Big things on a little place
On Sandia Pueblo in north-central New Mexico, Sam Montoya revitalized a tired piece of land—and is now earning a comfortable retirement income.

By Courtney White
Posted August 3, 2004

Farm at a Glance

Sam Montoya
Sandia Pueblo, NM

Land: 93 acres sbudivided into 33 paddocks

Cattle: 220 head, completely grass-fed

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.

 

Resources

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
505-820-2544
www.quiviracoalition.org


For more information about the science underlying progressive ranch management see Nathan Sayre’s The 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:
www.stockmangrass
farmer.com
.


More information on the benefits of grass-fed foods can be found at www.eatwild.com.

In 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 sufficient rest.

“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.

“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.”

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 that way.

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.

Oasis

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, smiling again.

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.

Montoya doesn’t 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 the air.”

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 the air.”

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.”

Lessons

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.”

Montoya shows visitors the ranch.

“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.”

--Roger Bowe

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 productivity.

Future

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 consumers.

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,” he smiles.