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

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.

By Lisa Hamilton, Posted July 2, 2004

 


Merlin Ranch
Holistic 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.

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 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 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.


Merlin Ranch

Jim 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 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.


Merlin Ranch

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.”

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 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 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.


Merlin Ranch

“The 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.


Merlin Ranch

“He has taken a regular old cowboy and taught him to be a scientist and a mathematician. It’s just incredible.”

--Sean Acord

“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 respects that.

“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.