New breed of ranchers shapes a sustainable West
These green cowboys try to marry good stewardship of the land with making money.
(Page 4 of 7)
When the cows are eating well, chances are consumers will, too. A major thrust of the sustainability movement is producing cows that are raised naturally on grass and trying to avoid sending them to industrial feedlots to fatten up. The beef is usually more expensive. But ranchers are banking that livestock rich in natural vitamins and less exposed to antibiotics will attract consumers in a world increasingly clamoring for health-conscious foods. And they are.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Green Ranching
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Consider the experience of the J Bar L Ranch in Montana's resplendent Centennial Valley, northwest of Yellowstone National Park. The ranch is owned by Ms. Dulany, daughter of David Rockefeller. But she has hired Bryan Ulring, a gritty native of South Dakota, to run the 30,000-acre spread. And he does look every bit the traditional cowboy.
On a summer day, he sits comfortably in the saddle decked in chaps, cowboy boots, a western shirt, and neckerchief. He and hired hand Andrew Anderson are gently moving a herd of cows and calves from one pasture to another – their version of avoiding overgrazing and managing the land's grasses.
Mr. Ulring, together with Jones, has launched a brand of beef called "Yellowstone Grassfed," which features steaks and gourmet hamburger produced from cows raised on native brome. When they first started the enterprise, skeptics said people would never pay premium prices for the meat.
But today restaurants and backyard barbecuers across the northern Rockies seek out their brand, and the University of Montana is feeding it to thousands of college students in cafeteria dorms. Last year, consumers ate some 230,000 servings of Yellowstone Grassfed beef.
"No, we're not doing things the way they have always been done," says Dulany, who has worked internationally to promote ecosensitive crop and livestock production. "But as a result of taking risks, we are figuring out a new path that's good for the land, and we're doing it in a way that pays for itself. Lots of different people talk about ways that agriculture needs to be sustainable, but we are living it."
She's well aware of critics who say it's easy for her to experiment with a different approach to ranching. She's a Rockefeller. She can afford to. But she dismisses such notions with a kind of range-hardened pragmatism that seems to be a characteristic of many of the sustainable ranchers.
"It's true – I can afford to take risks," she says. "But I'm not doing this to throw money away."
IN PICTURES: Green Ranching
Ulring and his staff try to treat their cows more humanely. For the J Bar L, this has meant delaying the season when mother cows give birth to calves from late winter to early summer in order to keep the family groups together longer. Initially, doubters said it would make the calves more susceptible to attack by wolves and coyotes. But the great slaughter hasn't happened.
In fact, that is another tenet from the J Bar L's management book: allowing predators to roam instead of automatically reaching for a rifle to eliminate them. Livestock are husbanded in a way that doesn't necessitate the shooting of wolves and grizzlies, whose populations are recovering in the West.
Predators serve a vital role in helping to cull game herds like deer. Some sustainable ranches have replaced barbed wire with perimeter fences that enable elk, deer, and pronghorn to traverse freely.