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Training program focuses on young S.D. ranchers

Young ranchers will get a boost through a new South Dakota State University program.

SDSU Cooperative Extension, in partnership with South Dakota Farm Bureau, has received $748,892 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The money will be used to train young ranchers and help them eventually replace aging cattlemen.

"We need people on the land," said Barry Dunn, dean of the SDSU College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences.

The program is called "Beginning Entrepreneurs Expanding the Future of South Dakota," or BEEFSD. SDSU is seeking 30 people with agriculture experience who want to gain knowledge on ranching, marketing and other aspects of ag life.

Dunn and three other SDSU officials came to The Daily Republic office to promote the program. This is his first year as dean of the college, but he is familiar with the concept of the new program.

After graduating from SDSU, he took part in a similar training program. Dunn operated a ranch for 17 years.

Today, as young ranchers start out, they need assistance from experts on traditional parts of ranch life and operations, he said. They also need to learn things that ranchers weren't required to know generations ago, Dunn said.

"It's very capital-intensive," he said of ranching today. "More so than ever before."

Dunn said there are young people who want to successfully operate ranches. At the same time, beef cattle producers are aging. The average age of beef producers in the United States is 58, with 32 percent of producers being 65 or older.

The SDSU West River Center in Rapid City hears from aging ranchers on a regular basis who are looking for someone to take over their operation, he said. This program will help develop that next generation, according to Dunn.

There about 30,000 farmers and ranchers in South Dakota, a slight reduction from recent years but far fewer than in the past, according to South Dakota Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer Michael Held.

Held said the Farm Bureau is very supportive of the concept.

"We think it's a good program," said Held, who has worked for the Farm Bureau for 34 years.

"We are cooperating with SDSU Extension to promote the program among our members."

As many people move off the ranch, retire or die, their land is often snapped up by neighbors. There are fewer and fewer ranchers and farmers, who are aging, running bigger and bigger operations.

"Beginning farmers and ranchers are an important part of American agriculture, as they play a big role in feeding people in their local communities and throughout the world," said Roger Beachy, director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). "However, they face unique challenges, and this grant will provide the training needed to ensure these producers become profitable and sustainable."

The young ranchers, who will be selected by the end of the year, will attend four-day, three-night training sessions several times a year for two years.

They will be paid expenses and a per diem, which will allow them to leave their ranches or jobs for a few days, Dunn said.

They will learn about livestock production, natural resource stewardship, marketing, financial management, business, and risk and legal management.

The ranchers in the program will be teamed with older ranchers who will serve as mentors, allowing the young ranchers to learn in classroom settings and from real-world teachers.

"That's going to be a very important and, as far as I know, a unique aspect of that," Dunn said.

The 30 participants will be clustered in two groups; one will meet in Rapid City, and a second in central South Dakota at a site yet to be determined.

To receive an application form, contact Ken Olson or Julie Walker at the West River Ag Center (phone 605-394-2236) or visit the South Dakota Farm Bureau website.

Applications will be accepted through Dec. 15. Participants selected to be in the program will be notified before Christmas and the program will start in early January.

The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded the grants for the program through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).

From 2009 through 2012, the BFRDP program will provide $53 million for agencies across the nation to support beginning farmers and ranchers.

Funding in South Dakota in 2010 went to:

• SDSU, Brookings, which received $748,892.

• Mitchell Technical Institute, Mitchell, which received $147,542.

That money will be used for an existing entity, the Farm/Ranch Business Management Program.

• Dakota Rural Action, Brookings, which received $132,200.