If you get lost in the beauty of this video, I don’t blame you. There’s spectacular western scenery, cowboys on horseback, wildlife, and shining cattle trailing across broad green pastures. But there’s a serious message here, too – one about the importance of understanding mother nature and working with her to create all this beauty.
As Cooper Hibbard puts it, “There’s a perception that cattle are bad. And there’s also a perception that cattle are good. And both of those are true. The thing that makes them different is how they’re managed. But if they’re managed well they can be the absolute key to a healthy landscape.”
Enjoy the video, and then read on for some of what I see the Hibbards doing to create that healthy landscape. They’re things you can do too.
Observation and Working With Nature
The earth needs us. We just have to understand what to do, how to do it. And to do that we just have to listen and observe.
– Cooper Hibbard
Whether it was working on ranches in Colorado, Mexico, Argentina, or his home place, Cooper has found “that everything is governed by natural laws.”
The Hibbards pay attention to those natural laws and adjust their management accordingly. One example is moving their calving season from February and March to May and June. In a 2003 interview in the Angus Beef Bulletin, Chase Hibbard, Cooper’s uncle, says the move was made to be more congruous with range productivity and cow-herd needs. “A system where we could feed less hay over the winter and let Mother Nature do the work in early spring with grass green-up at the time of calving began to look better.”
Intensive Grazing Management
The family has used rotational grazing since 1992 at a scale most of us are not accustomed to – 1,600 cow calf pairs, 60 ewes and 16,500 acres of pastures and forests. In a given year, one 3,000- to 7,000-acre pasture is grazed during the growing season, one is grazed only after grass seed heads ripen in early July, and one is rested with no grazing. That regime, the same that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks requires in its grazing leases, gives each pasture two full years of not being grazed before seeds ripen.
Since 2015, they’ve also used portable fencing to move livestock on a daily basis in winter and spring, and as often as possible through the summer and fall. The results as Cooper Hibbard describes, are significant. In spite of managing through five of the driest years in the history of the ranch, “We increased our forage harvest and production rate in this pasture by 485%.”
To find out if their management is making a difference, Seiben Live Stock Company has implemented 24 monitoring transects across the ranch to track changes in rangeland health. In the last seven years, bare soil in one transect decreased form 23% to 2%. The rest of the transects had an average of 8% bare soil, which decreased to an average of 0% in the same time span. Range transects show great diversity, with more than 42 plant species present.
As Cooper notes in the video, it is well-documented that the more diverse systems are, the healthier they and the better they can deal with adverse conditions. But the Sieben Ranch philosophy takes diversity beyond animals and plant communities and includes diversity in thought and people. As Cooper says, “The more that we can work with others the better off we’ll be.”
For Sieben Livestock Company this has included partnering with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on a 38,000 acre public/private land cooperative grazing system in the neighboring Beartooth Wildlife Management Area to maintain and enhance range health and wildlife habitat. In addition the ranch has successfully partnered with MFWP to restore native Westslope Cutthroat Trout to approximately 40 miles of mountain streams in the same area. They’re part of a group working on how to manage elk populations to best serve the interests of hunters and cattle producers alike.
Those are just a few of the things I noticed about how the Hibbards approach management of their ranch. They’re ideas that you might find helpful as you consider improvements to your own operation. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.