When John T. Bones left Pennsylvania in 1879 and homesteaded land northeast of Parker, it’s unlikely he knew the first seeds he planted would grow into a diverse and thriving enterprise. Now, almost 150 years later, the farm includes crops, beef cattle and an elevator where multiple generations of the Bones family work together to grow and raise food on the South Dakota prairie.
Though technically defined as corporations, the Bones Hereford Ranch, Hexad Farms and MDM Farms are very much family businesses like 97% of farms in the U.S. Several members of the fourth and fifth generations are involved in the daily operations including brothers Walter III, Steve and Jim Bones, brother-in-law Lyle Van Hove and their sons Dan, Mike and Matt. Walt attributes much of their success to the family dynamic and their focus on continuous improvement.
“Family is extremely important to us. While we share a common goal, we are still a very diverse group. Operating a multi-enterprise farm is very complicated. We are blessed to have marketers, mechanics, truck drivers, stockmen, seed dealers, heavy equipment operators and bookkeepers who are knowledgeable about key areas such as agronomy, livestock nutrition and veterinary medicine,” explained Walt.
They use this expertise to continuously improve their farm and are happy to open their doors to share what they do with community members. This includes hosting Hungry for Truth’s Farm-to-Fork Dinner.
“Consumers are sophisticated and interested in learning about the food they buy, where it comes from and how it’s raised. We try to be transparent in all we do and provide information when people have questions,” said Walt.
So what are some of the ways they’re enhancing the future of their farm?
First, they’re active environmentalists. The Bones protect their land by using conservation strategies like minimum till farming, which means they don’t till the soil between harvest and planting if they don’t have to. Minimum till reduces erosion from water and wind, and is a great way to improve soil health. They also use rotational grazing for their cattle, provide food plots for wildlife, plant trees and grass buffers to reduce runoff into streams and recycle products like lime from the Sioux Falls water treatment plant to provide mounds for the cattle.
“As farmers, our goal is to take care of the land and water so we leave it in better condition for future generations,” said Walt.
In recent years, the Bones family has adopted advanced technologies to enhance both the crop and cattle components of their farm. On the crop side, they invest in soybean and corn seeds that are genetically modified to grow best in their specific soils and farm conditions. They also use GPS, soil maps and precision equipment to ensure each seed is placed at the optimum depth, surrounded by the right amount of nutrients and protected from insects and weeds. They track everything with software throughout the growing season and then analyze that data after harvest so they can adjust plans and improve for the next season. Using these technologies has allowed them to double yields, farm 40% more acres and feed 50% more cattle than they did 25 years ago.
On the cattle side, they conduct DNA tests and use genetics to produce top-quality meat and milk. Part of ensuring quality includes feeding the cows a balanced diet with some of the crops they grow. The soybeans are especially great because soy meal is rich in protein and the hulls are an excellent source of fiber.
Using these technologies also requires less manual labor so more time can be spent with family and serving the community. In addition to the Farm-to-Fork Dinner, the Bones family also hosts FFA contests, elementary school visits, trade delegations and the annual Sioux Valley Retriever Club dog trials.
“As I get closer to whatever a retirement may look like, I treasure the time spent with my brothers, brother-in-law and their sons in building a lasting business model that contributes to a safe food supply. I’m also grateful to our parents for instilling a desire to serve others,” said Walt.
Hungry for Truth is an initiative about food and farming funded by the South Dakota soybean checkoff. The goal is to connect South Dakotans with the farmers who grow and raise their food.