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Couple save their ranch through grit and grassland management

LeAnn and Layne Lux ranch near Leola.
Kate Lundahl
LeAnn and Layne Lux ranch near Leola.

Although Layne and LeAnn Lux both grew up on McPherson County farms, when the couple had their first child and were ready to continue the family farming tradition, their parents were too young and their farms too small to support another family farming full-time.

So, in 1996, when a small dairy farm came up for sale, the young couple purchased it. Back then, McPherson County was home to more than 30 small dairy farms.

“There were months at a time where we would work 12 to 16 hours a day and you would actually go backwards, and you would lose money,” Layne says.

Today there is one dairy left in the county. Layne and LeAnn Lux were among the last small dairies to close.

The Lux Ranch now survives as a beef-cattle operation, thanks to grit and grassland management.

Determined not to lose their farm to debt from low milk prices and high feed costs, in 2008 the couple sold their 60 dairy cows and turned their attention to raising beef cattle on their land near Leola.

LeAnn says it was not a difficult decision to transition from dairy farming to cattle ranching. Because from the start their goal was to own land and livestock so their five children could grow up like they did.

“There’s no better place to raise a family than out in the country. They have a good work ethic, they learn a ton about just nature — unfortunately life and death, but it's all lessons that they can take with them for the future,” LeAnn says.

With their focus on beef cattle, the couple began maximizing their forage production by implementing grassland management strategies.

“With our grazing program we try to move the cattle through various pastures throughout the season — so they will graze one area and a lot of times we will not go into that area again for a year, year and a half, so that grass grows up again,” Layne says.

The couple closely monitor their cattle’s grazing to ensure they do not over-graze any one area.

“If you keep some leaf on the grass, then it has a chance for photosynthesis and everything comes back. It recovers easier. The roots have a better chance of going down deeper, then you don’t need as much moisture to sustain everything, ” LeAnn says.

Since 2016, LeAnn has been managing the day-to-day ranch activities full-time, while Layne worked off the ranch during the work week to provide supplemental income. She says that during a growing season like 2022, rotational grazing does not require too much effort. But during a drought year like 2021 it takes careful planning.

“Last summer we spent a lot of time moving cattle from one pasture to the other. Once they got to kind of know that when you came out to the pasture with four-wheelers, they would get to a new area of grass, lots of times you could just call them. They know where the gates are because they have been rotated through them enough,” LeAnn says.

Watching cattle graze this summer, Layne says the grasslands look much different.

“Last year everything was brown and almost gone, this year you come out and half the time you can’t see the cows. Or can’t see their calves for sure. Definitely from a drought to a very wet spring. Wet spring was a double-edged sword. It was a tough calving season,” Layne says.

“With all the storms and everything going on, the cold weather, we normally don’t check the cows at night, but this year we had to each jump on a four-wheeler and drive through 200 acres of pasture, dark, we had flashlights to see if cows were calving, to see if a calf was down, getting too cold. Come in and I’d sit in my chair, LeAnn would sleep on the couch, set the alarm for two hours and go out and do it all over again to make sure there was nothing in distress.”

After many sleepless nights and endless storms, calving season 2022 also marked Layne’s return to work full-time on the ranch with LeAnn.

It’s a decision they are both happy about.

Lura Roti grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota but today she calls Sioux Falls home. She has worked as a freelance journalist for more than two decades. Lura loves working with the SDPB team to share the stories of South Dakota’s citizens and communities. And she loves sharing her knowledge with the next generation. Lura teaches a writing course for the University of Sioux Falls.