Thanks to the Sand County Foundation for this piece. I’ve added some ideas about how you can use what you learn here.
Craig and Conni French always considered themselves good land stewards, but six years ago things really began to change. They came to see their cattle ranch’s fate was tied to healthy soils and grasses.
Their introduction to holistic ranch management techniques called into question long-held, traditional ways of thinking. The drastic changes that followed required a leap of faith for the fourth-generation ranchers. They traded harvesting hay for grazing methods that let their cattle harvest the forage themselves. Such changes didn’t happen overnight, and each came with its own risk and learning curve.
The use of cell grazing (a form of rotational grazing that moves a large herd frequently to new pastures) allows more recovery time for perennial vegetation to flourish on a semi-arid, brittle environment of short prairie grass. This results in better forage and wildlife habitat.
The Frenches make decisions not just with their cattle herd’s health in mind, but also the impact on soil, insects and wildlife. Temporary electric fence has replaced permanent fencing to reduce conflicts with wildlife. Targeted grazing of non-native grasses has improved habitat for grassland birds and sage grouse.
Working With Partners Improves Success
With assistance from the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Frenches moved livestock water tanks and windbreaks away from a creek. Beaver Creek flows through three miles of the ranch and its health is a conservation priority for the French family. The return of willow trees along the creek’s banks is a sign their efforts are paying off.
The Frenches also collaborate with federal and state agencies, non-profits and other ranchers to achieve conservation success. Their voluntary 30-year conservation lease with Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks ensures their land’s native grassland and sagebrush will remain uncultivated and undeveloped. Likewise, hunters are allowed access to their ranch’s thriving wildlife populations through enrollment in the state’s Block Management program. They also agreed to sustain and improve habitat for four species of imperiled grassland birds and sage-grouse, and have their numbers surveyed.
Passing It On
As long-time members of The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, a rancher-led conservation group that aims to educate within and outside the ranch community, the Frenches share their experience with holistic management, cell grazing and other innovative conservation practices.
The Frenches, who farm with their three children, aren’t ones to rest on their laurels. They plan to treat 320 acres of recently purchased farmland as a demonstration site for the soil health benefits of cover crops. As they steward a ranch homesteaded by Craig’s great grandfather in 1910, the Frenches understand the importance of passing on a land ethic to the next generation.
This year, the Frenches were presented with the Leopold Conservation Award from the Sand County Foundation. Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.
What Can You Do With This?
Investing in yourself and your knowledge base is a good place to start.
Working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service was a first step. “Our new way to look at managing pasture and grass started when we went to a grazing management workshop with the Natural Resource Conservation Service that talked about rest and rotation of pastures. We quickly realized that we’d been re-grazing some of the plants over and over by leaving our cattle in the pasture for too long, ” they said. Like the Frenches, you can with your local NRCS staff to develop grazing plans that protect your resources and improve profit. Click here to find your local office.
They furthered their education by attending a Ranching for Profit School. They say this helped them step outside the box and change their mindset. “We had an excellent base to work with, but we learned to go another step forward and apply more science and soil microbiology. We saw other ways of managing our grazing and ranch, and the economics really made sense to us. We used electric fencing to move pastures more often, and to check our animals and pastures at least once a day. We learned to pay more attention. We were able to increase our stocking density.”
A subscription to On Pasture is another good way to improve your skills and profitability. In a survey of readers, 95% of respondents said they had made a change to their operations based on something they’d found in On Pasture. We have over 2700 articles in our archives, so if you have a question, we’re bound to have an answer.
Get Involved With Local Organizations
The Frenches have been involved with the Phillips County Farm Bureau, serving on the board, because the organization is a watchdog on policies that affect producers. They’re also part of the The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, which helps them extend their conservation efforts by working with their neighbors on projects that improve the landscape while strengthening local communities.