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HomeGrazing ManagementInstructions for Starting to Ranch (or Just Doing Better Where You Are)

Instructions for Starting to Ranch (or Just Doing Better Where You Are)

Editors Note:  Grant G. has an opportunity to start a cattle ranch from scratch in NE New Mexico. We shared his question with everyone at On Pasture, and you gave us some really great responses.  Some of them are posted as comments under the original article. Others, like this one from NRCS’s Dan Nosal, came directly to Rachel and Kathy as emails. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing these responses, and we’re guessing we’ll be getting even more. This is a great opportunity for sharing resources with folks that are getting started, or those who are just thinking about ways to improve their own operations. THANK YOU, On Pasture Community. We love learning and growing with you!

“If I was starting a ranch I would…..”

or “I would NOT….”

or “If I was starting over I would …..”

or “These are the questions I would find answers for…”

Get Free Help!

Looking for an NRCS Office near you? Click here to go to an interactive map that will help you find it.
Looking for an NRCS Office near you? Click here to go to an interactive map that will help you find it.

Contact the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office and request some time with a rangeland management specialist that can do a rangeland inventory for you.  They can also supply you with a conservation plan map of your property showing existing fencelines, watering points, soils, and ecological sites.  Use the plan map to number the pastures and begin the design of your grazing plan.  Hopefully you get a good rangeland specialist who understands Holistic Management, ecological principles, and the advantages of a good prescribed grazing system.  Not all NRCS folks are created equal or have the same knowledge!  Financial assistance is also available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, although I wouldn’t become solely dependent on that.


Plan your headquarters area to remain small.  You don’t need a large area nor do you need a bunch of machinery and junk laying around.  If it was me I would build one large steel building that would include living quarters, machine shed, shop, hay storage if necessary, and barn area for sick animals, etc.  The Europeans used to do this on their farms.  Everything was under one roof.  This way your headquarters footprint is small and you maintain as many acres for grazing as possible.  The building could even be included as part of a pasture.  Animals graze around your building and keep the weeds down.  No yard to maintain!  Of course, you would need to fence out a garden area or trees that you may want to plant for a windbreak, etc.

Historic photo of George Huttons cattle at a water trough near Pie Town, NM.
Historic photo of George Huttons cattle at a water trough near Pie Town, NM.

Keep your water development to a minimum.  No need to have a bunch of wells and tanks to purchase and maintain.  Cattle will travel one to two miles for water in level to rolling terrain and a half to one mile in steeper terrain.  Use the existing water sources as a hub (small trap area) and radiate fences away from the water like the spokes on a wheel.

Pasture Management

Generally speaking, the more pastures you have the better.  Try to mimic the way the bison grazed prior to European settlement and get as short of grazing periods as possible and as long of recovery periods as possible.  Work towards higher stock densities where you have all your animals in a smaller area for a shorter period of time.  Our native rangelands respond very well to this type of grazing regime.  Over time (10-20 years) you will increase your production and plant diversity.  Spend your money on fencing rather than gimmicks like reseeding, fertilizing, interseeding, terraces, keyline plowing, etc.  Establish a good grazing management plan and nature will take care of the rest.  Even though you want to spend your money on fencing, it does not have to be expensive.  I would use electric power fence (two-strand high tensile wire and composite posts like PasturePro).  Check out their website.  The post is the insulator so it is low maintenance and cheaper than barbed wire.  Also more wildlife-friendly.  Once you have a permanent fence design, you can further subdivide pastures using inexpensive portable electric fence.  Check out Jim Gerrish’s website for fencing supplies.  He is a wealth of information on what will work for you.

Use the proper carrying capacity (match forage supply to forage demand) and graze year-round.  Feed cost is the largest expense on the ranch.  Limit feeding hay only when necessary in the winter.  In New Mexico I would think snow cover in the winter would not be an issue, so you probably don’t need to feed any hay at all.  Perhaps a little protein supplement if you don’t have palatable winter shrubs.  Read Jim Gerrish’s book “Kick the Hay Habit”.

Essential Monitoring Reading ListLearn your plants and consider setting up a monitoring program.  If you’d like to read up on the topic, check out the Essential Monitoring Reading List.  NRCS can help you with this or you can read about Charlie Orchard’s monitoring techniques.  Monitoring will help you know if you are going in the right direction on your grazing program.

Animal Management and Handling

Here’s a link to the first in the series on Handling Facilities provided to On Pasture by the Whit Hibbard at Stockmanship Journal.

Rotate everything as one herd.  No need to have separate herds for cows, heifers, steers, etc. in a commercial beef cow operation.

Calve in sync with nature, when the wild ungulates in your area are having their young.  Let nature do your culling, she is smarter than you are.  Work with nature, not against her.  Take care of your animals, but don’t pamper them.  The cows should be working for you, not the other way around.

Look at the Whit Hibbard’s series of articles at On Pasture about livestock handling and on livestock handling facilities.  Use the Bud Williams design shown in this On Pasture video.  It’s not expensive and also portable.  Or just have a head-gate inside your building where you could work animals under shelter. There’s no need to spend a bunch of money on something you may only use once or twice per year.

Be Part of a Community of Innovation

Consider attending a Dave Pratt Ranching for Profit School. He has a lot of good advice.  Also check out Holistic Management International. Both Pratt and HMI have online courses and periodic workshops at different locations.  Also check out the Quivera Coalition right there in Albuquerque. They are another good resource and they have an annual conference in the fall with lots of good speakers.  For a big picture view of holistic management check out the Savory Institute as well.

Get on Kit Pharo’s newsletter and discussion group. He has lots of good, free information and you will learn more from him and others in his discussion group about low-input ranching and ranching in sync with nature in the west than you can learn anywhere else.  Kit is a seedstock producer in eastern Colorado.  If I was starting out in the business I would buy my bulls from him and develop a herd of moderate-sized cows that fits my environment.  Chip Hines was his mentor, so get all of Chip’s books also.  They’re at the On Pasture Bookstore, so when you buy them, 10% of the proceeds will support On Pasture and help them keep on keeping on. (Need to get in touch with Chip? Drop Kathy a note and she can make the introductions.)

Do you have other thoughts? Are there things you wish you’d done, or things you’re glad you didn’t do? Share them with us in the comments, or drop us a line!

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This resource only survives with your assistance.

Dan Nosal
Dan Nosal
Dan works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the Franktown, Colorado Office.


  1. A successful rancher must be proficient at managing three things, land, livestock, and finances. A person can excel at any two, yet will fail if they don’t master the third

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