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The best things don’t change

Ralph "Shorty" and Maxine Jones

Ralph “Shorty” and Maxine Jones reflect the character and temperament, as well as the common sense of Western South Dakota ranchers.

Their place is a long-time family “home place” about 10 miles south of Midland, and their 20,000 acres stretch into Jackson County. They need to keep track of about 850 head of Black cattle – the white-faced Herefords seem to have faced away in most of the cowboy country now.

Walking into their living room is to experience a glow of South Dakota history. The walls are filled with the mementos of their 49 years together and the age-old evidence of the cattle business. There’s everything from the mounted head of a Scottish Highlander to a comfortable chair made of cattle horns. But there is also the comfortable and functional feeling of neighborly hospitality.

Shorty is a grandson of South Dakota’s famous cowboy governor, Tom Berry. Tom was the real thing, had a ranch near Belvidere, and was even (remember these?) a Democrat.

Most things about the cattle business is the same as it always was – getting up early to work cattle, spending long hours in the saddle, fixing fence, putting up hay. The uniform hasn’t changed. The clothing and equipment is pretty much the same as it was in the 1880s. They still need a big hat to shade their face and boots that will stay put in a stirrup. Chaps to cover tough denim blue jeans to keep legs from getting torn up can be worn to work and to town.

The cattle are still grass fed while they are on the ranch and make the best beef anywhere. But making calves has changed. Some ranchers now use artificial insemination to make heifers pregnant. This seems an unnatural procedure that takes away the emotion of bovine romance. But Shorty Jones said a bull only works a month or so and the rest of the year just eats. But there is a place for both methods.

Yes, West River South Dakota is still the undefatigable place it always was and an example for the rest of the country.