Finding a better way to ranch Joe Roybal

Burke’s Challenge: Find a better way to ranch

Farming and ranching with Mother Nature instead in conflict with her has its rewards. I challenge you to find a better way.

I want to issue a challenge—TO FIND A BETTER WAY. As I travel about the country and see the country’s agricultural operations, I get more and more concerned about the way we farm and ranch.

We seem to emphasize big, big, big and yield, yield, yield and kill, kill, kill. To do this, we are using more chemicals and synthetic fertilizers which are certainly simplifying our environment and costing more and more. These inputs continue to increase in price while the commodities we produce don’t.

There are a few lessons that we should learn from nature. Among the lessons are that Mother Nature hates two things—bare ground and a monoculture. You can observe that by how she reacts to either one. It usually is with forbs or what we typically call weeds. They come to cover the ground and add variety.

Yes, with our current model, we are increasing yields, animal size and growth rates; but we aren’t any more profitable. And significantly fewer people live and work in rural America. Our rural communities are dying, schools are closing and our children are leaving agriculture. 

We are depleting aquifers, polluting streams and groundwater with fertilizer and chemicals and causing or at least allowing wind and water erosion. I doubt that I have a perfect remedy in mind. However, I think a few things should be obvious or should become obvious.

Since the cost of machinery and most other inputs continues to increase at a significantly faster pace than the price of the things we produce, why do we continue to fine tune, at a significant cost, a system that is so dependent on “iron and fossil fuel” and requires such high yields for financial survival?

Why don’t we instead work on systems that are built to be dependent on sunlight, rainfall, good soil and human ingenuity at a significant reduction in cost? That means using less machinery, less fossil fuel, less herbicide, less pesticide, much lower seed cost, etc.

This system should focus on profit per acre and not on yield per acre or production per cow.  Don’t worry about feeding the world or keeping the feeders and packers in business. There is plenty of food. We waste about a third of our food in America; and, if it were really in short supply, your prices would be much better.

If you are making a good profit, the feeders and packers will do alright too. I have seen enough to know that this approach can work with increased profitability.

Many farmers are learning to farm with very little or even no tillage which stops or greatly reduces the destruction of soil aggregates and leaves crop residue on the soil surface. Some of those same farmers are now extending rotations to include more crops and using cover crops to keep living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible and to keep the soil covered.

All this keeps and even puts carbon in the soil, reduces erosion, increases water infiltration and soil moisture holding capacity. It also promotes soil life—microbes of many kinds in the soil.  Thus we begin to say “live, live, live” instead of “kill, kill, kill.”

A good number of cattle producers are beginning to see the benefits of well managed grazing—short graze period, long recovery periods, stock density and animal impact. This can all lead to a great reduction in bare ground along with a reduction in erosion, evaporation and an increase in water infiltration.

Another result is greater variety in the plant community with a longer season of green plant growth, different types and depths of rooting, enabling greater access to soil moisture and minerals. This greater plant variety attracts a variety of soil microbes and insects which improve soil health and reduce the need for pesticides.

Some cattle ranchers are adding sheep and/or goats to their livestock mix. Some also add poultry. These additions create more variety throughout and make the entire system more resilient to droughts, pests and other natural disturbances.

Remember, we cannot kill the target organism (plant or creature) without killing many other organisms which are often beneficial. An abundance of insect and parasite types tend to create balance in a system. The balance reduces the pests to a tolerable level. There are farmers who have quit using fungicides and pesticides. Why would we kill the very biology (insects and soil microbes) that create soil health and good function?

I know quite a few ranchers who have completely eliminated the use of pesticides in their livestock. To do this, they have had to cull some animals that weren’t genetically capable of developing a resistance. Cattle had to become adapted to the managerial and natural environment.

Grazing management brought dung beetles and birds and predatory insects that reduced fly populations. It also reduced worm infestation by grazing the sward at higher levels and/or having a long enough grazing recovery time to have a natural die-off of the worms.

We like having these chemicals in our arsenal for dealing with pests. However, it is much easier to increase their use than to diminish it. When weed sprays, pesticides or wormers are used, their targets immediately begin to develop a resistance to them. So, you have to keep finding new products or increasing the dosage rate. In the meantime, animals have no reason to develop genetic resistance and crops don’t have the protection of the beneficial insects that were killed by the sprays.

The challenge to farmers, ranchers and researchers is to spend much more effort on learning how to farm and ranch in a way that reduces and ultimately stops wind and water erosion; that reduces and finally eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides; that builds soil health and uses water with much more efficiency and keeps it clean and free from agricultural pollutants.

I know farmers and ranchers that have made good progress on this challenge and have increased profitability in the process. I have visited their farms and ranches to get a firsthand look and question their profitability.

These farmers and ranchers are enjoying what they do—even having fun. Their children see a future in production agriculture and are returning home. It can be done, and I strongly encourage others to find a better way.

Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at [email protected]

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