Back in May, On Pasture author and heretic rancher/philosopher James Mathew Craighead had the gall to ask a bunch of questions, and I mean a whole bunch of questions, including some that appeared to cast doubt on the entire Holy Grail of grazing and grass and soils and meat and…well, heck, just EVERYTHING!!!
Turns out, his attempt at stimulating us to examine our methods and practices and beliefs brought forth an eruption of comments, some of them from folks not all that happy with having their belief systems questioned. Bravo, James!
On the home front, that article caused me to consider a few questions about my own little ranching experiment.
Am I doing the right things? How would I know? How would I measure them, or what would the measure be?
As I write this, I find myself reviewing the basic tenants of my own ranching belief system. These ideas don’t come from a holy book, but from several decades of study, practice and thought. I’ve adopted ideas from all sorts of people in many different fields of work, and that masala of experience leads me to some conclusions and some deep beliefs. Here goes.
I believe ranching is a combination of two separate but deeply intertwined bodies of science: Economics and Ecology. These two fields are not in opposition. Rather, they are essential balance points, each side weighing in on every decision considered and every action taken. In the end, both economics and ecological interests must be served if we are to make progress. All that said, there is a hierarchy here.
In the short-term, the various schemes we undertake on the land must have a positive economic outcome, or we will not be able to stay on the land. We will be replaced by someone with a better idea.
In the long-term, our management of the basic resources we control must have a positive effect on those resources. Or, at the absolute bare minimum, an ecologically neutral effect. Any sustained course that degrades our soil, water, biology, or social universe will result in eventual failure, and we will be replaced with someone who has a better idea.
So, back to the question of measuring just how we’re doing. What would the measures be? What characteristics should we pay attention to? In the paragraphs above, I mentioned the two foundation pieces of ranching –economics and ecology– and I implied that economics are the initial hurdle. Perhaps this is because economics are so much more simple and direct than ecological issues. When it comes to economics, we simply isolate the enterprise and do the math.
Question: does enterprise X actually contribute positive margin to the ranch? Yes? Cool. We should probably keep doing it, unless there is another enterprise that works better or one that we simply enjoy more.
So, back to the questions James was asking. When I review his article, I think it boils down to a few basic ideas: Are we doing good, and how should we be measuring our impact. Below are some of the things I pay attention to. One little note here: I find it is much easier to perceive change on new pieces of land, as in, new rental properties. I believe that much of the change that results from our grazing management happens early, in the first few years. Perhaps this is the low-hanging fruit, the time and place where change is rapid and noticeable.
My Indicators of Ecological Health and/or Change
I believe the percentage of bare soil in a pasture is a fine indicator of ecological health. Most important is the trend: is the percentage of bare soil decreasing or increasing? If there is more bare soil this year than last year, I need to change my management. My goal, then, is that 100% of my soil be protected by some kind of plant life. We are not quite there yet.
A healthy pasture ecosystem should play host to a wide variety of wildlife, including birds and mammals, predators and prey. Besides being delightful to spy on, high levels of wildlife indicate healthy insect populations, and that probably means healthy soil ecology. Professional ecologists track populations of key “indicator species” to judge changes in ecosystem health. On our ranch, my own personal indicator species are wild turkey on the grasslands and blacktail deer in the forests. I am very encouraged by the current populations of these critters.
Diversity of Plants
Over time, I have become much more intrigued with the concept that a diversity of plants is more resilient, healthier, and more productive than a mono-culture of this-or-that improved species. Our grasslands are rich in plant diversity, and I believe this to be a result of the kind of grazing management we practice. Much of the forage our cattle eat would be classified (by some) as “undesireable” or even “weed” species. Goodness me.
Movement Toward Deep-Rooted Perennials
This trend is easy to observe in new rental ground. When we take over a piece of grassland that has been poorly managed or hayed to death, the majority of the apparent species are what I like to call survivors or pioneers: tough little plants that can take a beating. They don’t produce much forage, but they survive and reproduce. Under proper grazing management, we typically see the rapid emergence of much more productive, palatable, deep-rooted perennial grasses. These grasses have a much longer growing season and perform important functions in cycling water, carbon and nutrients. Observing this kind of ecological change is heartening.
Production is the crowning glory of traditional agriculture, and for the most part, not very helpful in analyzing ecological (or even economic) progress. Because of this, I don’t spend much time measuring production. That said, there are some interesting things that production can tell us, when viewed through the prism of ecological thinking.
Production – things like pounds of red meat produced per acre or number of yearlings grazed during a particular season – is somewhat easy to track on isolated rental properties, as our grazing plan for those parcels is usually quite simple. Generally speaking, we see production numbers increase as the ecological indicators mentioned above improve. So, changes in % of bare soil, diversity of plants, a shift toward perennials, etc. typically mean production will increase too.
Wrapping Things Up
Of the head-scratching questions James Matthew Craighead asked. I’ve really only had a chance to think about a couple of them:
Does our ranch make economic sense?
And does it make ecological sense?
Based on the things I can measure, I feel pretty comfortable answering in the affirmative to both of these. As for feeding the world and getting people to pay a premium for grass-fed meat and all the rest, I’ll leave those questions to the bigger brains and bigger voices out there.
I can’t wait to hear the answers!
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