New breed of ranchers shapes a sustainable West
These green cowboys try to marry good stewardship of the land with making money.
(Page 3 of 7)
The idea of rotating cattle was started at the Twodot by Jones's father and is rooted in the techniques of Allan Savory, an immigrant from Zimbabwe whose theories have transformed livestock grazing in arid regions of the world. Mr. Savory's premise is that grassland health is tied closely to the grazing patterns of wildlife that evolved over many millenniums. Although the American West has lost its once prolific bison herds, Savory suggested that ranchers needed to mimic the way buffalo roamed across landscapes, intensively munching and then moving on, giving impacted areas time to recover.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Green Ranching
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Yet sustainable ranching involves more than just baby-sitting cattle and setting up movable fences. Ranchers like Jones try to understand the physiology of plants so they can determine how long to subject them to cattle grazing, which in turn affects the level of soil erosion. It can mean teaching cattle how to eat unwanted weeds instead of resorting to using herbicides.
As much as anything, ranchers say, it is about fathoming the nuances and rhythms of nature in the quest to cut the cost of raising cows and make grasslands more fecund. Instead of making huge investments in diverting water from streams to irrigate and grow hay for feed, for instance, these holistic agrarians try to manage their lands so they have natural grass available when the first snows arrive in the fall. Gregg Simonds, a pioneer in the holistic ranching movement, has done research indicating that growing hay alone can account for 70 percent of the cost of producing beef on some ranches.
The underlying theory is that nature and wildlife are necessary forces to be worked with, not villains to be subdued. In this world, beaver aren't eradicated, but tolerated in the hope that their damming skills will create marshlands that then will become sanctuaries for birds – and buffer the effects of drought.
"It's a different mentality," says Jones. "You're not fighting the elements. You're working with them to achieve better results."
The approach seems to be working here. A quarter century ago, the Twodot had reached the limit of the number of cows the land could support. That coincided with punishingly high interest rates and rising energy and other costs. The ranch plunged nearly $600,000 into debt.
Today, after employing Savory's and other land-management techniques, the Twodot has tripled the abundance of its grasses. The healthier brome has helped the ranch better cope with a chronic lack of rainfall. Plant diversity has flourished, wetlands have improved, and wildlife is thriving. As if on cue, an eagle settles into a nest on a nearby marsh, and two fawns bound through underbrush by a river once trammeled by cattle.
"In essence, it's like having three ranches available to us of comparable size to what we had raising our cows the old way," says Jones.
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Jim Howell has seen the grasses on his ranch flourish using similar techniques. He is the cofounder of a small think tank, the Savory Institute, in Boulder, Colo., but he also runs a ranch with his wife, Daniela Ibarra-Howell, on the western spine of the Rockies.
In the 1990s, he says, most of the vegetation on his land consisted of dandelions, cheatgrass, and Kentucky bluegrass. Today the ranch supports 17 different varieties of native perennial grasses, which act like a gourmet smorgasbord for his cattle.
"We're running 50 percent more cattle than we once did," says Mr. Howell. "The key takeaway is that livestock aren't the problem. They are just the tool. It's how we manage them that is key. They can destroy lands or heal them."