrong (don’t tell Terri). I just returned from a trip where I was lucky enough to spend a day at the Erk Brothers Ranch outside of Newell, South Dakota. Last winter I visited the Erk’s to pick up our new flock ram, Jonathan, an absolutely stunning example of a registered Rambouillet wool ram! My grandson, RJ, broke from our tradition of naming our Rams after presidents. Why did he pick Jonathan? Apparently, he just felt the ram looked like a “Jonathan”.
We purchased our original foundation flock from Erk’s six years ago, and I’ve been lucky enough to count Paul Erk and his wife Beth as friend’s since that time.
This was my first trip to Western South Dakota, and it was impressive. I really had difficulty describing it to my family or capturing the grandness of the vistas with my camera. The Newell area is bordered by the Badlands and Black Hills which are very different landscapes. Newell is in the Great Plains, a region of vast grasslands that cover much of North and South Dakota. Honestly this landscape is just breathtaking and awe inspiring. Now, as a Missouri native – I love having trees. And you aren’t going to see many trees in the Dakota plains. But you are going to see miles and miles of rolling plains dotted by steep rock buttes that seem to erupt like pillars from the plains.
The plains are full of native grass pastures with some areas having incredibly large fields of milo and sunflower (or as you move farther east – corn). As you are driving every so often you will drop into a dramatic river valley with sharp escarpments rising hundreds of feet on the sides and lush valleys with a river or creek at the bottom and groups of trees bunched into ‘mini’ forests. It's just an amazing contrast between these valleys and the surrounding plains. You will also see Prong Horns, a form of Antelope native to North America as well as white tail deer. But most of all, you will see miles and miles of native golden grasses doing a dance as the constant wind blows across the miles of without much to stop it.
Paul Erk is a third-generation rancher (his family homesteaded in South Dakota just outside of Newell), and his son’s Chad and John are now running the ranch. It was clear from watching John and Chad work together that these guys know far more about sheep than I ever will. They are the fourth generation to work the ranch, and I would wager money that their young sons will be the fifth generation! These youngsters already look at home sitting on a tractor or walking in the sheep flock.
The scale of the Erk operation is very impressive. The Erk’s ranch is about 15,000 acres and runs over 1,000 ewes. Paul showed me his ‘smallest’ pasture which was about 640 acres. For comparison, the average size farm in Missouri in 2017 (the last USDA Census) was 293 acres. So, the Erk Ranch’s smallest field is about twice the size of the average Missouri Farm – that’s big. Ranching on this scale takes a different approach than the type of small flock, small acreage, high density farming we do in Missouri.
The Erk’s have built a very impressive flock, I would argue one of the best in the country. We both agree that Rambouillet’s are the best breed (obviously no bias), and the Erk’s certainly have one of the best Rambouillet flocks! I enjoyed learning about their approach to flock management, how they use EID, and the challenges associated with the weather in Southern Dakota. It was an amazing trip and really fun to get to spend time with this incredible family of shepherds!