So you want to be a sustainable rancher? 7 steps to make it happen

Sustainability is more than just enduring. At its core, sustainability is about continuous improvement.

February 11, 2016

9 Min Read
So you want to be a sustainable rancher? 7 steps to make it happen

There is a philosophical argument raging across the beef industry concerning sustainability. The two opposing views are these:

The first camp has the opinion that “the beef industry is already sustainable and all that needs to be done is for ranchers to tell the industry’s positive story better.” This argument is usually punctuated with a statement something like…”after all, my family has been ranching for (insert a number of generations here). If ranching wasn’t sustainable, then how were we able to ranch for so long? Isn’t that the very definition of sustainable?”

This line of reasoning has some validity. Ranching does inherently provide many positives that should be shared, such as the ability to improve soil health, water retention through good grazing management, and providing a quality of life for ranching families, rural communities and through the production of a healthy, nutrient dense food. And a multigenerational operation does indicate that that particular ranch has done things right, which has allowed them to remain operational over an extended period of time.

However, this argument fails to recognize the fact that there are 200,000 fewer beef producers today than there was just 20 years ago. Solely using the same generational logic, a person could justifiably conclude the industry has become less sustainable over the last 20 years.

The second camp has a train of thought that goes something like this…”beef production provides many important benefits (i.e. those already mentioned above). However, continuous improvement of the sustainability of beef production is important. A lot has been done to improve sustainability, but more can and should be done to ensure continuous improvement. We should celebrate the progress the industry has made, but also work to continuously improve the overall sustainability of the beef production system, as consumers increasingly expect us to do.”

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If you lean toward the second camp, if you feel continuous improvement is important and you’d like your ranch to contribute to increasing the overall sustainability of beef production, a logical next question is where and how to begin?

Every operation’s situation is different so there are no cookie cutter answers to the important question of where to begin and what to do. However, here are some general guidelines that will help any rancher wanting to become more sustainable:

  1. Make sure you’re ready. Before beginning the journey toward sustainability improvement, it is wise to ensure a management foundation that enables continuous improvement is in place. This requires an adaptive management approach that is dedicated to continuous learning and adjusting to changing conditions.

    Adaptive management utilizes the cyclical approach of learn, plan, implement, monitor, evaluate, re-plan. Without at least a minimal desire for management to learn and grow, any sustainability effort will likely fizzle before positive outcomes are achieved. Once you’re comfortable with your operation’s dedication to learning and improving, the following suggestions will make the road to continuous sustainability improvement a little more doable.

  2. Do background research. Gaining a general understanding of sustainability is an important foundation to build upon. The Sustainable Rangeland Roundtable has done great work to develop a tremendous resource called Ranch Assessment Guidebook. It is a highly recommended study guide that will help you develop a frame of reference and understanding what is meant by sustainable ranching practices.

    And most importantly, use the guide to conduct a self-assessment to provide key insights concerning areas of possible improvement, as wells as provide reason to celebrate over areas where positive things are already occurring on your ranch. Also helpful background reading is the principles and criteria of sustainable beef production, developed by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which will provide an overarching understanding of how a key stakeholder group is defining sustainable beef.

    Additionally, develop an awareness of the work of various multi-stakeholder collaborations (Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, National Grazing Lands Coalition, etc.) as well as becoming familiar with sustainability efforts at the local, state and national level will help you create a general awareness and understanding of sustainability.

  3. Find a partner. Building a relationship with NRCS, your local conservation district and your state grazing land coalition is a great place to start. These organizations are providing valuable on-the-ground, focused resources especially helpful to ranchers.

    Other organizations that could provide a valuable partnership include Sage Grouse Initiative, Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Partners in Conservation and various other organizations (including conservation organizations active in your area) with a vested interest in keeping ranchland healthy, and ranchers ranching. These and other organizations are providing support, assistance, and in some cases technical resources to help ranchers on their journey to continuous sustainability improvement.

  4. Understand the key issues within the region you ranch. If you ranch in the Western Plains or Great Basin area, the major issue of concern many be sage grouse. If you operate in California, the issue of concern may be drought, tiger salamanders or vernal shrimp. In other areas it could be a particular species of grassland bird, invasive species, water quality, riparian area health, etc.

    In nearly every region there is usually a focal environmental issue that an operation should be aware of. These are overarching issues that have gained significant regional and in some cases even national attention. It is highly likely a ranch will eventually have to make a decision about whether they will contribute to shaping the approach and achieving positive outcomes on these issues, or work hard to ignore or even fight against them. Generally, it is more cost effective, and more goodwill is earned, by proactively engaging on critical issues.

  5. Get educated about your operation. Ecological site description, reference condition, range health assessment, species (plant and wildlife) lists and identification of high conservation value areas are all techniques for gaining an understanding of the landscape health of a ranch. Using the assistance of NRCS or other resources to gain a baseline understanding of current conditions and creating a reference for ideal composition of plant and wildlife species and soil health for your ranch is a key step.

    Additionally, using the Ranch Assessment Guidebook (mentioned in point 2), during this phase is especially valuable. The goal of this stage is to develop a vision, or frame of reference of “what good looks like” and what conditions (pasture health, etc.) needs to be in place to achieve your target (future state).

    Another important goal is to develop an assessment of your operation’s current condition (current state). Also important during this phase is, if you’re not already, to get BQA certified, and receive additional training on such things as IRM, Ranching for Profit, Holistic Management and most importantly adaptive planned grazing, all of which will build a solid foundation for managing sustainably.

  6. Develop & implement a plan. Whether you focus on a conservation plan, sustainability plan, habitat conservation plan, production plan or anything else, a plan that outlines improvement targets and spells how they will be achieved is a critical tool that will enable sustainability improvement. This step can be as elaborate or as simple as you want it to be. The important point is to make a plan to create focus and help you think through potential pitfalls prior to expending resources, which will improve the likelihood of success.

  7. Monitor, evaluate and improve. Monitoring your plan can be relatively simple and straight forward or as scientifically elaborate as you want. The system and approach isn’t as important as being able to access trend data to assess whether you’re heading in the right direction. And whether you’re moving toward the desired future state/condition outlined in step 5.

    If your plan involves environmental improvements, regular picture taking (same spot, done on a set interval) will greatly contribute to your monitoring efforts and is a great way to visually document improvement. This, as well as empirical data provided by pasture monitoring provides highly valuable, quality data that will help you evaluate whether the plan is providing the intended results. The process of evaluating monitoring data is a great way to inspire continued diligence, or to reveal the need to make tweaks to a plan. Monitoring, evaluating, and improving are critical steps that are the bases for positive change.

    Bottom line: taking notes and keeping records, monitoring progress, evaluating outcomes and making subtle changes to your plan is the critical process to improve sustainability. However, it is important to remember ranching is about managing complex biological systems (animal nutrition & reproduction, plant physiology, soil biology, etc.), along with managing other non-biological systems, such as finances, marketing, etc. In this complex system, even small changes in one seemingly isolated area can trigger fluctuations in other areas that may take two or three grazing seasons to manifest. Make changes carefully and judiciously.

Sustainability is about applying an approach to management that considers the environmental, social, and economic ramifications of a decision, and then acting in a way that optimizes positive results across all three. Although there will likely be sustainable beef certification programs developed in the future that ranchers can take advantage of, the more important aspect of sustainability is consistent improvement in the welfare of people, planet, animals and profit.

All three aspects have to be considered and balanced if lasting improvement is to be achieved. Applying the provided suggestions will help an operation overcome some of the hurdles and avoid some of the most serious pitfalls that are typical of beginning a sustainability journey. 

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

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