Cowboys moving cattle using their horses and dogs.
Grubbing Hoe Ranch
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Grubbing Hoe Ranch

Harding County is located in the extreme northwestern corner of South Dakota. The county seat, Buffalo, is named after the thousands of buffalo that once roamed the country and provided meat and clothing for the people of the Lakota Sioux Indian Nation when the early first European settlers came into the area.  Tepee rings and arrow heads from their buffalo hunting camps can still be found near the Jump Off area where the Lakota Nation braves ran the large buffalo herds over ledges and straight down into the gumbo breaks to kill them for meat and hides. 

Miles of grassland stretch as far as the eye can see with occasional gumbo mud buttes rising above the sea of grass. The soil is sandy, growing a mixture of native buffalo, grama, prairie sand grass, and green needle grass. Years ago, when the early settlers arrived in Harding County they learned the hard way that the sandy part of this grassland should not be plowed to raise planted crops. The soil was too light and wind would blow away the top soil. This fact saved most of the native grasslands for livestock grazing by both cattle and sheep.

Grubbing Hoe Ranch

Ty and Melissa Fowler run the day-to-day operation of the Grubbing Hoe Ranch. The Grubbing Hoe brand has been used since 1885, on livestock owned by this family, making it one of the oldest brands still used today in Harding County.  They endured a lot of hard times but have persevered on the land near where the present Grubbing Hoe Ranch Headquarters is located.  They raised and sold remount horses to the military for cavalry use. In the 1940s, the ranch ran mostly sheep with some cattle.  In 1976, the Grubbing Hoe Ranch was incorporated, by 1996, the sheep were sold, and the ranch went to all cattle. Today’s ranch is mostly in Harding County with a second ranch near Hoover in adjacent Butte County.

To run a cow/calf operation of this size takes people that have a love for what they are doing on a day to day basis. Ty has one full-time hired cowboy that assists him with the riding, fencing and feeding and his wife Melissa rides horseback alongside him on a daily basis. Ty’s folks, Leet and Maureen Fowler live in Belle Fourche and assist in some of the day to day ranching operations on occasion. Ty said, “We try to stick to the old-time traditions that my Dad and his family used and that have made this ranch what it is today. Ty's kids Kendall and Logan Fowler and Melissa's son Kane Hill are the fifth generation to help on the ranch.  There are days when the wind is blowing the snow sideways and the temperature is below zero but you still need to go and check on your cattle, their feed, and water. We use horses for moving our cattle from pasture to pasture; we don’t use 4-wheelers in our cattle moving operations. We try to handle our cattle in a quiet way with low stress to our cow/calf pairs. We brand calves with a rope and a saddle horse; calves are “heeled” and dragged to the branding fire. Our cattle are confined in large fenced pastures so the rotation of livestock from one pasture to another never ends. To work on this outfit, you need to like riding horses in all types of weather. If not, then you are no doubt on the wrong ranch.”

Cattle Program:

Ty described their cattle program, “In the early years, longhorn cattle were found throughout Harding County. Cattlemen began to improve their livestock breeding and marketing. English breeds of cattle were brought into the US from overseas. The ranch used some Durham type cattle and then switched to Herefords. Along came Simmental bulls and this breed gave size to our cattle herd.”  The ranch used some Red Angus and Charolais for a period, but in later years, they have gone to mostly registered “black hided” Angus cattle. Main reason for using the Angus Breed is to improve carcass quality.  Today the ranch uses Black Angus Calving-Ease bulls on their cows. Ty continued, “Since we obtained some size in our Angus cows and have gone to Black Angus Calving-Ease bulls we have eliminated most of our calving problems. By using this type of Angus bull on our first-calf heifers, we have been able, for the most part, to calve our heifers outside with very little human assistance.  That saves us time and money.” 

Ty went on to explain his calving strategy, “We have been calving later in the spring in recent years to attempt to miss some of the late spring storms that can move through this country, sometimes with damaging effect on cattle calving outside. These calving problems can cause a need for more manpower and cuts into your cattle profit margin.  Calving later in the spring has worked out quite well for us.”

Ty also explained the value of the native grasses on the ranch, “The dormant season grasses retain a lot of nutrition. This is why our outside cattle do so well into the fall and winter months. That isn’t true in many places. This unique feature makes Harding County a special grass country and such a great livestock area.  We can calve later in the spring after the worst weather and hold some calves over on grass and supplement to sell as yearlings the next year.”

Ty and Melissa buy their Calving-Ease Black Angus replacement bulls each year from a couple outside sources. They use a ratio of one bull to 35 cows and normally get four or five years of use out of a bull if the bulls are not injured fighting other bulls. The cattle that the Grubbing Hoe Ranch has developed produce a desirable carcass yield at slaughter.  The ranch sells their calves in truck load lots on the Western Video Auction.  Other calves, open cows, open heifers and older bulls are sold at the Auction Yard in Belle Fourche.

Ty said, “We do not take in outside pasture cattle; we only run our own cows and keep our calves over as yearlings if we have enough grass and water. We select replacement heifers each fall before calves are shipped. Cattle calve outside with very little human assistance.  Our cattle can winter on top of a snow bank and still be in good flesh come spring.”

The Wind is our Friend

Ty discussed how the weather affected their cattle operation. He said, “This is an ‘outside’ grazing outfit. We feed ‘cake,’ a supplement feed, a couple times a week. We feed very little hay to our outside cattle.  We feed hay to inside cattle, bulls and saddle horses and colts.  The wind in this country is a great advantage to our livestock operation – The constant wind blows the ridges clear of snow allowing the cattle to graze on the exposed grasses. Without the wind, this country would stay snowed in for several months at a time covering up all of the outside feed. The cost of maintaining cattle on only cake and hay in the winter months would be prohibitive.” Ty says, “Harding County wind is a friend to the cattlemen.”

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Ty went on to explain how “neighboring” works. He said, “We have ranch land in both Harding and Butte counties.  Harding County is a rather isolated spot on the South Dakota map. We have 2,570 square miles in the county with 1,255 residents, according to the 2010 census. The labor pool for day working cowboys is almost nonexistent. We rely on our neighbors and they rely on us to get our cow work done. Without good neighbors helping with such activities as brandings, shipping, preg-testing, etc., we would be in big trouble.  The Good Neighbor policy is alive and well in Harding and Butte County, and hope it always will be.”

Horse Program

The Grubbing Hoe outfit is a horseback outfit. There is a real need for saddle horses to move cattle, brand, doctor, etc. Melissa Fowler has her own horse program on the ranch that she calls Heart Open A Ranch Geldings with her own horse brand.   Melissa buys weanling colts from two Foundation quarter horse breeders, Betty Lynn- Lynn’s Quarter Horses, Corvallis, Montana and Sharon Herron, Gumbo Quarter Horses, Union Center, South Dakota. Melissa also sells broke horses to outside buyers.

Melissa purchases colts after they are weaned from the mare. They are basically untouched by humans until she starts them on her program. Ty says, “One of the main reasons Melissa’s horses end up so well broke, anyone-can-ride-them type of horses, is that she does a lot of ground work with them before they are ever saddled. “ Once these horses are gentled and saddled, they are ridden outside on cattle. Miles of “wet saddle” blankets make for a solid horse.

Melissa explained, “My colt starting program begins when I buy colts that are 4 – 8 months old. I only buy stud colts and we castrate them here at the ranch after they reach one year old. The main reason I go back time after time to these two quarter horse breeders, is that their horses have a good mind, are people horses ,and are very easy to start.

“As soon as I get a colt, I put a halter on them and began teaching them how to lead and to follow me. If they are hard to catch, I rope them in the round pen and get a halter on them. The quicker they learn that I am not going to chase them around trying to halter them the better. I want a colt to ‘face up’ to me when I come into the corral. I don’t want to have these colts consider me a threat.  This is very important because they soon learn that I am the dominant one in this human/horse relationship, a leader and friend, not a predator that is trying to kill them.

“I sack these colts out with a tarp and pick up their feet all the way around. I rope them and put the rope under the tail, under their belly, around their legs. I try getting them into the same situations that they could be in a branding corral or real situations later on in their life.  I use a flag to move these colts around. I try to desensitize their entire body so that there are no surprises for them because they have not been exposed to a certain situation.  Repetition is the key to my colt starting – do the same thing every day with colts and soon nothing will bother them.”

First Saddling

Melissa continues, “I saddle all our colts as early yearlings with a pony saddle. I will sack them out with my tarp, rope, ball, flag, etc. and one day - after working them in the round pen when they seem comfortable with everything, I will saddle them up for the first time, using a small pony saddle, at the end of their training session. I'll send them around a little so they can get the feel of the saddle and stirrup leathers bumping them on their ribs.  They begin to know it’s there and then I just let them rest with it on while I work the next colt. I will continue to saddle them every few times I do ground work with them and get them to packing that little saddle until it is of no concern to them.  By the time they are 2-year olds, the saddle, cinch and latigo are something they are used to, they are already comfortable with, and it's not an issue at all.  That makes the first few rides really relaxed and easy for them to just concentrate on you."   Melissa went on to say, “Once we get the colts used to that, we switch to an adult saddle. When they are comfortable with that, we head outside the round pen leading the colt with adult saddle on and pony them a long way showing them some country.  The colt will be comfortable because he is not out in the big world alone but has other horses with him. Ty will then get on the colt and we will ride back home. Sometimes if the horse acts a little ‘tight’ we will place saddle panniers and a couple of blocks salt for weight. We do not use a ‘lash rope’; just let the panniers hang on either side of the saddle. If the colt wants to buck, the salt will take that out of their mind quick. No fun getting hit in the belly with a salt block!”

Melissa went on to say, “I have found these training methods to work time after time with our colts. The main idea is to not let them learn how to buck if we can help it.   I do not want to be skipping some of these lesson steps when starting colts. I stay with the basics and it works out on most colts.  We are continually training colts for the ranch operation and outside buyers.”

A Family Ranch that Stands the Test of Time

We were moving some cow/calf pairs into another pasture and Ty spotted a calf with its ears down – sure sign this calf needed some medicine. Ty took his rope down and roped the calf out of herd going down the fence. I rode in and picked up the heels. Ty got off his horse and gave the calf a shot of combiotic while I held the heels. He looked at me and laughed, “I am not a professional; I just do this for a living.”  Ty is much more than a pasture roper he is a professional cowman and the Grubbing Hoe Outfit has stood the test of time because of people like Ty and Melissa Fowler and the Fowler family before them respecting tradition, their neighbors, and the land.

Contact information:

Grubbing Hoe Ranch
HeartOpenA Ranch Geldings
13927 US Highway 85
Buffalo, South Dakota 57720

605-645-7444 or 605-375-3100

Article by
Mike Laughlin

 Photos by Lee Raine


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