Stearns Diamond Savanna Ranch
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By Kendra Paulton
If you drive down one of many dirt roads in western South Dakota, you might expect to see countless herds of horses and cattle. But goats? Those are a rarity. For one Custer County family, however, goats are a way of life.
Dalton and Dani Stearns are building their family’s dream cattle and goat ranch with a lot of hard work, intentionality, and persistence. Together, they raise their three children, Dierk, Dillon, and Donna, to appreciate the agricultural lifestyle that they both enjoyed as children.
Dalton grew up on a working cattle ranch just a couple of miles north of their current place and says that starting his own operation near home has been part of the dream all along.
Dani grew up on a small acreage outside of Watertown, South Dakota where she was an active member of 4-H and FFA. Following high school, she acquired an Equine Science degree through Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
She and Dalton met when Dani was in high school and he was a welding student at Lake Area Technical College in Watertown. “He followed me to Cheyenne,” she laughed. “And we got married in 2010.”
After a year of working on a ranch in Wyoming, they moved back to Watertown where Dalton taught welding at Lake Area Tech and Dani taught Equine Management. It was in this phase of life that their journey with goats began.
“One of my non-traditional students had goats, and I helped her work them for a day,” Dani recalled. “I was hooked.”
First, they bought a dairy/Boer cross doe they called “Charlotte” and a Boer wether as a friend. Next came a Boer doe with her Savanna-cross triplets.
When the college closed down the Equine program Dani taught, Dalton and Dani began the real work of making their long-term dream a reality: purchasing their own slice of heaven back in western South Dakota near Dalton’s family.
Utilizing Farm Service Agency’s Beginning Farmer/Rancher program, the couple spent months preparing business plans and cash flow worksheets. Amidst the paperwork and meetings, they wrote a heartfelt letter to the owners of the land which they hoped to purchase.
“Our loan officer told us that the reason the sellers accepted our offer — even though they had other higher offers — was because of that letter,” Dani said. “It all went back to that extra effort of being intentional and personal.”
By this time, Dalton and Dani’s herd had grown to 35 does. Along the way, their preference for South African Savannas also grew, and they expanded their herd with new goals in mind.
Why South African Savannas?
South African Savanna goats were developed in 1955 in South Africa with the aid of natural selection of the indigenous goats of the area.
According to Pedigree International, “The original breeders valued traits that would ensure the survival of a profitable animal under unfavorable environmental conditions. The result is a meat goat that demonstrates exceptional hardiness, the breed moves easily and can, if necessary, travel long distances in search of fodder and water.”
Between their unique affinity for mothering and their robust heartiness, these special white-haired meat goats quickly won Dani’s heart.
“In my first year of kidding out a larger group of 53,” she continued, “I had so many problems with my Boers — lack of mothering, weak kids… But we had 16 first-time Savanna moms and absolutely no issues with them.
“You read all of those things in the Savanna pamphlets and you hear stories, but I really didn’t believe the full difference until we lived through it ourselves.”
“On our operation, we do everything with low input in mind,” Dani explained. “Everything is treated exactly the same. Half of our herd is Boer and half are 50% or better Savanna, and we treat them all the same … but we have lost way more Boer to parasites.”
Their management style keeps cost at the forefront of their minds. “We buy good-quality grass hay, but we don’t feed our does any grain or alfalfa. In the summertime, they are out on pasture for 12 hours a day and we call them back in.”
With their goats being pasture-raised, Stearns says selecting replacements is easy. “The ones that still have a good frame at weaning time, those are the keepers,” she explained. “Then we give a small amount of grain and you can really see them grow.”
Their average kid birth weight is seven pounds, but their full blood Savannas average 55 pounds at weaning time. “That’s a huge gain in three months,” she said.
Unlike many traditional breeders, the Stearns refrain from flushing the does at breeding time. “We just focus on feeding well all the time so that they retain better. Last year, we had seven sets of triplets and a few sets of quads. I think it kind of just goes to genetics and how you feed all the time.”
The genesis of the Diamond Savanna Ranch genetics began with 20 full-bloods hailing from Crane Creek and Mincey Goat Farm. In 2019, they purchased a full-blood buck from the Y8 bloodline to aid in correcting some issues and add height to the herd.
“Our breeding program plan is to diversify our Savanna genetics to add some height to some of our does, and uniform them out as a whole. In our program, we look for a good all-around goat.
“We want to be sure of what we have,” she explained. “We are going for low input. We know we have good gains, so if we do choose to move to higher input, we will get great gains.
“Heartiness is so important. After all, you can’t sell a sick or a dead goat.”
Conformation is at the top of her priorities. “At the end of the day, whether they are breeding stock, commercial, or market — they are a meat goat, and their conformation has to reflect that.”
Currently, the Diamond Savanna Ranch maintains around 80 does and two bucks, from a range of market Boers to registered full-blood Savanna breeding stock.
“Ideally, we would like to be back down to around 30 total goats, all Savannas,” Dani said. “But for now, this works for us.”
Dani registers all of her percentage and full-blood Savannas through Pedigree International, an independently held registry service.
“There are multiple types of Savannas, and multiple Savanna registries,” Dani explained. “We raise South African Savannas, which are different than North American Savannas.”
Dani appreciates Pedigree International’s diligence and ethics.
“Pedigree International is a community of breeders working together to make a better breed as a whole while sticking with the original standards,” Dani said. “They are strong people who keep that high standard and stick with it even through adversity. I like that.
“They have never wavered from the original breed standards. And for me … that’s what I’m looking for.”
Dalton and Dani plan to have a couple of their full-bloods for sale at PI’s Savanna Spectacular auction in Springfield, Missouri in September.
The couple suggests to anybody starting out in goats to do your homework before jumping in. “Know the basics and have somebody to call,” Dani said. “We all make a lot of mistakes at the beginning. We aren’t even done making mistakes! But stick with who you are and the program that you want.”
She said it’s true that Savannas are more expensive upfront than Boers, but she encourages beginners to consider the true costs.
“When you compare your hearty Savanna versus a cheaper Boer, you’re going to put more money into that Boer maintaining its health than you will that Savanna. It’s just the breed characteristics. Your time, maintenance, worming, input, health costs … if you break it down, it’s cheaper to have Savannas.”
The relationships Dani forms with her customers is one of her favorite parts of the whole business. “I enjoy talking about all things goat and learning from each other. It’s just fun.”
But the most important part and where Dalton and Dani are truly “living the dream” is in seeing their children embrace the agricultural lifestyle they both love so much.
“I love my son watching the goats kid out,” Dani said. “At only four years old, Dierk understands the whole process. I wouldn’t put him in a stall with a cow, but he can help me with goats.”
“Passing this on to my kids is one of those, ‘I’m doing it right’ moments.”
You can connect with the Stearns family at http://bardoubled.wixsite.com or on Facebook at Diamond Savanna Ranch.
Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.