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Cover Story

New breed of ranchers shapes a sustainable West

These green cowboys try to marry good stewardship of the land with making money. 

(Page 2 of 7)

While old-guard ranchers dismiss the new methods as unproven and even some environmentalists chafe at the green cowboys, the sustainable ranching movement now has adherents in every Western state. As a younger generation prepares to take over livestock operations – the average age of a rancher in Montana and other nearby states is about 65 – it represents an alternative model to grazing that has been practiced in the region since the conquistadors.

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  • Montana

    Graphic Montana
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

But underneath it all looms a question: Is this just a fad or part of a fundamental reshaping of ranching in the modern West?

* * *

Jones's journey to becoming a New West rancher certainly hasn't been linear. He grew up a native son, riding horses, roping cows, and stringing fence posts with barbed wire across the landscape the way it's been done for generations.

He was a standout at school: senior class president at tiny Harlowton High and captain of the eight-man football team (eight because the school was too small to field a normal team of 11). After a stretch at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he majored in physical education and competed as a hammer thrower on the track team, he and his wife, Shannon (a literature major), returned to the ranch, taking over from his father, Bill.

Yet the Joneses aren't your typical Montana ranching family. Zachary's grandparents were graduates of Ivy League universities. He has books by Wallace Stegner and Joseph Campbell on a shelf beneath a mirror framed by cowhide. His family is friends with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, both of whom still come out and fly-fish on his ranch, the Twodot Land and Livestock Company, for trout big enough that you don't have to embellish stories about them.

IN PICTURES: Green Ranching

"My dad told me when I went off to college, 'Son, you don't have to get a degree in ranch management to be successful. But you do need to come home with an open mind, be willing to try new things, challenge traditions that don't make sense, be humbled by your inevitable mistakes, and then learn from them.' My dad knew, based on experience, that many of the old ways no longer work."

What that means, among other things, is intensive management of a ranch's grasslands. Traditionally, cows are turned out to graze largely unattended on vast open expanses, where they eat the vegetation until it is virtually denuded. This, in turn, can lead to greater dependence on costly hay, as well as antibiotics and pesticides.

The Joneses herd cows into more confined areas cordoned off by portable electric fences. Once the grass is chewed down to a certain height, they shift the cattle to another area. The consumed acreage is allowed to rest and replenish, sometimes for a year or more. On a sun-kissed day, Jones pulls out a flowchart showing exactly where Twodot cattle will be grazing over the next seven months.

"I could string a mile of fencing in a couple of hours," he says of the portable barriers. "In the old days, with barbed wire, it might have taken days and required a team of ranch hands."


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