Cattle ranches in the West often get a bad reputation. Overgrazing has decimated the environment in places like my former home state, Colorado. I remember many times during my years of hunting and fishing in Colorado, walking through a cow pie studded landscapes where the grass was almost gone. Sagebrush and cactus could barely gain a foothold so denuded were some of the places I hiked. For most of the last three decades, I thought our public lands and private ranches were nothing more than over-used cow feeding land. That is until I met Nancy Ranney in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was at the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association annual conference I heard Nancy speak on a culinary panel discussion when I realized there was hope.
Nancy is a Harvard graduate with a masters degree in Landscape Architecture who took over the family ranch near Corona, New Mexico. The 1990s were a drought-ridden era of misery inflicted upon the land, animals, and humans who inhabited the Southwest. Nancy knew there was a new and better way to manage her family’s 18,000-acre ranch and instigated herd rotation and regenerative soil management practices to bring back the native grasses. The ranch’s pasture was a monoculture of blue gramma grass when Nancy took over in the early 2000s. The herd had been reduced to try and get through an extreme drought, and the ranch’s future was looking shaky.
The plan was to keep the cows moving, instead of being allowed to graze in place for days, and start restoring native grasses. The ranch’s ecosystem was in shambles, and birds, as well as other species, were disappearing at an alarming rate. The health of the soil was suffering, and Nancy knew it was vital to the quality of the herd to bring the soil back to health. To do so, it would take restoring the landscape to an intact ecosystem of microbes, grass, and other high-prairie plants that would feed the life forms that make up a healthy landscape.
I asked Nancy what she had in mind when she started turning the ranch around and she told me, “The key was to keep the herd moving across the landscape, never grazing long enough in any one place to damage the plants and now allowing seeds dormant in the soil — viable for over 100 years in the Southwest — to grow.” Once the native grasses started to come back, so did most of the life forms that rely on the ecosystem.
Before the European settlers arrived on the scene some 400 years ago, the high-prairie was awash in life. There were buffalo, prairie dogs, badgers, cougars, snakes, moles, hawks, and the songstress of the plains, the meadowlark. All of these species lived in harmony, and the land flourished during this time of healthy grasslands. When the ranchers showed up, there were some of the most magnificent grazing areas a cattle rancher could desire.
These bountiful grasslands became some of the best cattle country in the world. After centuries of grazing, much of the land was depleted.
Through over 150 years of big ranches, cattlemen worked the land in good years and bad years in this western paradise. When the drought of the 1990s hit, it was clear something had to change. Some of the species had disappeared, and many others were just a shadow of their former numbers. But ranchers, like farmers, are not eager to adopt new ways of working the land.
One of the big surprises in the effort to restore our grasslands is the theory that cattle can improve the soil like buffalo once did. Cattle can aerate the ground with their hooves, much like buffalo did for centuries before the white man showed up. Cows also provide fertilization from the numerous cow pies they leave in their wake. The native perennial plants are stimulated when the cattle bite them only once as they move along, instead of being allowed to graze in one place for hours.
In an article in Time magazine, writer Judith D. Schwartz points out cows might be able to save our grasslands. Instead of abandoning cattle ranching entirely, the pastures seem to benefit from proper ranching techniques such as regenerative plans that Ranney Ranch uses.
When Nancy took over the Ranney Ranch management, the longtime ranch manager thought she would fail, and they would revert to his methods. Nancy didn’t fail and would go on to document the restoration of more than 50 types of native grasses without seeding or irrigation. Ranney Ranch saw water retention capabilities increase by twenty-five percent under this new direction. While neighboring ranches languished in the drought, overhead photos showed Ranney Ranch was developing a thriving grassland in the high desert of New Mexico. Nancy’s herd showed similar health benefits as the land with the new techniques in place.
Nowadays, the ranch and the herd are going strong. As part of the eco-friendly practices, Ranney Ranch sells most of the beef they raise to local consumers. Nancy knew that fewer than two percent of New Mexico’s beef stayed in the state. By shipping shorter distances, they have cut down on carbon emissions.
By instigating regenerative agricultural practices, operations like Ranney Ranch can bring back healthy ecosystems that benefit all the Earth’s inhabitants. As part of the restoration of the land, Ranney Ranch was selected by the Audubon Society to be part of their Conservation Ranching Program. Audubon and their Conservation Ranching Program seek to bring back some of the bird species that saw an eighty percent decline in numbers due to loss of suitable habitat. The grasslands of the West are vital to birds that are an essential part of the ecosystem.
When consumers buy Audubon Certified beef, they can rest assured the rancher they support is helping the planet. Ranney Ranch is also an AGA Certified (American Grassfed Association) and AWA Certified (Animal Welfare Approved). There’s plenty of research showing grass-fed beef is healthier for consumers than grain-fed beef. I encourage you to read some of the published articles on the Ranney Ranch website and see how their way of farming has other carbon-reducing benefits. Even though most of us live too far away to affordably purchase Ranney Ranch beef, look for other ranchers utilizing similar techniques where you live. We all can play a part in restoring the health of the planet in the way we buy our food.
Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his seventh year of container and raised-bed organic gardening in his backyard. For this and other published stories, check out his travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all of Kurt’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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