When Kelsey saddles her horse preparing to head across the prairie to gather cattle, it is second-nature. Her hands move in a calm rhythm as she tightens the cinch and buckles the bridle on her sorrel gelding, Polmol. Once she mounts and settles into the saddle, she and her horse move as one. The trust that has been built between the two is evident.
The DX Ranch operates on approximately 7,500 acres and stocks about 280 head of commercial cows.
Like many cattle producers, the Ducheneaux’s goal is ultimately to produce one of the highest-quality cuts of beef, but also make it affordable and accessible to the local community.
As the years have passed and the science and knowledge behind ranching has advanced, the Ducheneauxs have learned the kind of cattle that thrive in the harsh South Dakota climate. Angus seems to be the common denominator.
“We want a moderate- to small-frame cow that can produce a calf that’s half of her weight and can have that calf on her own without any assistance from us,” Zach says. “We don’t need to be pushing a lot of mineral and supplements year-round. The Angus breed has been the best that we’ve found for that.”
The land “West River,” meaning land west of the Missouri River, in South Dakota poses challenges for growing crops, but the cattle have learned to adapt and thrive. At the DX Ranch, Kelsey says they utilize their resources as long as possible throughout the year by keeping their cattle grazing grass as long as they can. Sometimes that is until October, but other times that can be until December.
“It just depends on what Mother Nature has in store for us,” she says. “We do our best to fit in along beside her.”
Like many ranching businesses, there’s a strong family dynamic at the DX Ranch. Everybody has a role and every role is important. Kelsey’s dad, uncles, cousins and extended family all take part in managing the operation, whether that is caring for the herd, harvesting hay or feeding the crew.
Because of this, raising docile cattle is a top priority.
“The most rewarding thing is knowing that my cows like to be around me,” Kelsey says. “Knowing my interaction with them isn’t a stressful event is something that I think a producer should correlate with how they interact with their cattle.”
For this reason, they focus their cattle handling techniques around low-stress livestock handling practices.
Recently, Kelsey completed an internship with renowned animal handling expert Curt Pate. She helped present a stockmanship workshop titled “RancHer” along with Curt’s wife, Tammy, at the 2017 Cattle Industry Convention. Kelsey says the cattle know what to do better than we know how to tell them to do it.
At their core, all the decisions they make and their management style relate back to their Lakota heritage and back to the early days when bison roamed the land and sustained the soil.
“Sometimes the similarities of managing a cattle herd and the roaming bison herds are lost,” Kelsey says, “but we really try to capture that in how we manage our pastures and how we let the cattle graze.”
Relating it back to the time when Indians roamed the West and followed buffalo across the prairie is how the DX Ranch manages its forages. They keep the cows in a herd as much as possible, Kelsey says, to impact the ecosystem in the way it was designed to be impacted.
In addition to being an active partner in the ranching operations, she also serves as the youth programs coordinator with the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Her position allows her to share support to the next generation of leaders in Indian agriculture across more than 567 tribal nations.
“I feel like I am making an impact when I work with this network of youth,” Kelsey says.
She says if she’s doing her job right, she’s training a replacement for her position in case the cattle herd calls her home for good.
“I love ranching,” Kelsey says. “That’s what I want to do.”
Since Kelsey and her brother were young kids, Kelsey’s dad says he felt inclined to include them in the daily operations at the ranch. As his kids get older, their responsibilities continue to grow.
“For Kelsey to be stepping up and solidifying her role as a part of the next generation to operate this place is the fulfillment of a lifelong goal,” Zach says.