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Questioning Our Grass Fed Success

By   /  July 22, 2019  /  1 Comment

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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.

Economics

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.

Ecology

One of Diamond’s central tenets is that environmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world.

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.

Monitoring Progress

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.

Here’s more on calculating your margins:

Ecological progress (or retreat) is much more difficult to measure than economic outcomes, and typically take a much longer time to interpret. Especially if we are talking about positive ecological outcome. The ecological measurements I am interested in are much more slight, demure, and they are part of our complicated ecological system, one that constantly changes over time.

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

Of course, not all ecological sites have the potential for 100% plant life cover. Check out this article for more on rangeland health assessments to help you measure your success.

Bare Soil
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.

Wildlife
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.

Photo by Randall Ingalls

 

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
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.

Our cattle in pasture.

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!

Happy Grazing!

 

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  • Published: 2 months ago on July 22, 2019
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  • Last Modified: July 22, 2019 @ 7:44 pm
  • Filed Under: Money Matters

About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

1 Comment

  1. Richard Moyer says:

    Thanks so much for raising these issues, James. And to John Marble for pointing us back to this great discussion. Here are my random thoughts on some of these threads…Trying to link how ‘economy and ecology’ are working out where I live and farm.

    Praising my neighbors:
    We are privileged to live in the S. Appalachians, SW VA. When we began farming 12 yrs ago, people graciously taught us, to quote Wendell Berry “what works here”.

    People still raise one to many beeves to feed their families and friends, use our local butcher, and sell the rest. The topography means many small farms…split further by modern choices. So we also graze small plots of several neighbors’ land who no longer run cattle, to “keep it down”. Rotational grazing here easily allows 300 grazing days per year. Once my land became green year-round, this opened up neighbors’ land to our cattle to “green that up” as well.

    We have a community cannery, where mostly older people “put up” a year’s supply of green beans, soup beans, chili, beef stew, sausage, tomato sauce, apple butter. Also canned, local beef or pork or chicken, etc, etc. A few have their children and grandchildren helping and learning, and friends and neighbors jump in, too. At the cannery, we get to learn and see what others do in their home kitchens. The many ways of preserving local foods. These skills contribute mightily to many household economies. James, will your children learn some of these? Who will teach them?

    In this corner of Appalachia ‘feeding the world’ can still mean feeding friends and neighbors. If you have a local/regional, small-scale beef processor, consider yourself blessed. Use it or lose it.

    So, yes, it is possible to grow and preserve local foods, including meats, as part of our household economy. Either what we grow. Or buy then process from neighbors. And there are experienced people, if we seek them out, who would be honored to teach us to preserve a sizeable chunk of our yearly calories, sourced locally. Or sell us what they grow and preserve. Let’s choose to honor them. Modern realities have pushed us humans away from “learning from Mom” and Grandmom “what to eat” among local options. Our neighbors have been so kind to drop by and help us, again to teach us “what works here”.

    —If Kathy can teach us to honor and respect cattle moms passing “what to eat here” along to their calves: How do we honor and respect the elders in our communities who grow, can and/or cook local calories? Esp. the foods we know we should be eating more of. We who grow, source and cook local foods, beef included, are we teaching our kids and grandkids to do the same? Opening our farms, homes and kitchens to those wanting to learn how?

    —James, consider comparing like vs like on beef price affordability. Our butcher says our grass-only burger is 85:15. When I checked my beef price at farmers market vs. the local grocery, was surprised that price of the “ground lean” was the same. Higher fat beef costs less. Chicken and pork are even “cheaper”, but again from Wendell Berry, there is not a “full accounting” of the external human labor and ecological/land costs of the “cheaper” meats in the grocery. As a family farmer, I may only be earning the same wage as the laborer at a huge animal feeding or processing facility behind that “cheap” meat. But I sure prefer my boss, hours, coworkers, breaks, schedule, vacations, air I breathe, water & soil I steward, etc.

    John, how many of these self-employment benefits may I include in my margin, even if my bank account is not flush? As long as I am paying my bills…and ideally I am mentoring others on “what works here”.

    Karl and Dave, thanks for thoughts and links that help illustrate some of my jumbled concepts above.

    —Will close with these responses to my locally-raised foods: When market customers ask about my packaged beef in the cooler before us, I respond “I can show you each pasture and hayfield, where the sun grew the grass for each bite of this animal’s life.” Once a customer picked out a few items at my table (prices marked), then balked at paying the total price, set them down and turned to leave. The customer in line behind her turned to her and said: “He needs to make a living.” Then he turned to me and said “I’ll buy her items and mine, too”. Customers like this keep me going, in multiple ways.

    Thanks again James for throwing out so many ideas at once, to John for distilling some of these, and to Kathy for bringing us together!

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