Identify, Hire and Retain the Best Crew for your Ranch

A conversation with Mimi Hillenbrand of the 777 Bison Ranch

Mimi Hillenbrand has been running the 777 Ranch in South Dakota for her family for 15 years and has worked on the ranch since she was a kid. She completed undergraduate studies at The University of Montana and received a BS in Wildlife Biology and then earned a Master’s in Agricultural Sciences from Colorado State University. She has studied and practiced Holistic Management for over 30 years. 

Amber Smith: Mimi, it is wonderful to spend time with you today and to pick your brain about hiring and retaining a great ranch crew. As owner of the 777 Bison Ranch in South Dakota, you are known for holistic planned grazing and a focus on conservation. Would you tell us more about your story and the vision of the ranch?

Mimi Hillenbrand: Amber, we got started in bison ranching in the early 1980s. Before that we raised black angus and hereford cattle. We bought our first 100 head of bison from Custer State Park and ran them in separate pastures from the cattle. That spring we had a horrible blizzard. It was calving time, and we were pulling a lot of calves, and lost calves, from our cattle herd during the blizzard. When the blizzard was over and the sun came out the bison began to calf. It made us rethink the direction we wanted to take the ranch. With the bison waiting to calf until after the blizzard, we realized how adapted these animals were to the environment we lived in. We also really started thinking about how we could bring back the biodiversity of the ranch. About the same time, was the first time I had heard Allan Savory speak. Between the bison and Allan’s Holistic Management method, we decided to sell the cattle, go strictly bison, focus on bringing the prairie back, and  switch from traditional grazing to the Holistic Management method of decision making and grazing planning. We have not looked back. The bison have helped us bring back biodiversity in both plants and animals and they have helped us regenerate the land. It has been a wonderful journey so far. 

AS: I had the opportunity to tour your ranch several years ago when the Grassfed Exchange was in Rapid City, SD. It was obvious upon meeting your ranch staff that they are committed, passionate and supportive of the whole ranch vision and paradigm. What advice do you have for other landowners regarding identifying and hiring the best crew for their land? 

MH: I was taught from a young age to treat people the way you want to be treated. I try very hard to live by that principle. I think it is also important that the people you work with know that you would not ask them to do anything that you have not already done. Of course I cannot lift a 100+ lb piece of iron, but I can pound t-posts as well as anyone, and I can weld just as well as anyone, to name a few things. The other really big thing is, if the people you work with do not have buy-in and believe in your vision, the relationship will not last. Lastly, you have to respect each other, be willing to listen to each other, accept and admit your mistakes, have open, frank communication, and allow people to use their individual gifts and treasure those gifts. We all bring something special to the table, and we all know our weaknesses and strengths. It is wonderful when you can recognize this and use it to the advantage of the ranch. 

AS: What systems do you have in place for your ranch crew? Regular reviews, planned time-off, educational support, etc? What methods do you use as a team to ensure everyone is feeling part of the overall vision?

MH: We have weekly and monthly meetings where we all come together to discuss problems, concerns, opportunities, etc. We promote all and any kind of education. We go out of our way to encourage and support any desire to learn and/or better oneself both for the ranch and personally. We take trips together which are always fun, appreciated, and good for the soul. We all work hard and there are always situations when people need time off for a variety of reasons. When someone is gone, we all step in and get things completed. We really work well together. We are all part of the vision. Visions evolve. The team evolves. We work together to make the vision work as best we can. We have all made mistakes, we admit our mistakes, and we all learn from each other’s mistakes. I have the most wonderful crew to work with and I am grateful for each one of them everyday. 

Mimi Hillenbrand fully admits that she has the best outdoor office on Earth, works with amazing people, and loves the bison and land, which teach her something new every day. Photo courtesy of the 777 Ranch.

AS: What advice would you give to a new landowner regarding finding the best team for their operation? 

MH: Make sure whomever you hire shares your vision and passion. Give them opportunities to let them grow as a person and opportunities to use their skills for the betterment of the operation. Allow them to shine. Encouragement is paramount. Bring them into the conversation and listen to them. Communication and accountability needs to be for everyone on the team. Treat them how you would like to be treated. 

AS: What advice would you give a potential employee, regarding how to showcase their talent and skill, if they hope to be hired?

MH: For someone looking for the job. Be yourself. Be genuine. Do not tell a potential employer what you think they want to hear. Show your passion and love for what you do, especially those talents that are you. When you are hired, do more than what is expected and do not hesitate to speak up if you have an idea to make the operation better. Don’t be afraid. Communicate. Don’t be afraid if you make a mistake. Admit it and learn from it. Live your dream.

AS: Do you have a favorite story about a ranch employee seeing your land through different eyes and noticing something different than what you had noticed about land or animal behavior? 

MH: One of my team is an animal handling expert. One can make anything work and make it work better. The other can design a handling system that is less stressful for the animals and people. And me, I am the range person and the person with the vision. We all do not always agree, but we are willing to try ideas and learn from them. It took a several-year drought to make my current manager see that Holistic Management works and that, as he called me, I was not just a “tree huggin’ hippie.” That was the challenge, but they all saw the wonders and results of what I have been trying to do over the years, and now they are teachers and promoters as well.

Top photo by Lydia Stenka.

Amber Smith has been living and working in rural America since 2004, beginning at The Home Ranch in Colorado, where she worked as a wrangler. She and her husband are currently raising their two children and working to steward a 53,000-acre ranch in Cohagen, Montana. She is the director of the Women in Ranching program of the Western Landowners Alliance.