Sandia Pueblo, NM
Land: 93 acres sbudivided into
Cattle: 220 head, completely
Starting up: Montoya transitioned
what was an old sod farm into his now healthy
range by clearing and laser-leveling the farm,
digging ditches, planting grass seed, builing
the thirty-three paddocks, fixing the central
watering tank, turning on the water, and standing
back. When the grass began to grow, he turned
out the cows. Free manure from an out-of-business
dairy helped move things along. Today, the animals
do the fertilizing.
The Quivira Coalition fosters ecological, economic
and social health on western landscapes through
education, innovation, collaboration, and progressive
public and private land stewardship.
The Quivira Coalition
1413 Second St, Suite 1
Santa Fe, NM 87505
For more information about the science underlying
progressive ranch management see Nathan Sayre’s
New Ranch: A Guide to Restoring Western Rangelands
(2001) published by the Quivira Coalition and
distributed by the University of Arizona Press.
A talk by Roger Bowe, entitled “Profit
Is Not a Dirty Word,” can be found in “The
New Ranch at Work: Proceedings of the Quivira
Coalition’s First Annual Conference,”
available from the Quivira Coalition.
For copies of the Stockman Grass Farmer, call
800-748-9808 or visit:
More information on the benefits of grass-fed
foods can be found at www.eatwild.com.
two little words lies a great deal of hope for the
rural American West: Grass Farmer.
They are words Sam Montoya uses to describe himself and what
he does with the 93 acres of irrigated ground he manages on
the Pueblo of Sandia, located a short drive north of Albuquerque,
New Mexico. What he does is grow grass, lots of it, and he
harvests it with cattle. Lots of them. He makes a good living
at it too, without having to break a sweat. “When I
retired, I decided to go back into agriculture,” says
Montoya with his easy smile, “but I didn’t want
to work very hard.”
Every day he travels the short distance from his house to
the pasture, opens one of the gates in the electric fence
that subdivides the land into 33 paddocks, watches as the
cattle stride to fresh feed, closes the gate, and goes home.
The entire process takes less than 15 minutes. It’s
not just about efficiency, however. By moving his cattle every
day, Montoya avoids overgrazing the land. “I’m
trying to mimic what the bison did,” says Montoya. “They
kept moving all the time.”
This is in contrast with the traditional practice of static,
continuous grazing found across the West, sometimes referred
to as the ‘Columbus school’ of cattle management
(turn ‘em out in May, go discover them in October),
which can lead to range deterioration.
Montoya’s neighbor and mentor Kirk Gadzia, a range
consultant and educator, defines overgrazing as what happens
when a severely bitten plant is not given sufficient time
to recover and grow before being bitten again. Kirk likes
to say that it doesn’t matter which animals do the biting—cattle,
elk, deer, rabbits—what matters instead is a sufficient
recovery period for the plants. It's not a question of which
animals are ‘native’ or not to this land, as some
like to argue, but whether their behavior is natural, as expressed
in their impact on the grass below their feet.
“You, me, the
land—everything needs a break,” says Montoya.
“But you shouldn’t sit on the sofa all week.
Too much rest is as bad as too much work.
It’s all about balance.”
To mimic the natural migratory behavior of bison, Montoya
gives each of his paddocks approximately 30 days of rest,
which has resulted in grass so healthy that he has run as
many as 220 head of cattle on his little “ranch.”
In some parts of the West that’s the capacity of a much
larger spread. Of course the irrigation helps, but even well-watered
ground can be damaged by grazing if the land isn’t given
“You, me, the land—everything needs a break,”
says Montoya. “But you shouldn’t sit on the sofa
all week. Too much rest is as bad as too much work. It’s
all about balance.”
The New Ranchsm
In one sense Montoya is a conventional rancher—he has
the cows, the grass, and the attitude. He watches the cattle
cycle, buying when prices are low, selling when prices rise.
And he has all the usual worries that come with the business
of raising animals in a “New West” of cell phones,
mountain bikes, and lattes.
But there is little that is conventional about Montoya’s
operation—and that’s where hope enters the picture.
In an age when ranching is struggling hard to avoid becoming
an anachronism, it is ranchers like Montoya who are leading
the way to an economically and ecologically brighter future.
In fact, a new term has been coined to describe the unconventional
approaches toward ranching emerging around the region: The
New Ranchsm. It covers, loosely, everything from
progressive cattle management (sometimes called ‘planned’
or ‘management intensive’ grazing), to finding
conservation values on ranch land that pay, to providing ecological
services that rural residents can deliver to urban folk, to
restoration activities that involve scientists, conservationists,
public land managers and others. While the elements may differ,
the goal of all this work is the same: to figure out how to
live sustainably within our native and adopted landscapes.
In other words, The New Ranch embraces a wide range of efforts
to live and work within nature’s model of human, animal,
and land health.
That’s a tall order, of course, but so many intriguing
and innovative ideas and practices have popped up all over
the American West in recent years that the goal may not be
as idealistic as it first sounds. Best of all, these ideas
are proving to be profitable—a radical idea in and of
itself for ranchers and other land owners. Indeed, many ‘New
Ranchers’ are entrepreneurs in the best sense; they
have found ways to restore both economic and ecological vitality
to their home ground at the same time. They understand, as
we all should, that if there is to be hope for the future
these new ideas have to translate ultimately into paychecks.
told the Council that I was going to put two hundred head
on ninety-three acres,” says Montoya, “they
thought I was crazy.”
New Ranchers such as Sam Montoya are not only heeding Wendell
Berry’s famous advice to engage in an activity that
“neither depletes soil nor people,” they have
gone one step further—they are constructing models of
sustainable work and play that can teach lessons to urban
and rural residents alike. They are leading by example, even
though most New Ranchers probably do not look at themselves
Don’t call Sam Montoya “radical,” for instance,
because he thinks of his work as quite traditional. “I
grew up on a farm,” he says. “My dad farmed for
fifty years on the reservation. It’s in my blood.”
After college and a stint in the business world, Montoya embarked
on a 27-year career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Upon
retirement in 1998, he felt the memories of his childhood
beckoning and decided to return to agriculture. “It’s
a way of staying connected to the land,” he says, “and
maintaining tradition.” But by using “radical”
methods. The irony isn’t lost on Montoya. “What’s
unconventional today will be conventional tomorrow,”
he says matter-of-factly.
It takes only a quick visit to Montoya’s place to see
that something unusual is going on. Wedged between fast-growing
Rio Rancho (an Intel-dominated subdivision and now the fourth
largest city in New Mexico) and the smoggy horizon we call
Albuquerque, with interstates 25 and 40 humming not far away,
Montoya’s little operation stands out like a green oasis.
It isn’t a mirage, however. Pull up to the big cottonwood
tree in the middle of the ranch and you'll see a herd of cattle
munching contentedly on orchard grass, fescue, strawberry
clover and other cool-season species. Two thin strands of
electric fencing keep them in place. The animals look fat
and happy. So does the land.
“This used to be a sod farm,” Montoya says, nodding
at the ground. “They stripped off the soil and grass
and sold it.” Montoya asked the tribe for permission
to try something else. “When I told the Council that
I was going to put two hundred head on ninety-three acres,”
says Montoya, “they thought I was crazy.”
Spending $150,000 of his own money, Montoya cleared and laser-leveled
the farm, dug ditches, planted grass seed, built the thirty-three
paddocks, fixed the central watering tank, turned on the water,
and stood back. When the grass began to grow, he turned out
the cows. He caught a lucky break too: when the last dairy
in the area shut down (a sign of the times), Sam volunteered
to take a portion of their manure—for free. “Their
‘problem’ became my opportunity,” he says,
Today, the animals do the fertilizing for him. In fact, 2003
was the first year Montoya did not need to use any fertilizer
at all—which fits well with his overall business plan
of reducing inputs, and thus costs, as much as possible.
use any machines, which means he doesn’t have any
bills for diesel, repairs, or insurance. “I don’t
want anything that rusts, rots or depreciates,”
he says. “Plus, I feel good that I’m not polluting
His cattle are entirely grass-fed, which means he doesn’t
need to purchase expensive grain supplements. He doesn’t
use any machines, either, which means he doesn’t have
any bills for diesel, repairs, or insurance. “I don’t
want anything that rusts, rots or depreciates,” says
Montoya. “Plus, I feel good that I’m not polluting
It was a struggle at first, he says, as the ground healed
from its sod-busting past and as the cattle adjusted to the
new system, but before long it paid off, literally. Within
three years, Montoya recouped what he had spent, plus some.
His grass farm had begun to yield a new product: profits.
Another key to the ranch’s profitability was timing.
Montoya purchased a herd of skinny cattle when prices were
low, fattened them up on the lush grass, and then sold the
whole lot in 2001 when prices soared. That was in addition
to the annual calf crop he produced. Today, he custom grazes
cattle from other Pueblos for a fee of $12 a head per month.
Profits and labor aside, Montoya will tell you that his proudest
achievement is the flock of Canadian geese that visit his
little place every year. “When I took over there wasn’t
any wildlife around,” he says. “Now they’re
here all the time. The other day I saw a white-tailed deer
here. It means I must be doing something right.”
The real key to Montoya’s success is that he considers
his principle crop to be grass, not cattle. That’s why
he calls himself a “grass farmer”—everything
he does is focused on enhancing and maintaining the natural
processes, including water, mineral, and energy cycles, that
produce healthy grass.
This approach is a serious departure from the practice of
most ranchers in the West who tend to focus on the cow—its
genetics, forage requirements, weaning weights, and so forth—more
than what’s happening on the ground.
Roger Bowe, an award winning 'grass farmer' from eastern
New Mexico puts it this way: “When my neighbors come
on the ranch they look at one of two things—the cattle
or the horizon, for the weather. I can’t get them to
look at the ground between their feet.”
“When my neighbors
come on the ranch they look at one of two things—the
cattle or the horizon, for the weather. I can’t
get them to look at the ground between their feet.”
This is important because, according to Bowe, the “number
one enemy of ranchers” is not environmentalists, the
meat-packing industry, government regulations, or global trade.
It’s bare soil—the failure of a good grass crop.
“That’s where trouble starts,” he says.
It is also where opportunity begins, as Montoya’s and
Bowe’s profits can attest (according to Bowe, his decision
to switch from continuous to planned grazing netted a 2000
percent margin of profit in the first five years).
One source of their “radical” approach is the
Stockman Grass Farmer, a national publication that
touts the benefits, both economic and ecological, of management-intensive
grazing. Its editor, Allan Nation, writes, “Increased
profit does not come from buying more tractors, a bigger bull,
or more feed and fertilizer. Increased profit comes primarily
from your knowledge of how to mesh your ruminants with the
natural environment. I call it building your farm or ranch
from the grass up.” According to Nation, management-intensive
grazing can work almost anywhere.
Indeed, ranchers across the West, both large and small, have
switched to management-intensive or planned grazing systems,
where the timing, intensity, and frequency of cattle impact
on the land are carefully controlled. Not all of them think
of themselves as grass farmers, but all of them pay close
attention to their grass and the signs of ecological health
that go with it.
This thinking parallels recent developments in the range
science community, where new protocols to measure land health
at the level of soil, grass, and water have been developed.
Additionally, new thinking about ecological 'thresholds' and
'states-and-transitions' models are beginning to elucidate
the long-term interactions between land management and ecosystem
Not one to idle in his retirement, even if he doesn’t
want to “work very hard,” Sam Montoya continues
to plow new ground, so to speak. He has become active in an
effort to teach Tiwa, his native language, to the pueblo’s
children, and he understands his ranch work as part of a larger
effort to help defend the tribe’s water rights. Recently,
he also helped to form a new non-profit organization called
the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance (SWGLA), a group
of ranchers, land managers, conservationists, and researchers
working together to connect producers of grass-fed food with
Montoya believes grass-fed food has the potential to strengthen
ranch economies, bring jobs to rural areas, and become a healthy
food alternative for urban consumers. “Farmers and ranchers
need to stop being price-takers,” says Montoya, referring
to the food commodity system. “They need to be more
flexible, not bound by custom, and the price grass-fed food
gets is one way to do that.”
“There are a lot of challenges, however,” he
continues, “especially in a dry place like New Mexico.”
“There’s too much idle land,” he says, nodding
his head at the fields that surround his farm. “It could
be producing more food.” He is also troubled by the
unwillingness of some people to work the land today, especially
the younger generation. He is concerned that people will lose
the bond with their heritage that comes from an intimate relationship
with nature through work.
In the meantime, Montoya keeps busy. He and a neighbor have
gone into business raising alfalfa, which means he saves the
cost of buying hay in the winter and can feed the hay to the
cattle for a profit. “And I get natural fertilizer as
a bonus,” he says.
There have been bumps in the road, to be sure, but they have
been few and manageable. Montoya credits his success to focusing
on three things: growing good grass, watching the cattle market
carefully, and reducing costs. It’s all about being
businesslike, he insists, while working within nature’s
model. And for a man who didn’t plan to work very hard,
there are still lots of opportunities ahead.
“This place hasn’t reached its potential yet,”