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.
Jim Gould, Park County
70,000 acres; certified organic beef cattle
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
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 usually replace.
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 the supplements.
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 requirement.
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 labor.
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 end.”
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
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 freedom.
“I’ve got the most liberal grazing plan in the whole
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
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 more freedom.
“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 healthier.
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
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 rangeman.”
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
“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
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 respects
“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 to live.”
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.