GRASS FARMERS: A three-part series on sustainable ranching in Wyoming

Seeing the big picture
Ranchers who practice Holistic Resource Management focus on keeping the native grasses healthy—everything else follows from there.

By Lisa Hamilton, Posted June 14, 2004

The palette of the High Plains is subtle. From the moment the sun rises in the enormous sky until the moment it sets in the mountains, the land is flooded with sunlight. As the light hits it wrings out the reds and the greens, drains even purples and oranges into submission. There is color here, but no contrast.

The valley known as Iron Creek would be no different were it not for the fence that runs down its center. The pasture on either side is as muted as the rest of Wyoming; if you saw only one of them, it would blend into the hills without remark. But here, side-by-side, the two places are like night and day.

Undeniably better looking is the east side, Jim Gould’s land. It is thick with native grasses, and the field they make is bumpy and golden. They even wave in the breeze as if consciously trying to look idyllic.

The west side is gray. Its surface is dusty dirt checkered with dried manure and big sage, the official plant of parched lands. Jim tells me that in summer the cows there poke through the barbed wire to drink from his side, for the springs on their land have gone dry. “It’s really that bad,” he says.

Jim calls himself an environmentalist. As caretaker of this land, he values the individual plants, the wildlife, and even the predators that most locals loathe. Yet if he had to choose, he’d call himself a rancher first. His family arrived at this spot in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in the 1870s, and they have raised livestock on it every year since. His work is the same as the guy's on the west side of the fence; what’s different is how he does it.

A new way of understanding rangelands

Jim Gould practices Holistic Resource Management (HRM). (HRM is also known simply as Holistic Management, or HM.) The first word is meant less metaphysically than literally: cattlemen like Jim think of their ranches not as commodity-producing businesses but as entire ecosystems—wholes. With HRM, cows go from being the sole focus, the raison d’etre, to being tools that serve a larger system. The land does the inverse: it goes from being merely a place to grow cattle to an end in itself. HRM practitioners often call themselves grass farmers rather than cattle ranchers, but really what they are growing is nature.

It is a slow process. The changes begin as soon as you take action, but before you can do anything you must understand the concept. This takes more than reading books; it requires learning to see the land differently. All four ranchers I visited in Wyoming this spring told me it was several years between when they began studying HRM and when they actually changed their operations.

The first step is to set a goal. It starts with a vision of how you want to live and what you want to accomplish. This is not mere numbers, but all the things you value—a strong family, a healthy landscape, financial independence. (As Jim Gould put it: “Your vision is: When you wake up in the morning, what do you want to see?”) Next you consider what tools you have and what others you’ll need in order to realize that vision. Finally, you imagine what resources are necessary to maintain it into the future.

“Your vision is: When you wake up in the morning, what do you want to see?”

--Jim Gould

Moving forward, you check each decision against those three criteria: Does this further the vision of what I want? Am I using the most efficient tool? Does it detract from future sustainability? At the same time, you are constantly monitoring important details, to determine whether the decisions made have moved you toward the goal or away from it.

This abstract description suggests a self-help book, and indeed many non-ranchers use the model to guide their non-ranching lives. But the original process was inspired by and conceived for agriculture. African biologist Allan Savory developed the model in the 1980s as a response to the desertification of Zimbabwe. There, as in Wyoming, livestock grazing had left the soil dry. The land became less hospitable to wildlife, which declined as a result.

As Savory saw it, the problem was one of concentration. Wild grazers stay in herds as protection from predators. But domesticated grazers—with men guarding them and killing their predators—have no reason to clump together. Their impact on the land is therefore scattered and erratic. This was important because in that dry environment, plants rely on the concentrated impact of animal herds to help them decompose and thus return their energy to the soil. Without that impact, the nutrient cycle is retarded and the whole ecosystem gradually weakens.

Savory’s model for a holistic solution was this: to return the grassland to its original state, with native grasses and wildlife. Oddly, the most efficient tool was cattle. If herded in patterns that mimicked the wild grazers, they would break down the plant material correctly, and thereby stimulate the system to regenerate itself. The cows still needed to bear profit—that money was what made the approach possible—but fattening cattle would no longer be the goal. Instead, Savory focused on restoring the land, believing that as the whole system gained strength it would better support all its inhabitants—including livestock.

Cows, grasses, and water

In the North American High Plains, water is the key to life. Annual precipitation ranges from 8-14 inches, and in the recent drought that has become 5-10 inches. The more water a place retains throughout the year, the more complex an ecosystem it can support. So for most holistic managers in Wyoming, water runs throughout the vision of what they want to see when they wake up in the morning.

It’s not as easy as just putting a pool in the backyard. As in Allan Savory’s Africa, the strategy is based on strengthening the whole ecosystem. Once again, the tool of choice is cattle. In this case their job is to approximate the impact of buffalo.

The High Plains evolved with buffalo herds that were massive. It’s said that as one herd crossed a river it would raise the water level several feet. Though modern ranchers would be hard-pressed to replicate that, HRM practitioners come as close as they can. They pack large groups of animals onto small sections of land, at concentrations even 20 times what a conventional rancher would use. They move the herds often, even twice a week in summer.

Most ranchers argue that cows thrive when you spread them out and leave them alone—the opposite of the HRM approach. But here the aim is to grow a strong landscape, so the question should be instead: when does the grass thrive?

The aim is to grow a strong landscape, so the question should be instead: when does the grass thrive?

Cattle left in a large space for a long time first eat the choicest grasses throughout the pasture. They then return to the same spots to eat the tender new shoots again and again, never allowing the plants to recover. Meanwhile, the cows don’t eat the less choice plants, which dry out and oxidize. Their nutrients are thus lost to the atmosphere rather than recycled into the ground. This cycle of overgrazing good grass and undergrazing the rest diminishes the energy that land can produce and in turn give to cattle and other organisms.

The strategy involving big herds, small spaces and frequent moves is designed to correct that. When grouped densely, the cattle eat not just the good grass but all the grass, then are moved and don’t return until the grass has repaired itself.

The numbers (cows, acres, days on and off) depend on the land and the growing season. The tall-grass prairie of North Dakota needs as little as 40 days of rest. On the other hand, in the foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, rancher Tony Malmberg gives the land a whole year to rest. In certain places, his cattle will be in a pasture only four days out of 365.

It sounds as if Tony is hardly using his land, but in fact he’s just concentrating the use. For those four days out of the year he’ll have maybe 450 cows on 26 acres. In such close quarters, the cattle walk not just on well-worn paths but everywhere. As they go, their presence becomes a tool. They trample their own manure, sending its nutrients back into the ground. Their hooves break up dead plants, helping them decompose. As their hoof prints collect water and plant litter they become moist, protected areas in which seeds can germinate. And the cows’ non-selective grazing sets all the plants back to square one, which gives slower-growing perennial grasses a chance to compete with annual invaders.

As the ground changes with the cows’ impact, so does its ability to retain water. The key to keeping water is having something there to hold a raindrop when it hits. On bare, hard dirt, water just rolls away. But after Tony’s cows have been tramping around, their hooves have roughened the soil enough that it will catch rain. They have broken dead plants into stems and twigs that lie on the ground and act like so many little dams. And they have laid a foundation for the future: with their manure as fertilizer and their hoof prints as planting pots, they encourage the growth of new plants—the best tool there is for retaining water.

The more water there is available, the more varied the plant community will be. Think of the two halves of Iron Creek: on the desiccated west side grow sagebrush and prickly pear, on the well-managed east side grow prairie June Grass, needle and thread, western wheatgrass, blue bunch grass, and many other species.

Making a place for wildlife

As the plant community is increasingly varied, so is the wildlife it attracts. Jim Gould’s place is like a wildlife park, with pheasant, geese, antelope, deer, ducks, beavers, and elk—to name a few. Like the grasses, the wildlife is more than pretty—it is a tool. Ducks and geese control mosquitoes. Pheasants and chukars process manure. Beavers build dams that retain water on a grand scale. Some ranchers believe the larger animals compete with cattle for rangeland and attract predators, but that’s a matter of opinion. Jim Gould, who lives amongst grizzlies and wolves, is thankful to have deer and antelope around because they’re smaller, easier prey than his cows.

Of course, that’s a tricky topic, even among the holistically minded. No rancher likes losing livestock, and even many HRM practitioners have not welcomed predators into their vision of the whole, happy ecosystem. But others, like Jim Gould, accept and tolerate predators, even as they try to avoid them. When Jim has trouble with them he tries to figure out why it happened and changes the variables accordingly. For instance, he used to calve on a steep hill with lots of trees, perfect mountain lion territory. When he started losing calves, he switched to a different spot. Another favorite calving area proved to be bear territory, but it was good summer ground and so couldn’t be abandoned. The next year Jim tried yearlings there, and none were killed. When he does lose animals, he accepts it as a compromise necessary to achieving his larger goal of a vibrant, complex ecosystem. As long as it doesn’t break him financially (and therefore compromise the long-term sustainability of his plan), the loss is considered smaller than the total gain.

That’s partially because predator damages are offset by predator benefits. For instance, when prairie dogs hit Iron Creek, Jim brought in stacks of brush for coyotes to hide behind and erected old telephone poles as eagle perches. The rodents were gone in a matter of months.

“They probably just moved over to my neighbor’s,” Jim told me with a smile, nodding to the west side of the fence. “But you see? Even predators have a place. Everything has a place in this life, you just have to figure out what it is.”

A process of questioning, monitoring and adjusting

Someone once joked that the tagline for HRM should be “grazing made difficult.” It requires that ranchers not only move their cattle often, but plan, question, reevaluate, and adjust on a daily basis. In order to do that, they must monitor the land constantly. They collect information for today—do the cows have sufficient water? is the grass gone earlier than expected? And they also collect more far-reaching data—plant variety, soil moisture content, and so on. This allows them to chart the land’s changes and see whether the decisions made have been the right ones.

"If you haven’t made any mistakes, that means you haven’t tried anything."

Say, for example, the goal is a more complex biological community. The harbinger of success is the presence of perennial grasses. But simply noting that a perennial grass appears one year is not enough. Maybe the previous year there were twice as many. Likewise, seeing weeds or sagebrush doesn’t necessarily mean the land is unhealthy—perhaps the previous year the soil was so poor it couldn’t support any vegetation, so that the weed is actually a good sign. The only way to know is by looking year after year at the same fixed points, charting the information, and thinking about the results. It’s time-consuming, but it gives a much deeper understanding of the land. It’s also a sure-fire way to know when you’ve made a mistake.

This is perhaps the hardest part of HRM: not the act of moving cattle often or tracking squares of soil over decades, but being able to admit errors. A basic rule of HRM is to always assume you’re wrong, since otherwise you wouldn’t question your actions. Frankly, in dealing with such a big, complicated, volatile thing as nature, you often are wrong. Admitting that is difficult, but not admitting it prevents the system from improving.

Raising cattle in the United States is an occupation that requires thick skin. The business is at the mercy of weather systems that can deal fatal blows without warning. Even in a good year the business is financially tenuous, thanks to rising real estate values and international competition. Most ranchers deal with this by sticking to traditional practice—recognizing that a mistake would require them to change, and change could topple the whole operation like a house of cards. The thought of approaching each day with the assumption that you’re wrong is inconceivable—it suggests certain death.

For More Information...
The Savory Center
1010 Tijeras NW
Albuquerque, NM 87102

Yet the beauty of HRM is that being open to mistakes leads you inevitably toward a stronger version of your ranch. If you are using the wrong tool, your questioning will tell you. If your land is losing productivity, your monitoring will show you. If your market is a dead end, you will see what to change. Each time you identify a problem you move toward replacing it with a more effective choice. And with each new choice you make a system that’s more resilient.

“Mistakes are fine, as long as you’re willing to learn from them,” Jim Gould told me. “But if you haven’t made any mistakes, that means you haven’t tried anything. And if you haven’t tried anything, well, then you’re nowhere.”

GRASS FARMERS: Series Archive

Part 1
Seeing the big picture
Ranchers who practice Holistic Resource Management focus on keeping the native grasses healthy—everything else follows from there.

Part 2
One set of guiding principles, a wealth of different practices
The key to Holistic Range Management is thinking creatively and independently, adapting its rules to the ever-changing conditions of ranch life.

Part 3
In search of the real tough cowboy
To survive in the 21st century, ranchers need to be skilled natural resource managers—and good communicators.