Rez Raised Beef: Regenerative Grazing on the Rosebud Indian Reservation
“We’re feeding the revolution” is not a phrase often heard from cattle ranchers, but Alex Romero Frederick is no average rancher. Alex is one of a number of Native food producers across Indian Country rebelling by taking ownership of their community’s food system in order to build tribal sovereignty. Revolution and nation-building require a well fed populace, and providing quality meat to her community in order to empower the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires/Great Sioux Nation) is a key goal and guiding force for the Oglala Lakota entrepreneur.
Two things were always clear to Alex about her future: she was going to ranch, and she was going to keep horses. Originally from Pine Ridge Reservation, Alex attended Kadoka High School in Kadoka, South Dakota. Her high school offered classes on ranching and agriculture, which gave her necessary insight and a well of knowledge to draw from once she started her own ranching operation. Alex moved to the Rosebud Reservation in 2006, and in 2009, she began ranching on allotted/deeded land just east of Okreek on the Rosebud Reservation. The land originally belonged to her husband Wayne Frederick’s family, and during a tour of the family ranch in December 2019, the couple shared stories of past generations of their family who had lived on the land before them. Alex ranched part-time from 2009 to 2012, but in 2012 their operation had grown to the point where Alex left her job and began ranching full-time while homeschooling the couple’s two children, Summer and Cedar. Ranching and a desire to work with animals seems to run in the family: Summer plans to become a veterinarian, and Cedar plans to take over the family ranch some day.
Alex and Wayne in one of their pastures during a tour of their ranch in December 2019.
Alex and Wayne are passionate about their work, but also realistic about the challenges that come with ranching. During a tour of the Fredericks’ family ranch in December 2019, Alex and Wayne shared some of the barriers they face. The Fredericks noted that access to capital was their primary challenge. Access to capital can be a particularly difficult barrier for Native producers to overcome, due to a historical lack of access to and education around the capitalist financial system that has been imposed upon Natives since the era of colonization. As Alex noted, the structure of agricultural loans also tends to set producers up for failure. A rancher might be able to secure a $200,000 loan for equipment, but loan terms typically require that the entire loan balance be spent upon receipt of funds. Ranchers are then reliant upon their calf sales the following year in order to pay back what they’ve spent. This system ignores the natural volatility inherent in ranching - there may be a bad winter and a rancher may lose a lot of their calves. If that happens, the rancher may have no choice but to file for bankruptcy. Thus far, this is a trap the Fredericks have managed to avoid.
That’s not to say that the Fredericks are completely disdainful of institutional financing options. Alex has an United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (USDA-FSA) loan that she was eligible for as a beginner rancher. The loan is available to beginning farmers and ranchers; individuals with less than 10 years of experience are considered to be beginners. Her operating loan is approximately $9,000 a year. Running a ranch on $9,000 a year, as most ranchers will tell you, requires careful attention to your budget and innovative use of resources. To avoid prematurely wearing down their equipment and save on fuel costs, Alex frequently rides the family’s horses out to pasture to check on their cattle rather than driving one of their trucks.
The Fredericks have also chosen a style of ranching and land management that is less resource intensive than most, which also lowers their input costs. While many ranchers will bring their cattle in for winter, which requires baled hay to feed them, their cattle spend a longer time in pasture. In December, the Rez Raised cows were still finding green grass in the pasture, as Wayne demonstrated by lifting a tuft of seemingly dead vegetation to reveal life underneath. Not only does leaving cattle out to pasture longer save money on feed, but it promotes health among the herd and is a vital component of regenerating and maintaining healthy rangeland. The prairie that the Fredericks ranch was once home to vast herds of American bison, more commonly known as buffalo. The buffalo grazed in one area for a time, cutting down the grasses with their teeth and fertilizing them with their manure before moving on. They wouldn’t return to the same spot for many months, giving the prairie time to regenerate. Over millennia, the prairie came to depend upon the buffalo just as much as the buffalo depended on the prairie. The land and its flora is actually at its healthiest when grazed in this way.
One of the Fredericks' dogs; FSI WIK interns Andrienne Brown and Karen Moore touring the Fredericks' ranch in December 2019.
The Lakota people followed the buffalo migration, and the tatanka (bison) provided for their most pressing needs: food, shelter, clothing, weapons, toys, and more. No part of a harvested buffalo was wasted. But when settler colonists arrived on the Great Plains, they brought with them European cows to replace the buffalo. In order to decimate the Plains’ Indians resistance to encroachment upon their lands by the United States, the U.S. government hired sharpshooters to hunt the buffalo. Bison were hunted into near extinction, which destroyed the entire economic system of the Plains and decimated the ability of the Lakota to defend themselves. It also brought about over a century and a half of land management practices that, to this day, are degenerating the prairie.
But the Fredericks are interested in regeneration, not degradation, and practice rotational grazing on their land to restore and maintain the land’s natural balance. Rotational grazing is a practice that attempts to mirror the natural migrations of buffalo, albeit with cows and on a significantly smaller scale. Practices may include letting grazed pasture rest a season before cows return, or rotating the time of year a pasture is grazed. As Alex mentioned while visiting one of their pastures that currently sits fallow, the same pasture should not be grazed in spring every year and another pasture every summer, since each pasture contains both warm and cool season grasses. Repeated grazing of a pasture at the same time of year will upset that balance. The Fredericks also encourage their cattle to migrate within the pasture they’re currently grazing by changing their watering location. This practice ensures that their animals are not constantly congregating in a single corner of the pasture. To further reduce the impact of their ruminants on the land, the Fredericks have elected to raise Angus and Hereford cattle, breeds which are smaller and hardier than most. Since they’ve been ranching the land, the Fredericks have seen an increase in wildlife and biodiversity in their pastures and a return of native grasses. Historically, wildfires have also played a vital role in maintaining the health of the prairie. However, as Wayne relayed, it is illegal to intentionally set fire to the prairie in a controlled burn, unless approved by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) for a controlled burn plan, even if doing so would benefit the ecosystem. It is also illegal to burn the prairie for management purposes within the USDA Organic program, which the Fredericks have recently joined.
The dichotomy between what practices are allowed by various authorities and what practices benefit the ecosystem is not limited to wildfires on the prairie. Continuing to manage their land regeneratively while delving into the world of ‘organic’ certification is a new challenge the Fredericks have taken on. After a year-long application process, the Fredericks’ ranch was certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the summer of 2019. Organic is a popular label among consumers; strategic branding and marketing of the ‘organic’ label would have buyers believe that organic produce is healthier in all aspects - for the people who eat it and grow it, and for the land. But that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s completely possible to practice organic agriculture, be it animal or crop, in a degenerative manner. Organic has the potential to be regenerative, but it is not inherently so. The Fredericks are skillfully balancing their personal imperative to manage the land responsibly while also adhering to stipulations required by the ‘organic’ certification.
The Fredericks are invested not only in regenerating their land, but regenerating their community as well. They are frequent vendors at the Keya Wakpala Farmers’ Market in Mission, SD, where they offer their regeneratively raised meat for sale at affordable prices to community members each week during the market season. They are also generous in their sharing of knowledge. After touring their ranch, we sat down with them at their home in Okreek, and over tea and coffee, they shared their experience and advice for Sicangu tribal producers who are interested in securing and investing in land.
Alex and Wayne Frederick selling their Rez Raised beef and homemade bread at the Keya Wakpala Farmers' Market in Mission, SD in August 2019.
Tribal Land Enterprise (TLE) is a subsidiary organization of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (RST). The organization manages Tribal land with the economic interests of the Tribe in mind, and since 1953, has worked to consolidate the Tribe’s landholdings. TLE was formed by an act of the U.S. Congress on June 18th, 1934, and adopted by the RST Council on April 6th, 1943 (https://www.rsttle.com/). It is the only Tribally owned land management organization in the United States protected by an act of Congress. TLE works to reduce ownership fractionalization on trust lands (https://www.bia.gov/regional-offices/great-plains/south-dakota/rosebud-agency). Individual Tribal members are able to exchange their allotted trust land for certificates of interest in TLE that may be redeemed for cash or a land assignment under TLE that better fits their desired needs or location. Tribal members who do not own trust land are also able to invest in TLE, and, over time, those investments can add up to a certificate of interest that may also be exchanged for a land assignment. Land assignments are still owned by TLE, but fall under the control of the individual they have been assigned to in perpetuity as long as they are a Tribal member.
For Tribal producers who need land to expand their operation, whether now or in the future, long term investment in TLE is an investment in their business as well as their Nation. TLE uses investments from tribal members to purchase land within and adjacent to the Rosebud Reservation, expanding the amount of land owned by the Tribe for the benefit of all Tribal members. Land purchased off of the reservation becomes trust land. As the amount of trust land owned by TLE in neighboring counties grows, the Tribe gains a controlling interest in those counties. Wayne currently serves as Vice-Chairperson of the TLE Board of Directors. Over the years, he and Alex have invested in TLE and in return, have received land assignments adjacent to their current holdings, which has slowly allowed them to increase the number of pastures they manage regeneratively.
The Angus and Hereford cattle the Fredericks raise at pasture, December 2019.
As our visit began winding down, Alex and Wayne shared their vision not only for the future of Rez Raised, but for the food system on the Rosebud. Their experiences have given them unique insight into what it might actually look like to change the food system in a way that benefits current and future producers and business owners. Creating a community of Native owned businesses that are individually owned and operated but work together for the benefit of all was key to their vision. Their experience has taught them that individuals who accept risk on their own to start their own businesses are more motivated to succeed than those shielded from potentially poor financial outcomes.
This future includes an informal cooperative of Native ranchers that collectively bring their cattle to market in order to increase the price earned for everyone. As a smaller operation, Wayne and Alex have experienced how difficult it can be to demand higher prices when bringing animals to auction. While the higher quality of their meat reflects the life their animals have lived, meat quality is not of first concern to buyers, who are usually focused on quantity. When buyers are quickly trying to fill livestock trucks, the producer with fifty animals isn’t able to demand as high a price as someone with 500. Alex and Wayne also imagine a time when the Rosebud will have its own meat packing and processing facility, significantly reducing the costs associated with trucking animals off-reservation to the nearest slaughterhouse. But until that happens, the Fredericks envision a coalition of Native business owners, across multiple industries, working together to benefit each operation. In this future, their animals, and all cattle raised by Native ranchers, will be trucked to market by a Native owned trucking operator.
Any business owner, in any industry, can tell you that starting and growing a business is no easy task, and ranching may be more difficult than most. A host of factors outside of the rancher’s control - weather, equipment failures, changes in market demand, to name just a few - can dictate the success or failure of your business. It takes grit, and for those motivated by more than just profit, belief that the future you’re working towards is worth the risk. In Alex’s words, “You have to be scared sometimes.” While their path may not be the easiest, the Fredericks are facing their fears. In doing so, they’re making a long-term difference in their community’s health and a vital contribution in the Sicangu Lakota Oyate’s march towards tribal sovereignty.