In my last column, I asked “Are you a seeker of truth” and then used the word “sustainability” to challenge us to escape from our paradigms and really try to find truth. Since the word “sustainability” has been used or misused in so many ways, I want to use it here as meaning “being able to endure, not diminishing or removing opportunities for future generations.”
In May I was a speaker at a ranch sustainability forum in Sheridan, Wyo. I talked about “Keys to Successful Ranch Businesses” and indicated that successful ranch businesses are:
- Economically viable—profitable
- Ecologically sound and sustainable
- Socially responsible
While, as individuals, we probably don’t want to draw attention to our annual profits, we need not be apologetic for intending to be as profitable as possible. There is nothing good or even sacred that can come from losing money. When there are profits, you can do much good. Bankers and family members are happy. You can expand operations to perhaps accommodate the next generation. If your business is not profitable, it is certainly not sustainable. I hope you want your ranch business to be more profitable.
You want your ranch business to be ecologically sound and sustainable because, if it’s not, your business sooner or later will not be economically sustainable. With the exception of the last few years, the price of anything related to iron (equipment) and fossil fuel has risen faster than the price of our products.
Therefore, it seems unwise to build a production system that is highly dependent on fossil fuel and iron, even though there will be some dependency into the foreseeable future. It is much more reasonable to build a system that has a greater dependence on soil, sunlight, rainfall and our ingenuity, creativity and ability to understand the natural processes of soil health and plant growth.
Since we all breathe the same air, drink the same water and eat much of the same food as our urban counterparts, there are a number of reasons to be socially responsible:
Air pollution. Fossil fuel and iron are finite resources and the use of fuels contributes to air pollution and related problems.
Wind and water erosion. I am sure that you have all seen recent pictures of terrible water and wind erosion—new gullies and terrible dust clouds and large drifts of blown soil. These represent opportunities lost to future generations, soil they will never be able to use.
Increased fluctuation in stream and river flows. If we can learn to manage soils to greatly enhance their ability to infiltrate and hold water on millions of acres of crop and pasture land, these fluctuations could be reduced. There are numerous examples of farms located side by side where, during very heavy rainfall, one will have very heavy runoff and significant soil erosion while the other will have almost no runoff, putting most of the rainfall into the soil.
Downstream and aquifer pollution. It has become too common to hear of municipalities complaining of fertilizers getting into their drinking water. Aquatic life is being affected by inappropriate nutrients in stream flows.
- Spray drift and killing beneficial insects. We can’t kill only the target pest. We kill lots of others in the process—many of which may be beneficial.
These are all concerns of our urban friends—our customers—and we, either willingly or by regulation, will need to start to pay attention to those concerns. I think it is much to our benefit to act ahead of and hopefully avoid regulation because regulation is often drawn up to satisfy agenda and not true principles.
Regulation too often tries to address effect without a good understanding of the cause(s). It also limits the ingenuity and creativity of good ranchers and farmers to explore, experiment and find better methods still. There will be unanticipated consequences to almost everything we do, including regulation.
We can address all of these concerns simultaneously if we will first work to protect the soil and then to improve soil health. A good number of farmers, ranchers and soil specialists are promoting five principles of soil health:
Armor (cover) on the soil surface. This has been researched and shown to be the most important first step in greatly reducing erosion and increasing water infiltration into the soil. There is also the benefit of temperature moderation. The summer temperature at the soil surface will be significantly cooler than the ambient temperature. Conversely, the soil temperature in winter will be warmer than the ambient temperature. This enables far greater microbial activity in the soil during a greater portion of the year.
Minimal mechanical disturbance. Each mechanical disturbance interrupts soil aggregation and interferes with the soil’s ability to infiltrate water, and it exposes soil to the sun, thus releasing carbon into the atmosphere and reducing soil organic matter.
A living root in the soil for as much of the year as possible. This is not so difficult in pasturelands. Root exudates are feeding soil organism, which in turn feed the plants.
As much plant variety as possible. This happens naturally on most native ranges, but can improve with good management. A large variety of plants lead to increased bio-diversity of all kinds. Beneficial insects tend to keep control of the pests. A wide variety makes green growing plants available during more months of the year, thus feeding the creatures that live in and become part of the soil. Variety also provides different depths of rooting, which allows the plants to mobilize minerals and water from deeper in the soil.
- Integration of livestock into farming operations. This appears to improve soil microbial life by a trampling effect, which puts residual plant material in direct contact with the soil to start decomposition. The animals also increase mineral cycling through the conversion of crop materials and residues to manure and urine.
Farmers and ranchers need to be “seekers of truth” regarding ecological and economic sustainability. Much is already known, but there is still much to learn. To become truly sustainable—economically, ecologically and socially—many ranchers and farmers will need to begin to follow a different road.
We can’t continue to leave bare ground and exposed soils on our farms and pastures. We must do what we can to increase biodiversity above and below the soil surface. If we can prove to our urban neighbors than we care about the environment and the well-being of our animals, and that we are becoming continually more competent, there is a chance we can get some of them to be “seekers of truth” also.
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