Striving toward sustainable ranch management

Sustainability is a journey of continuous improvement, not a destination at which once you’ve arrive, nothing more needs to be done. Here’s a look at how it works.

May 18, 2016

8 Min Read
Striving toward sustainable ranch management

If you own or manage a ranch and have followed the growing discussion about sustainability and taken initial steps toward increasing the sustainability of your operation, but are wondering how to take your sustainable management to the next level, here’s an abbreviated guide to help in that process.

First, before you attempt to take your management to the next level, it’s important to assess whether or not you’ve built a foundation or baseline to do so.

Start with a management self-assessment.

The conceptual baseline of sustainable ranch management can be found by reviewing articles previously published in this column, by reviewing various stewardship award winners, or Environmental Stewardship Award Winners, and by reviewing the excellent publication by the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable, Sustainable Ranch Management: Assessment Guidebook.

These resources lay out a vision of sustainable ranch management and provide an idea of what is needed to get started on the road of higher level sustainable ranch management. To take sustainable management to the next level requires a continual long-term approach and dedication in terms of allocating time and resources. If you’re not comfortable with the ideas and examples illustrated in these resources, you might be better off to first focus on building a foundation toward sustainable ranch management that will serve as a baseline for future efforts. 

Philosophical self-assessment.

Before starting the long-term journey to higher level sustainable ranch management, it’s critical to make sure your paradigm toward sustainability isn’t only about “the beef industry pulling our collective boots on and pulling our hats down tight to tell our story better.” Although telling the positive story of beef sustainability is important, sustainable ranch management isn’t about telling a story, it’s about assessing your current condition, planning for improvement, implementing a plan of action, re-assessing (have intended results been achieved?), and adjusting (course correction) to allow continuous improvement.

In other words, sustainability is a journey of continuous improvement, not a destination at which once you’ve arrived, nothing more needs to be done. If the idea of continuous improvement is new to you, the first step should be to lay a foundation to build upon. To do this, you could attend Holistic Management training, a Ranching for Profit workshop or similar training which will provide a systems approach toward continuous improvement. 

A systems approach to management taught in these types of programs is a mindset that allows a manager to think systematically about the resources and opportunities they manage; it’s a universal characteristic of higher-level sustainable ranch managers and a critical prerequisite to long-term sustainability management.

If a ranch manager has already made the commitment to manage sustainably and is well on the road toward that goal, he or she may be ready to take it to the next level. Level 2.0 sustainability management starts with creating a deeper understanding of the land and the resources that depend on the land. Here are areas to focus on to take sustainable ranch management to the next level:

1. Understanding the ecological site descriptions on your ranch is critical starting point. Ecological site descriptions help a manager understand what the land is capable of and what conditions can exist with proper management. They provide a reference point to create a vision of what is possible and what “good” looks like.

If you need help identifying the ecological site descriptions on your ranch and what they mean, you can visit your local NRCS office or visit the NRCS online soil survey. Ecological site descriptions are a powerful tool to set a vision of what’s possible and provide a point of reference and a target for your ranch to aim for.

2. Identifying the high conservation value areas (HCVA) on your ranch is a critical step in higher level sustainability management. A HCVA is any location on a ranch that warrants particular management attention. A HCVA could be locations where there is highly erodible soil, or critical wildlife habitat such areas where nesting birds frequent during a certain time of the year, or sensitive archeological sites (ancient ruins, historical sites, etc.). Knowing what and where high conservation value areas are allows management to be aware and apply appropriate management that considers them in ranch planning and decision making.

3. Having a list of species of concern is critical toward building a knowledge base to use as a management tool. Species of concern are those plants and animals that have been listed by either the wildlife service (local, state, federal) or by conservation groups as having particular significance in your area, or it could be list of species of plants and wildlife that normally would be present if reference conditions existed (see ecological site descriptions). Knowing what these species are and whether or not they are present on your land is a critical piece of information that allows management consideration of these factors.

A starting point could be to create a list of the species of birds that frequent your ranch. A bird list can be developed by partnering with a birding group to invite them on site to do a bird count, or by starting with a list pulled from a field guide or other resources. Then begin to verify their presence.

Simply having a species list has a powerful influence on management. Time and again ranchers say after gaining an awareness of wildlife species present on their ranch, “I never knew we have those (birds, plants, wildlife etc.) on our ranch, if I had known I would of done X differently (grazed that pasture differently, build that fence differently, planned livestock watering system differently etc.) a long time ago.”

Knowledge and awareness is a requirement for sustainable management. Having an awareness allows for changes in management to take place. These are often very subtle changes that have a profound impact on wildlife and land health. Awareness is the foundation of stewardship— information is power.

4. Knowing production information including forage availability patterns, weaning rate, winter feed and supplement costs, etc. is a critical aspect of higher level sustainability management. The saying “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” applies nowhere better than to sustainable ranch management.

For example, if supplemental feed costs are high and weaning rate is low, a ranch may want to consider changing its calving date to better match nature. If you don’t already have one, an absolutely critical first place to start is to develop a grazing plan. Knowing when and where you grazed and how the land responded to the grazing is must-have information when it comes to sustainable ranch management. This is where the implementation of sustainable ranch management begins.


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These factors are merely starting points in one area on the road to higher level sustainable ranch management. Beyond 2.0 level management, sustainability management 3.0 focuses on relationships both on and off the ranch with employees, broader-based stewardship efforts such as grazing land initiatives etc., and a ranch’s relationship with the community at large.

Sustainable ranch management 4.0 deals with financial and economic issues such as business planning, utilizing accrual accounting, knowing cost of production, setting and achieving ranch financial goals, as well as knowing a ranch’s economic contribution to the community.

A word of caution; there is no single point of entry on the journey toward increased sustainable management. That means sustainable ranch management isn’t a linear process where you do A, then do B, then do C. It requires effort and improvement in all three areas—land stewardship, people and community, and financial management. Some ranches may be managing very well in financial management, for example, at least for the short-term, while at the same time not doing as well in land stewardship, which can’t be sustained long term.

The key is starting where you’re at, assessing opportunities to improve, gaining the knowledge and information needed to change, setting a course, and then making continual progress toward that goal. With sustainable management, change is often slow and imperceptible unless you are monitoring for change. However, these subtle changes add up to significant improvement that result in multiple benefits to the health of the land, the financial vitality of a ranch and the local community, and positive outcomes for society in the form of food security and ecological services such as open space, wildlife preservation, carbon sequestration, clean water, etc., that sustainable ranching provides.

Bryan Weech is a consultant and adviser on sustainable agricultural projects. Contact him at [email protected].

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