“Ranching is one of the few western occupations that have been renewable and have produced a continuing way of life.” —Wallace Stegner
It was a bad year to be a blade of grass.
In 2002, the winter snows were late and meager, part of an emerging period of drought, experts said. Then May and June exploded into flame. Catastrophic crown fires scorched over a million acres of evergreens in the “four corner” states—New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah—making it a bad year to be a tree too.
The monsoon rains then failed to arrive in July, and by mid-August, hope for a “green-up” had vanished. The land looked tired, shriveled, and beat-up. It was hard to tell which plants were alive, dormant, or stunned, and which were dead. One range professional speculated that perhaps as much as 60 percent of the native bunch grasses in New Mexico would die. It was bad news for the ranchers he knew and cared about, insult added to injury in an industry already beset by one seemingly intractable challenge after another.
For some, it was the final blow. Ranching in the American West, much like the grass on which it depended that year, has been struggling for survival. Persistently poor economics, tenacious opponents, shifting values in public-land use, changing demographics, decreased political influence, and the temptation of rapidly rising private land values have all combined to push ranching right to the edge. And not just ranching; according to one analysis, the number of natural-resource jobs, including agriculture, as a share of total employment in the Rocky Mountain West has declined by two-thirds since the mid-1970s.
Today, less than one in thirty jobs in the region is in logging, mining, or agriculture. This fits a national trend. In 1993, the U.S. Census dropped its long-standing survey of farm residents. The farm population across the nation had dwindled from 40 percent of households in 1900 to a statistically insignificant 2 percent by 1990. The bureau decided that a survey was no longer relevant.
If the experts are correct—that the current multiyear drought could rival the decade-long “megadrought” of the 1950s for ecological, and thus economic, devastation—the tenuous grip of ranchers on the future will be loosened further, perhaps permanently. The ubiquitous “last cowboys,” mythologized in a seemingly endless stream of tabletop photography books, could ride into their final sunset once and for all.
Or would they?
After all, for millions of years, grass has always managed to return and flourish. James Ingalls, U.S. Senator from Kansas (1873-1891) once wrote:
Grass is the forgiveness of nature-her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated; forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.
Few understand these words better than ranchers, who, because their cattle require grass, depend on the forgiveness of nature for a livelihood while simultaneously nurturing its beneficence. And like grass, ranching’s adaptive response to adversity over the years has been patience—to outlast its troubles. The key to survival for both has been endurance—the ability to hold things together until the next rainstorm. Evolution favors grit.
Or at least it used to.
Today, grit may still rule for grass, but for ranchers, it has become more hindrance than help. “Ranching selects for stubbornness,” a friend of mine likes to say. While admiring ranching and ranchers, he does not intend his quip to be taken as a tribute. What he means is this: stubbornness is not adaptive when it means rejecting new ideas or not adjusting to evolving values in a rapidly changing world.
This is where ranching and grass part ways ultimately—unlike grass, ranching may not be immortal.
Fortunately, a growing number of ranchers understand this and are embracing a cluster of new ideas and methods, often with the happy result of increased profits, restored land health, and repaired relationships with others. I call their work “the New Ranch”—a term I coined years back in a presumptuous attempt to describe a progressive ranching movement emerging in the region.
But what did it mean exactly? What were the new things ranchers were doing to stay in business while neighboring enterprises went under? How did they differ from new ranch to new ranch? What were the commonalities? What was the key? Technology, ideas, economics, increased attention to ecology, or all of the above?
During that summer of fire and heat, I decided to take a fourteen- hundred-mile drive from Santa Fe to Lander, Wyoming, and back, to see the New Ranch up close. I visited four families and was so inspired by what I saw and learned that I kept driving, in a sense, upon my return home. I needed to keep looking, listening, and learning. Since that summer, I have visited more ranchers, as well as environmentalists, scientists, and others, and asked more questions, all in a continuous quest for pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that eventually grew bigger than the New Ranch.
Initially, however, I wanted to know if ranching would survive this latest turn of the evolutionary wheel. Was it still renewable, as Stegner once observed, or were we destined to redefine a ranch as a mobile home park and a subdivision? But I also wanted to discover the outline of the future, and, with a little luck, find my real objective—hope—which, like grass, is sometimes required to lie quietly, waiting for rain.
The James Ranch
North of Durango, Colorado
One of the first things you notice about the James Ranch is how busy the water is. Everywhere you turn, there is water flowing, filling, spilling, irrigating, laughing. Whether it is the big, fast-flowing community ditch, the noisy network of smaller irrigation ditches, the deliberate spill of water on pasture, the refreshing fish ponds, or the low roar of the muscular Animas River, take a walk in any direction on the ranch during the summer and you are destined to intercept water at work. It is purposeful water too, growing trees, cooling chickens, quenching cattle, raising vegetables, and, above all, sustaining grass.
All this energy on one ranch is no coincidence—busy water is a good metaphor for the James family. The purposefulness starts at the top. Tall, handsome, and quick to smile, David James grew up in Southern California, where his father lived the American Dream as a successful engineer and inventor, dabbling a bit in ranching and agriculture on the side. David attended the University of Redlands in the late 1950s, where he majored in business, but cattle got into his blood, and he spent every summer on a ranch. David met Kay, a city girl, at Redlands, and after getting hitched, they decided to pursue their dream: to raise a large family in a rural setting.
In 1961, they bought a small ranch on the Animas River, twelve miles north of the sleepy town of Durango, located in a picturesque valley in mountainous southwestern Colorado, and got busy raising five children and hundreds of cows. Durango was in transition at the time from a mining and agricultural center to what it is today: a mecca for tourists, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, students, retirees, and real estate brokers. Land along the river was productive for cattle and still relatively cheap in 1961, though a new type of crop—subdivisions—would be planted soon enough.
Not long after arriving, David secured a permit from the United States Forest Service to graze cattle on the nearby national forest. The permit allowed him to run a certain number of cattle on a forest allotment. Once on the forest, he managed his animals in the manner to which he had been taught: uncontrolled, continuous grazing.
“In the beginning, I ranched like everyone else,” said David, referring to his management style, “which means I lost money.”
David followed what is sometimes called the “Columbus school” of ranching: turn the cows out in May, and go discover them in October. It’s a strategy that often leads to overgrazing, especially along creeks and rivers, where cattle like to linger. Plants, once bitten, need time to recover and grow before being bitten again. If they are bitten too frequently, especially in dry times, they can use up their root reserves and die—which is bad news for the cattle (not to mention the plant). Since ranchers often work on a razor-thin profit margin, it doesn’t take too many months of drought and overgrazing before the bottom line begins to wither too.
Grass may be patient, but bankers are not.
Through the 1970s, David’s ranchlands, and his business, were on a downward spiral. When the Forest Service cut back his cattle numbers, as they invariably did in years of drought, the only option available to David was to run them on the home ranch, which meant running the risk of overgrazing their private land. Meanwhile, the costs of operating the ranch kept rising. It was a no-win bind typical of many ranches in the West.
“I thought the answer was to work harder,” he recalled, “but that was exactly the wrong thing to do.”
Slowly, David came to realize that he was depleting the land, and himself, to the point of no return. By 1978, things became so desperate that the family was forced to develop a sizeable portion of their property, visible from the highway today, as a residential subdivision called, ironically, “the Ranch.” It was a painful moment in their lives.
“I never wanted to do that again,” said David, “so I began to look for another way.”
In 1990, David enrolled in a seminar taught by Kirk Gadzia, a certified instructor in what was then called Holistic Resource
Management—a method of cattle management that emphasizes tight control over the timing, intensity, and frequency of cattle impact on the land, mimicking the behavior of wild herbivores, such as bison, so that both the land and the animals remain healthy. “Timing” means not only the time of year but how much time, measured in days rather than the standard unit of months, the cattle will spend in a particular paddock. “Intensity” means how many animals are in the herd for that period of time. “Frequency” means how long the land is rested before a herd returns.
All three elements are carefully mapped out on a chart, which is why this strategy of ranching is often called “planned grazing.” The movement of the cattle herd from one paddock or pasture to another is carefully designed, often with the needs of wildlife in mind. Paddocks can range from a few acres in size to hundreds of acres, depending on many variables, and are often created with permanent two-strand solar-powered electric fencing, which is lightweight, cost-effective, and easy on wildlife. It works too. Once zapped, cattle usually don’t go near an electric fence again (ditto with elephants in Africa, as I understand it). Alternative methods of control include herding by a human (an ancient activity) and single-strand electric polywire, which is temporary and highly mobile. In all cases, the goal is the same: to control the timing, intensity, and frequency of the animal impact on the land.
Planned grazing has other names—timed grazing, management-intensive grazing, rapid rotational grazing, short-duration grazing, pulse grazing, cell grazing, or the “Savory system”—named after the Rhodesian biologist who came up with the basic idea.
Observing the migratory behavior of wild grazers in Africa, Allan Savory noticed that nature, often in the form of predators, kept herbivores on the move, which gives plants time to recover from the pressure of grazing. He also noticed that because herbivores tended to travel in large herds, their hooves had a significant ground-disturbing impact (think of what a patch of prairie would have looked like after a million-head herd of bison moved through), which he observed to be good for seed germination, among other things. In other words, plants can tolerate heavy grazing and perhaps even require it in certain circumstances. The key, of course, was that the animals moved on—and didn’t return for the rest of the year.
Savory also observed that too much rest was as bad for the land as too much grazing—meaning that plants can choke themselves with abundance in the absence of herbivory and fire, prohibiting juvenile plants from getting established (not mowing your lawn all summer is a crude, but apt, analogy). In dry climates, one of the chief ways old and dead grass gets recycled is through the stomachs of grazers, such as deer, antelope, bison, sheep, grasshoppers, or cattle. Animals, of course, return nutrients to the soil in the form of waste products. Fire is another way to recycle grass, though this can be risky business in a drought. If you’ve burned up all the grass, exposing the soil, and the rains don’t arrive on time—you and the land could be in trouble.
The bottom line of Savory’s thinking is this: animals should be managed in a manner consistent with nature’s model of herbivory.
David and Kay James did precisely that—they adopted a planned grazing system for both their private and public land operations. And they have thrived ecologically and economically as a result. They saved the ranch too—and today the four-hundred-acre James Ranch is noteworthy not only for its lush grass and busy water, but for its bucolic landscape in a valley that is dominated by development.
David and Kay insist, however, that adopting a new grazing system was only part of the equation, even if it had positive benefits for their bank account. The hardest part was setting an appropriate goal for their business. This was something new to the Jameses. As David noted wryly: “We really didn’t have a goal in the early days, other than not going broke.”
To remedy this, the entire James clan sat down in the early 1990s and composed a goal statement. It reads:
The integrity and distinction of the James Ranch is to be preserved for future generations by developing financially viable agricultural and related enterprises that sustain a profitable livelihood for the families directly involved while improving the land and encouraging the use of all resources, natural and human, to their highest and best potential.
It worked. Today, David profitably runs cattle on 220,000 acres of public land across two states. He is the largest permittee on the San Juan National Forest land, north and west of town. Using the diversity of the country to his advantage, David grazes his cattle in the low (dry) country only during the dormant (winter) season; then he moves them to the forests before finishing the cycle on the irrigated pastures of the home ranch.
That’s enough to keep anybody incredibly busy, of course, but David complicates the job by managing the whole operation according to planned grazing principles. Maps and charts cover a wall in their house. But David doesn’t see it as more work. “What’s harder,” he asked rhetorically, “spending all day on horseback looking for cattle scattered all over the county, like we used to, or knowing exactly where the herd is every day and moving them simply by opening a gate?”
It’s all about attitude, David observed. “It isn’t just about cattle,” he said, “it’s about the land. I feel like I’ve finally become the good steward that I kept telling everybody I was.”
Recently, the family refined their vision for the land and community one hundred years into the future. It looks like this:
- “lands that are covered with biologically diverse vegetation”
- “lands that boast functioning water, mineral, and solar cycles”
- “abundant and diverse wildlife”
- “a community benefiting from locally grown, healthy food”
- “a community aware of the importance of agriculture to the environment”
- “open space for family and community”
And they have summarized the lessons they have learned over the past dozen years:
- “Imitating nature is healthy.”
- “People like to know the source of their food.”
- “Ranching with nature is socially responsible.”
- “Ranching with nature gives the rancher sustainability.”
But it wasn’t all vision. It was practical economics too. For example, years ago, David and Kay told their kids that in order to return home, each had to bring a business with him or her. Today, son Danny owns and manages a successful artisanal dairy operation producing fancy cheeses on the home ranch that he began from scratch; son Justin owns a profitable BBQ restaurant in Durango; daughter Julie and her husband John own a successful tree farm on the home place; and daughter Jennifer and her husband grow and sell organic vegetables next door and plan to open a guest lodge across the highway.
In an era when more and more farm and ranch kids are leaving home, not to return, what the James clan has accomplished is significant. Not only are the kids staying close; they are also diversifying the ranch into sustainable businesses. Their attention is focused on the modern West, represented by Durango’s booming affluence and dependence on tourism. Whether it is artisan cheese, organic produce, decorative trees for landscaping, or a lodge for paying guests, the next generation of Jameses has their eyes firmly on new opportunities.
This raised a question. The Jameses enjoy what David calls many “unfair advantages” on the ranch—abundant grass, plentiful water, a busy highway right outside their front door, and close proximity to Durango—all of which contribute to their success. By contrast, many ranch families do not enjoy such advantages, which made me wonder: Beyond its fortunate circumstances, what can the James gang teach us?
I posed the question to David and Kay one evening.
“The key is community,” said Kay. “Sure, we’ve been blessed by a strong family and a special place, but our focus has always been on the larger community. We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Answering their own question, David and Kay James decided ten years ago to get into the business of producing and selling grass-fed beef from their ranch—to make money, of course, but also as a way of contributing to the quality of their community’s life.
Grass-fed, or “grass-finished,” as they call it, is meat from animals that have eaten nothing but grass from birth to death. This is a radical idea because nearly all cattle in America end their days being fattened on corn (and assorted agricultural byproducts) in a feedlot before being slaughtered. Corn enables cattle to put on weight more quickly, thus increasing profits, while also adding more “marbling” to the meat—creating a taste that Americans have come to associate with quality beef. The trouble is that cows are not designed by nature to eat corn, so they require a cornucopia of drugs to maintain their health.
There’s another reason for going into the grass-fed business: it is more consistently profitable than regular beef. That’s because ranchers can market their beef directly to local customers, thus commanding premium prices in health-conscious towns such as Durango. It also provides a direct link between the consumer and the producer—a link that puts a human face on eating and agriculture.
For David and Kay, this link is crucial—it builds the bonds of community that hold everything together. “When local people are supporting local agriculture,” said David, “you know you’re doing something right.”
Every landscape is unique, and every ranch is different, so drawing lessons is a tricky business, but one overarching lesson of the James Ranch seems clear: traditions can be strengthened by a willingness to try new ideas. Later, while thumbing through a stack of information David and Kay had given me, I found a quote that seemed to sum up not only their philosophy, but also that of the New Ranch movement in general and the optimism it embodies. It came from a wall in an old church in Essex, England:
A vision without a task Is but a dream A task without a vision Is drudgery A vision and a task Is the hope of the world.
Age of Consequences: