Environmentalists have long derided the methods that have come to be standard practice for American ranchers and farmers. Over-reliant on water, fossil fuels, large equipment, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides – many of them fossil fuel intensive in their own right – livestock and crop production contributes a surprisingly large portion of our greenhouse gas emissions, and are also large contributors to water pollution, land degradation and habitat destruction.
As populations and urban areas have grown and spread, and debates over land and water rights, usage, volume and quality become increasingly contentious, growing numbers of farmers and ranchers are looking to more sustainable, organic farming and ranching supported by community supported agriculture and environmentally and socially conscious consumers.
Rooted deeply in the land they work and communities they live in, Western ranchers such as the husband and wife team of George Whitten and Julie Sullivan are breaking the mold by crossing the environmental-agricultural picket lines by creating a new agricultural mindset and toolkit that melds principles including social and ecological, as well as economic, sustainability.
The benefits of grass-fed beef and cattle ranching
Whitten has been a forerunner of a new type of Western rancher, one that makes his bottom line operating decisions based on economics and a holistic assessment of the environment– water, land, flora and fauna– he is a part of and helps create.
Nothing if not practical and focused on supporting his family and his community, Whitten, contrary to most of his high school buddies that also became farmers and ranchers, in the ’70s began to see the futility, added cost, complexity, resource depletion and degradation inherent in simply taking as gospel the institutionalized model of large scale industrialized agriculture.
The short answer as to why he set out looking for a more sustainable operating model and decision making process boils down to this: it works out better all around – ecologically, economically and in terms of the effects on his community.
I think there’s an another crucial element: Whitten and Sullivan just care more about the land, the animals they raise and the environment – as opposed to simply trying to maximize short-term profit, and so there willing to go to greater lengths and do more in the way of finding a safer, saner and sustainable way of raising livestock.
It requires an open mind, dedication and a new approach to the actual work, but Whitten is finding that he can raise, finish and market more cattle at lower cost organically and all on grass than he could by simply trucking his young cows and calves and selling them at the feedlot, where they’d be penned up and pumped full of corn and grain, as well as hormones for the last few months of their lives.
Moreover, his cows – accustomed to a more varied diet of grasses, shrubs and forbs– are generally healthier and more robust, as is his land. Free of the hormones and chemically treated food they’ve eaten, organic pasture, grass-fed beef has also proven to be surprisingly healthy.
Turning on its head the well-established notion of steak and beef as a cause of heart disease, it turns out that grass-fed beef is free of the artery clogging fats of its grain finished cousin, and is chock full of anti-oxidants. In fact, it’s claimed that eating a grass-fed beef steak is as good for you as eating an equivalent portion of salmon.
Mob grazing his herd on limited areas of pasture and then opening up new areas to them each day avoids the degradation, loss of nutrients and the inhibition of new growth associated with overgrazing and over-rest. It’s a model that Whitten has honed over years of self-education and field testing.
The land he works, and more specifically the top couple or few millimeters of soil, are a particular area of focus, one that Whitten values in the manner a financial accountant or analyst views long-term capital. “That’s where it all comes together. If you can create the right conditions there the rest takes care of itself, microorganisms are stimulated and the natural processes flourish,” he says.
In what may be a largely unacknowledged first, Whitten at one time served as both the president of the local Cattleman’s Association and the local Sierra Club chapter. The two local groups actually held meetings together while Whitten held both these positions, and no one has admitted to any brawls having broken out. Unfortunately, when Whitten and supporters from both local organizations tried to push and lift some of their proposals to the state level they failed to take root; the distance between the two groups’ at the state level proved too great to bridge.
Seeking an alternative to mowing and baling hay from the overgrown, over-rested pasture that has been stifling growth and pasture recovery it is responsible for managing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approached Whitten and Sullivan about grazing their herd across some of the arid, high mountain meadows that make up the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, part of the larger Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Working with the natural cycle
Using polywire, slim, lightweight metal fence posts and a small solar panel and energizer – essentially a car battery and step-up transformer enclosed in a portable hard plastic carrying case that looks like a small cooler – Whitten and Sullivan erect temporary enclosures bounded by electric fence.
Using the cattle’s natural herding tendencies and competition they remove old stagnant plant material that is stifling new growth. “That is returned in the form of dung and urine which ultimately becomes the fertilizer for the plants. Seeds are incorporated into the soil by the hooves as the dense herd moves across the land. We are only using a process under which both species evolved, cattle become the pollinators for the grass upon which they have always depended” Whitten explained.
In an arid, “brittle” environment where organic decay is slow, over-resting pasture is as unhealthy as overgrazing it, he continues. Moving the herd and intensively grazing areas of pasture sequentially mimics the way grazing herds, along with their predators, moved around and grazed rangelands in the past in response to changes in food, water supply and climate.
It’s a more labor- and planning-intensive form of ranching than what conventional ranchers in the West are used to, but a rewarding, satisfying and ecologically beneficial one, according to Whitten.
Initial results look encouraging. After a week of mob grazing his herd on the pasture, giving his herd an average of around four acres per day of new pasture, the cattle have cleaned up most of the old, slowly decaying organic material and trimmed down newer growth. Whitten opens up new areas each day, thereby assuring that previously grazed areas are not overgrazed and that the animals have a balanced diet of old and newer growth.