This New Approach to Ranching is Bringing Grass Back to the Arid Southwest

This New Approach to Ranching is Bringing Grass Back to the Arid Southwest

Ever since Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm told Michael Pollan that he was a first and foremost a “grass farmer,” in one of the most well-known chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the term has become commonplace among pasture-based farmers and ranchers working to raise animals on healthy grasslands. But what does it mean to farm grass in the American Southwest?

New Mexico, where I live, is an arid state. Ranching is traditional here—cattle and sheep have long been raised in large numbers. Like all cows, they start out eating grass in a pasture, but most put on their final pounds in feedlots where grain adds weight and the familiar flavor and tenderness that many people associate with beef.

Over the last few decades, a group of Southwestern ranchers have been returning to another approach. More than withholding grain from the cows’ diets, however, these ranchers must maintain healthy, living pastures. Doing so involves a number of new practices that, when followed, can radically change land health for the better.

In fact, it might well change the idea that grazing animals are bad for the land, a sentiment I still hear expressed often that originated in the environmental community in the 1960s—and with justification at the time when cattle were poorly managed especially on public lands. As with all things, the devil is in the details.

Nancy Ranney, of Ranney Ranch in Central New Mexico, has been grass farming since early on, and she’s seen her family ranch change. From l968 until 2002, her dad’s ranch was strictly a cow-calf operation, meaning its primary goal was to produce calves for sale. This type of ranch is typical in New Mexico, and the cattle were run over the entire ranch. Now, it produces beef that’s certified by the American Grassfed Association, which means that the cattle spend their entire lives on grass.

“By 2003, we were seven to eight year drought cycle,” Ranney explains. “We had a monocrop of blue gramma grass. It’s a good native grass for the area, but a monoculture is never good for resilience and there are many native grasses. It was time to change.”

So Ranney Ranch shifted to planned, rotational grazing. They established 19 pastures on the land—with the smallest being about 22 acres, the largest 2,000 acres—and divided the cattle among them into small herds. That model has since changed. There are now 32 pastures, but the entire herd grazes on each pasture at one time. “We may spend a day in the smallest, and three weeks in the largest. But all the pastures are rested for a minimum of nine months a year and some are rested longer,” she says.

Ranney and the ranch manager, Melvin Johnson (“the man who makes it all happen”), monitor the grass intensely, making sure that the cows don’t eat more than half of what’s growing in each pasture. The animals graze all the grass in a single pasture about halfway down before they’re rotated. “It’s all about the intensity and the time element, which was especially crucial in the beginning,” says Ranney. Today they have a pretty good sense of how long the herd can spend on each pasture, but at first they really had to keep an eye on the grass and how quickly it was being eaten down.

Giving pastures a long rest each year and implementing practices that keep water on the land has made a huge difference. “In three years we went from four to five species of native grasses to 30, without planting seed or irrigating. Among them were cool season grasses, which people said we couldn’t grow. But every year we see a new cool-season grass come up,” she reports. A variety of grasses also provide a wider range of nutrients for the cattle.

Cool season grasses are important because they come up a month before the others and stay up long after warm-season grasses die out, which extends the grazing season. And in the winter they hold onto their protein content so they’re good forage for the cattle. “Now, after 12 years, we’ve counted 45 species of grasses,” says Ranney. “Even when we were in severe drought (2- to 4-inches rainfall per year instead of 10 inches) we did okay.”

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