To learn, to share, to problem solve, that’s why we were at Paicines Ranch in Paicines, California. Joined by ranchers, curious laypersons, land stewards and conservationists, we were part of a Holistic Management International (HMI) conference dedicated to teaching ‘ranching for profit’. The idea behind the conference was that by applying a tried-and-true holistic approach to ranching – that is, taking into account the needs of the environment, the animals, and the rancher – ranching can become a profitable and sustainable business.
To most people, the idea that ranching isn’t profitable might seem odd. The truth is, for a good number of ranchers, cattle ranching is a lifestyle more than it is a way to make a living, and many ranchers supplement their ranching income with “real jobs” – jobs that take them off of the ranch to earn money – to support their families and their often inherited lifestyle.
The problem with the cycle of part-time rancher is that it leaves cattle unattended, and unattended cattle tend to graze as they see fit. Which means they almost always overgraze, and overgrazed pastures tend to have lots of problems such as leaching carbon, erosion issues, and that ‘dead earth’ appearance you see in poorly managed pastures.
In other words, simply stocking a bunch of cattle on a pasture and letting them eat the grass right down to the dirt runs contrary to the natural, migratory herd processes that keep land healthy, and unhealthy land leads to unsustainable conditions which lead to declining profits.
That’s where HMI comes in. Their strategy? Bring full-time, successful, holistically goal-oriented ranchers together with conventional ranchers to show them that a comprehensive holistic approach to cattle ranching can help them improve their lives by improving their lands. The benefits: profitable businesses, happy full-time ranchers, healthy rangelands, and ultimately a healthy planet.
What does ‘successful holistic ranching’ mean anyway, and what does it look like? Good question. Looking at the pictures included here, it’s hard to tell. San Benito County where Paicines is located had an average annual rainfall this year, but almost all in the first couple of months of the rainy season. While the latter half of the season was one of the driest on record. Yet, according to Chris Ketcham, ranch manager for Paicines Ranch, “when you look under the thatch, there’s still green there.” And that’s saying a lot considering the dry conditions.
According to Chris, the changes he’s seen since he’s been using the rotational grazing pattern suggested by HMI are amazing. Subdividing the grazing area of the ranch, some 6000 acres, into 40 smaller paddocks, ranging in size from as large as 300 acres down to 4 acres, and moving the 1800 head herd from paddock to paddock in a controlled migratory fashion has improved the diversity of the ranch. He also added that turning away from the old creed of the rancher, which he described as, “If it flies it dies, if it crawls it falls” was a boon as well. Now wildlife abounds and goes unchallenged, and the grasses are doing better than he could have imagined.
This, you might think, is brilliant and you would be right. So brilliant in fact, migrating herds of animals have been doing it since there have been migrating herds of animals. And that’s the point. Holistic grazing practices means getting animal husbandry to mimic the patterns of the natural process. To move a herd of animals from fresh pasture to fresh pasture at a rate that assures they leave behind the essence of healthy soil – manure, compostable material – and enough living plant to rebound quickly and propagate the next time the rains come.
So how does this translate into profit? That’s more or less the easy part. When the land is managed well the grasses will grow more densely and have a longer season. That means increased animal capacity per acre, and more animal weight gain per season. And that, as they say, is money in the bank, taking the part-timer rancher one step closer to financial independence.
But the best part of all? So far, according to HMI case studies, a near complete ecosystem recovery is possible when holistic practices are used. From birds to snakes and everything in between, life is coming back to the rangeland and everyone is benefitting. Hence the “holistic” in Holistic Management International.
Even though our cattle operation here at the TomKat Ranch is much smaller and we already use holistic grazing practices, we can still learn from the example set by Paicines Ranch and the many others doing the same. Each ranch learns and improves with time, and it’s that gained knowledge and willingness to share that knowledge that will make the difference as we adapt to new climate challenges. Thanks to Holistic Management International for bringing us all together and driving the dynamics of ranching towards a sustainable future.
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