I don't know what's more impressive on the Neil and Muriel Bien ranch near Veblen, S.D. – the cattle and the grass or the scenery and the wildlife.
The Angus cows and calves look fat, happy and healthy. It's July 6 and they're standing belly deep in grass near the highest point on the Coteau Hills in eastern South Dakota. There's been plenty of rain in the hills this year and the Biens' have made the most of it. Their 5,500 acre ranch is divided into paddocks ranging from 40 to 320 acres in size. They move the cattle through paddocks on a schedule that leaves more grass behind than most producers start with. They rest the grass sometimes for months, allowing the grass to regrow.
"We try to keep the grass like it is in June," Neil says.
In every direction, I can see wetlands. There are hundreds on the ranch. They range from a few hundred square feet to 80 acres in size and 6 inches to dozens of feet in depth.
Most of the wetlands are natural, "pure as God made them," Niel says.
And the Biens have plugged scores of drained wetlands, dug stock watering bonds and created new wetlands, especially as they purchased adjacent farms.
The wetlands have helped the Biens increase beef production. They run about 400 cows and background the calves before selling them as feeders.
The calves gain more weight and cows remain in better condition with abundant, clean water. Grazing distribution is better. Grass quality is better. The wetlands reduce heat stress on the livestock. On hot summer days, Neil will find the cows grazing on the leeward side of the wetlands where the air is cooler.
The wetlands also provide habitat for large number of deer, ducks and geese. The walls of the Biens' 30-year-old log home are covered with mounted deer heads, some of them records.
The Biens stock the biggest wetlands and deepest ponds with walleye, panfish, perch and bass just to improve the fishing. A wetland they created and stocked with fish in their calving pasture doubles a water source for pregnant cows in the spring and as fishing pond for their grandchildren in the summer and fall.
"People measure wealth in a lot of ways," says Bien, "We kind of measure it in quality of life."
On the top of the Coteau Hills in South Dakota, wetlands and grass have made the Bien's rich indeed.