Range Management is not a set of actions but a way of
thinking. Specific practices are determined by a ranch’s
resources, its personalities, its finances, and most of all
its land, so each rancher's version of HRM will be unique. Some
ranchers use HRM as a pasture management tool, others consider
it a lifestyle. On the four ranches I visited this spring in
Wyoming, I found four interpretations, each as different as
the men behind them.
70,000 acres; certified organic beef
Jim Gould characterizes himself as an “open-thinker.”
It’s a family trait that dates back to the 1870s, when
the Goulds drove their wagons from Missouri to Meeteetse,
Wyoming, in search of a new and better life. “I read
my family’s diaries,” Jim tells me, “and
even back then, they were all open-thinkers.”
Jim learned to have an open mind from his father. The two
began studying HRM when Jim was 15. (His father is now retired.)
Since then, the management decisions made on the ranch have
often flown in the face of convention. The industry standards
that others take for granted, Jim will dissect, question and
For instance, calving: Every cattleman along the Greybull
River still breeds his cows for February births—that’s
just the way it’s done. But during deep winter the grass
is at its least nutritious. This means all cows—mothers
and others—need their forage supplemented with hay until
the grass peaks in June. The minute a calf is born, the mother’s
feed requirements double. In winter, that translates to twice
When Jim and his father looked closely at the range’s
annual cycle, they recognized this pattern. To them, it made
sense to switch the calving to coincide with the grass’s
peak in June. That way, the land would take care of the extra
Many would argue that going against convention like this
puts a rancher behind the market, since his calves are four
months younger than his neighbors' and therefore bound to
be smaller. But when Jim and his neighbors wean their calves
in November, Jim's end up being roughly the same weight as
all the others. Jim says this is because his calves don’t
endure the stress of being born into a fierce season of blizzards
and frostbite. Nor are they penned up to protect them from
the weather, so they avoid scours and other bacterial problems
that accompany confinement. By the time Jim’s calves
do encounter winter, they’re old enough to take it.
Jim has recognized that nature itself can be a tool, one
whose work replaces costly inputs and time-consuming labor.
By calving with the grass’s cycle, Jim spends less money—if
any at all—on medicines, hay, and supplements. He also
now spends almost no money on feed. In the 1960s and ‘70s,
the Goulds owned several hundred thousand dollars' worth of
machinery and used it to put up hay each summer—again,
it was what everyone did. When they thought about it, though,
Jim and his father decided it was inefficient to own all that
equipment when they used it only 20 days a year. They took
stock of what other tools were available and found they could
eliminate the machines.
has recognized that nature itself can be a tool, one
whose work replaces costly inputs and time-consuming
Jim hasn’t disked a field since 1990. The fields are
now planted largely to rhizomatous species that are suited
to high-altitude climates like his. He reseeds rarely—one
field has been left alone since 1989. When he does replant,
he’ll let the plants go to seed or, for small areas
or new varieties, he’ll broadcast the seed himself.
He irrigates, then lets the cows in to graze. While they eat
the tall grass, their hooves turn the dirt and push the seeds
in. Their manure provides fertilization.
Jim's cows also “put up” the hay. Using mobile
electric fencing, Jim herds his cattle through the fields
daily to strip-graze concurrent sections. He moves them often,
leaving the grass with enough substance to re-grow. This allows
him several “cuttings” a year. Because Jim’s
operation is certified organic and there’s no suitable
hay available in the area, he does need to put up some of
his own. For this, he calls in a neighbor who still has hay-making
machinery. It’s an expense, but compared to the cost
of maintaining that equipment throughout the year, the price
is relatively small.
Eliminating inputs like this has added up. Even when Jim
and his father were selling to the commodity market, they
always came out on top. They chose genetics that leaned toward
a smaller cow, one that would do better on their high-altitude
pastures. They got slightly more per pound for the smaller
animal, but more importantly, their overhead was far lower
than their neighbors’. Where most people needed 67 cents
per pound to break even, the Goulds needed only 30 cents.
“Sure, our figures were all lower,” Jim said,
“but our net was higher than anyone else’s. The
thing is that a lot of people don’t weigh those expenses,
but you can bet they sure come out of your pocketbook in the
Dave Grabbert, Park County
24,000 acres; beef cattle
Dave Grabbert learned to cowboy the old way. As a kid, he
would round up wild horses in the mountains. Then every spring
he would get in the saddle and help drive the family’s
cattle more than 100 miles to their summer grounds, outside
Yellowstone National Park. As an adult, he has ranched on
land lying just shy of the Canadian bush all the way to Mexico—so
far south he used to repair corrals with wild bamboo.
Today he is settled once again outside Cody, Wyoming, not
far from where he was raised. As was true with his family’s
ranch, he owns only a quarter of his land. The rest is in
long-term leases with government agencies, primarily the Bureau
of Land Management. Ranchers who lease generally loathe the
agency. They accuse the BLM of managing by remote, telling
ranchers how to work the land without knowing how the individual
pieces actually work.
Dave, too, felt this frustration with the BLM. Each year
the agency awarded each of his parcels a certain number of
Animal Units per Month (AUMs)—the number of animals
allowed on a piece of land, as determined by its health and
composition. Then, as with all leases, the BLM told him what
kind of animal, which months, in herds of what size. “Before
I even started, the whole thing was already in the file cabinet,”
Dave told me. “There was no room to move.”
This was even more frustrating when Dave started HRM. “The
BLM is full of good people,” he said, “but my
problem was to try to make the range better and I didn’t
have the flexibility to do it.”
The BLM’s directions were based on the traditional
method: grazing small herds in large spaces for one long season.
The system couldn’t accommodate frequent moves or high-density
groups of animals, the very roots of holistic management.
Nonetheless, Dave reflected on what tools he had and found
a way around the obstacle. He followed the BLM’s guidelines—he
had no choice—but additionally he began herding the
animals within each section.
It took about seven
years, but the agency finally acknowledged that his method
was improving the land. They responded by giving him more
“I’ve got the most liberal grazing plan in
the whole U.S.”
Having relied on fences for generations, few modern American
ranchers know how to herd. But Dave had learned, both on the
family ranch and in his vast experience ranching throughout
western North America. He in turn taught his hired men, and
before long some of them were living way out on the range
with the animals. It was more time-consuming than simply turning
cattle loose for three months, but it was the only way to
achieve the concentrated animal impact so critical to HRM.
As the range responded, the BLM noticed. Dave monitored his
land carefully, and the results showed a steady progression:
less bare ground, ever more desirable plants. It took about
seven years, but the agency finally acknowledged that his
method was improving the land. They responded by giving him
“I’ve got the most liberal grazing plan in the
whole U.S.,” Dave told me with delight.
The BLM still determines the AUMs for each allotment leased,
but that’s it. Dave decides the what, where, when, and
how. Instead of mapping out his usage before the season starts,
he now decides how a pasture should be used as the season
unfolds. No longer does he speculate about how the land will
be and then try to fit reality into that prediction. Instead,
he watches the weather, the plants, and the animals, and manages
in response to their behaviors.
Tony Malmberg, Fremont County
16,500 acres; “beyond organic”
beef cattle, dairy goats, ranch recreation
Growing up as a third-generation cowboy in the Sand Hills
of Nebraska, Tony Malmberg learned early on to not let anything
stand in his way. So when beavers dammed the creek by his
barn and water flooded his horse pasture, Tony knew exactly
what to do: blow them up.
As soon as the dynamite ignited, he knew it was a mistake.
The dam became a pile of sticks and floated downstream. The
water that had stood behind rushed through, carrying with
it the loose soil of the creek banks. Standing there today,
Tony measures the chasm as 24 feet wide and about 6 feet deep.
But his measurement is a guess. That’s because in the
17 years since he blew up the dam, the chasm has filled in.
Before the dynamiting there was a stream deep enough to keep
the horses in their pasture, and after the dynamiting nothing
could cross. But the area is now called West Meadow. It is
so flat and filled with grass and willows that Tony has had
to build a fence to contain the animals. The repair is, oddly,
because of beavers.
After watching the ramifications of his impetuous dynamiting,
Tony realized the creatures could actually be a tool. Rather
than see their flooding as inconvenient, he began to see it
as the equivalent of the reservoirs people had built downstream.
Anything that retains water is an absolute gift in places
like Tony’s ranch, which gets only 13 inches of precipitation
a year. As Tony puts it, “From the time that it drops
on top of the hill to the time it flows out in the stream,
my job is to slow the rain down.”
Uphill the plants take care of that, but once precipitation
reaches the creek the best delay is a dam. Tony stood back
as the beavers built a second, larger one across the chasm
left by the dynamite. Water slowed down and backed up behind
it, encouraging water-loving species like willows to thrive
along the banks. Those plants harnessed the preexisting soil
and caught silt as it washed downstream.
The plants gradually closed in the banks of the creek. The
stream went from wide and shallow to thin and proportionately
deep. The creek’s channel actually grew smaller, but
that was good: where once fish had perished in the hot, slow
channel, now Tony’s nephew was catching fat brown trout.
The creek and the plants that depended on it were visibly
During times of heavy flow, water in this new, tighter course
would rise above the floodplain to irrigate the surrounding
fields. The area around the creek bed became positively marshy,
and the creek multiplied into numerous smaller channels that
distributed water more widely. As the surrounding pasture
received more moisture, the sagebrush died off and was replaced
by grasses. The riparian area grew from thirty feet wide to
a flat, green half-mile.
Today, there are again no beavers in West Meadow. They have
moved up- and downstream to colonize areas more conducive
to damming—all with Tony’s blessing. In their
place there are now elk and, for about twenty days a year,
cattle. Tony moves his herd through quickly and intensely.
With electric fencing he splits the area into four, 26-acre
sections. Last year he grazed all 450 of his cows in each
pasture for about five days of summer.
It sounds like a lot for the riparian area to handle, but
in fact the land benefits. This is because the animal impact
is concentrated and then balanced with 361 days of rest. Its
boosted productivity in turn benefits Tony. Even grazing it
for just five days out of the year, he gets seven times as
much raw productivity out of the meadow than out of the uplands.
Only 3 percent of his 16,500 acres are riparian, but they
make up 35 percent of his total production. “That’s
where the production is, ‘cause that’s where the
water is,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”
Mark Gordon, Johnson County
33,000 acres; beef cattle, sheep,
goats, hogs, laying hens
“The first year we started holistic management everyone
thought we were wacko,” Mark Gordon told me. “It
flew directly in the face of the American rangeman.”
That was in 1983 on the family ranch in Kaycee, Wyoming.
He got support from the old, old-timers, who had lived before
there were fences on the range and herding was a way of life.
But the generation that followed saw tight herds in small
places as bad management. Those people—most importantly
his father—were the ones Mark couldn’t convince.
first year we started holistic management everyone thought
we were wacko. It flew directly in the face of the American
Because HRM is fundamentally a decision-making process, when
practiced in a group it requires consensus. Recognizing that
that wasn’t going to happen on the family ranch, Mark
set out on his own. First he partnered with a likeminded neighbor
in Kaycee, and then he and his wife bought the Merlin Ranch,
in Buffalo, in 1988. (Mark remains partners with the neighbor,
but his primary business is the Merlin.)
Since then, partnership has been a major tool for the Merlin.
Mark believed that HRM could make the place much more productive
than it had been, and therefore enable the business to expand,
but he needed help in order to do it. When a destitute man
named Barry Bauer came to work for him in 1989, Mark made
him a deal: They would go devote themselves to this ranch.
If it succeeded, Barry would own his share of the success.
If it failed, the two would fail together. The condition was
that Barry had to pay for his own HRM education, a seminar
that cost $850. Only years later did Barry tell Mark that
the decision to go forward left a mere $50 in his pocket.
Mark predicted correctly. As a likeminded team they boosted
the ranch to new heights and Barry became a partner. What
they couldn’t predict was that their education would
be completed by two people who weren’t on board with
HRM. In 1995 they hired Mike Rodriguez, and in 1990 Sean Acord.
Both came from mainstream ranching traditions and initially
recoiled at the new philosophy.
has taken a regular old cowboy and taught
him to be a scientist and a mathematician.
It’s just incredible.”
“While Barry and I spent a lot of time contemplating
our ideas and being really critical with our decisions, we
had a blind spot,” Mark said. “Sean and Mike came
in with these fresh perspectives, and they helped us truly
question what we were doing.”
In other words, they thought HRM was ridiculous and they
didn’t hesitate to say it. But both hired men were quickly
convinced of HRM's merits by the undeniable evidence in the
pasture. “At first I thought he was crazy,” Mike
said. “But then when suddenly we were riding through
and the grass was up to my stirrups, I thought, ‘Hey,
there’s something to this.’”
Sean made the same quick transition and speaks of Mark, as
the others do, with sheer reverence. “He has taken a
regular old cowboy and taught him to be a scientist and a
mathematician,” he told me. “It’s just incredible.”
But while their interest in HRM is deep in terms of the range,
it has not become a value system as it does for some. Mark
“It’s important that people not be ripped out
of old lifestyles and forced into something that’s supposedly
right,” Mark said. “So we’ve concentrated
instead on defining and creating a future that everyone wants
They keep the application of HRM strictly to business. Take,
for example, the coyotes that claim anywhere from nine to
60 of their lambs each year. Mark sees the predators as a
creative challenge—even as a tool for controlling the
prairie dog population—while others see them as something
to eliminate. But nobody aims to “enlighten” anyone
else. Instead, they focus their discussion on what response
makes the most practical sense for the ranch.
Every issue prompts extensive meeting, planning, and talking,
all geared toward finding the most efficient path toward their
shared goal. But the goal itself is not all business. It includes
enjoying life. If the ranchers have been working too hard
and need to just go fishing, they delay moving the cattle—even
if that contradicts their grazing plan—and just try
not to do it again. Mike’s kids do the rounds with him
a few afternoons a week and ride along when he’s rounding
up cattle on horseback. “I get in trouble with Mark
for working too many hours,” Mike told me, half joking.
“He says I should be home with the family instead.”
The Merlin calls itself a family ranch, and in a sense that
means it's in the business of growing more families. The idea
is that as the Merlin succeeds, each man will become a partner
and be able to buy land of his own. The Merlin will then run
livestock on the new land until the individual can stand alone.
It is the ultimate model for the aspiring rancher, and the
commitment it inspires makes the business exponentially stronger.
Even as they “wobble forward,” figuring out what
is best for the ranch in the day to day, in a sense they've
already gotten where they want to be.
FARMERS: Series Archive