Western ranchers are restoring diverse, grassland ecosystem practices that can improve the land’s capacity to hold water—and help them hold onto more cattle.
Western ranchers are restoring diverse, grassland ecosystem practices that can improve the land’s capacity to hold water—and help them hold onto more cattle.
May 17, 2021
It’s calving season and all across the West ranchers are watching the sizes of their herds grow. It’s also the beginning of a new season on most ranches, but in the midst of a historic, persistent drought, a growing herd brings difficult questions.
As average temperatures climb and the water that flows through many of the major rivers and creeks across the west is slowing, the availability of forage—grass, legumes, and other edible pasture plants—has become less predictable. As a result, many ranchers face complex calculations: Do they sell off some of their cattle and cut a profit, but risk flooding the market and getting a low price? Or do they hold onto their herd and buy extra hay and forage, rent additional pasture, or risk overgrazing—and further drying out—the land?
There aren’t easy answers to this question, especially as climate change accelerates and the western United States enters its 22nd year of drought, long enough to be categorized as a mega-drought. This year, leaders in California have declared a state of emergency for most of the state and much of the West is in “exceptional drought,” a dangerous level of dryness linked to water emergencies, failed crops, and barren pastures, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And as the Colorado River slows and dry periods between rainstorms have become longer and less predictable, the situation is likely to get worse. Ranchers, who often depend on dry, steep, and marginal land that can’t support crop production, could be hit especially hard.
“To be honest, we don’t have any miracle answers at all,” Julie Sullivan, who runs a grass-fed beef ranch in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, said in an email. Yet Sullivan and ranchers like her have found ways to lower the stakes by adopting management practices that can improve the land’s capacity to hold water–and, therefore, hold onto more cattle.
The best bet? Improving or restoring the diverse, grassland ecosystem native to the land, and grazing it just enough to grow year after year. This doesn’t guarantee a rancher will avoid selling off cattle, or needing disaster assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Yet, it does help create something like a buffer within the landscape so droughts and other natural disasters like wildfires are less threatening.
“Every drop of moisture is even more precious than it used to be,” said Sullivan. “You want to do everything you can to make sure your ground is capable of absorbing water.” When the soil is healthy, full of organic matter and microbes, it will sop up water. The relationship between water and grasslands is cyclical: When more water is retained in the soil, it leads to healthier grasslands and healthier grasslands are able to build deeper, longer-lasting reserves of water.
Most of the water-conservation practices that Sullivan and her husband and business partner George Whitten employ on the San Juan Ranch are geared toward keeping the ground covered year-round. In the driest region of Colorado, their meadows—a complex mixture of native grasses, forbs, and legumes—always have something growing and alive.
“You’re always managing to avoid bare soil,” said Sullivan. This involves moving the cattle every day, with an electric fence, so that they do not overgraze the land, exposing it to the drying sun. Their cattle feed off the grasslands their entire lives, never entering an industrial feedlot to be fattened with grains, which makes healthy pastures all the more essential.
Whitten inherited the 3,400-acre ranch from his father and grandfather. In the mid-‘80s, when conserving water became a priority, he decided to stop baling hay in the conventional way. Most ranchers will cut their grasses, rake it into thick piles, known as bales, and then haul it off the field to store and feed to their animals throughout the winter. Yet, in an arid landscape, Whitten says, that process can contribute to the degradation of the soil and grasslands, worsening the impacts of drought.
“When you have hauled all that biomass away, you’ve taken a lot of nutrition, a lot of fertility out of the soil,” said Whitten. “If you keep doing that over and over again, pretty soon, then you need to add another technology, which is some sort of synthetic fertilizer.”
Instead, Whitten and Sullivan keep the hay on the field year-round, bundling the grasses into thousands of small haystacks. This way, their hay meadows stay diverse and healthy. It’s a method of bailing hay that works especially well in an extremely arid, dry steppe environment like the San Luis Valley, where the average precipitation in the valley is just 7 inches a year, though this year will likely be less than that.
Whitten said the conservation practices they use have allowed them to use less water than their neighbors and get through the worst years so far, plus a bit of luck. “It always rains just before it is too late,” he added.
Ultimately, there is a lot that is largely outside of ranchers’ control, which can hinder the economic and environmental viability of ranchland. For instance, it can be challenging when many ranchers sell off cattle at once, flood the market, and cause the price to drop. To address this, some ranchers are leaving the commodity market, which is largely controlled by four companies, and selling directly to local people, like Whitten and Sullivan do.
“The market uncertainty has always existed in the U.S. beef model. We’re not in control of our market prices,” said Manny Encinias, the owner of the grass-fed Buffalo Creek Ranch in New Mexico. In 2020, he helped found Trilogy Beef, a collective of family ranches focused on direct marketing and protecting the landscape. The hope is that consumers will want to pay for beef raised nearby, on rangeland he’s been working to restore.
Across the western United States, in the most drought-stricken regions, from the Chihuahuan Desert to the coastal grasslands of California, a scattering of small-scale ranchers are building healthier grasslands to conserve water, extending the viability of their land and business. The practices differ from ranch to ranch, but the general principle—improving the biodiversity and root system of the pastures—remains the same.
“The more you’ve allowed your grassland to invest in its roots, the better off it is going to be during a drought,” said Randy Jackson, a grassland ecologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Perennial plants—which stay in the ground year in and year out—continue to “photosynthesize and put their carbon and nutrients below ground, which is really their savings account.” In times of drought, it will draw more on the savings in the ground.
This has been a vital strategy for Doniga Markegard, the owner of a family ranch just south of San Francisco. While California is known for its rolling golden hills, covered in annual grasslands that die in the summer months, the grass on Markegard Family Grass-Fed stay green and alive all year. In fact, her land has the highest percentage of perennial grasses, according to data collected by Point Blue Conservation Science: 32 percent compared to the regional average of 18 percent.
On a hot, predictably rainless day near the end of an exceptionally dry spring, Markegard showed off the prized perennial bunchgrasses of the coastal valley over video chat.
“[Even after it] goes to seed, this is going to stay green and keep growing,” said Markegard, pointing to the short, tufted grass with a purple seed head, known as purple needle grass.
Later she points the camera at a patch of mostly bare soil, recently disturbed by a tractor, where the perennial grass is still holding on. The advantage of perennials is that they are generally able to establish deeper root systems, meaning they grow back even after being grazed. Those robust root systems also help retain soil structure, prevent erosion, and sequester carbon, while allowing water to infiltrate further into the soil, where it can last longer and keep the roots alive.
So far, Markegard’s grasslands have helped the ranch get through the driest years, including the historic 2014-2015 drought. “In one of the driest times in history, those grasses were still productive and doing their job covering the soil,” she said. She is counting on them again this summer, though anticipates that it will be a “very tight year.” She’s been actively looking for more land to lease and intends to “finish” (prepare for slaughter) the cattle earlier, so they rely on less forage.
Jackson describes perennial grasslands as “nature’s adaptation to low or erratic water availability”–because the plants stay alive below ground. Yet the promise of perennials depends on the landscape, according to Jackson, who has doubts about perennials as a viable solution on some of the annual-covered land in California.
Even in annual grasslands, a rancher will want to do their best to ensure that the land is covered year-round. So, this would mean managing what’s left behind after the annual goes to seed and dies, known as the “residual dry matter.” “You want to be able to protect that seed bank,” said Jackson. Otherwise, when the rain comes, the seeds could wash away and next year’s grass won’t sprout.
When cattle are grazed just enough to leave behind a protective covering on the soil, they can also help build a landscape more resilient to wildfires. Similar to prescribed burning, grazing helps clear a landscape of the vegetation that can act like kindling, stoking a mega-fire. Markegard recalls how a fire erupted on her neighbor’s property in December 2019, but “once it hit the grasslands, we could basically step over it.”
Just a 10-minute drive from Markegard Family Grass-Fed, rancher Wendy Millet, the director of TomKat Ranch, recently introduced goats as a fire adaptation tool. The appeal of goats, Millet explains, is that they are “browsers”—meaning they’ll prune the brushes, trees, flower heads, and even poisonous vegetation. Meanwhile, cows are “grazers,” partial to grasses and forbs.
Millet pays close attention to her animals’ behavior to avoid overgrazing. “Every day, we go in and we check the animals,” said Millet. “Are the animals lying down and chewing their cud, and that means they’re happy and full?” When they start to crowd the fence-line, she takes it as a cue that they’re ready to move on and eat something different. Known as adaptive or “managed” grazing, the idea is to take cues from the environment and animals to move them through a series of small pastures or paddocks relatively quickly—a style that differs from conventional grazing where animals are spread throughout the land.
After shifting to this approach, the ranch saw the return of native perennial grasses growing back—no longer overshaded by the annuals. In 2011, perennial grasses were found in eight of her 75 pastures. In 2013, this increased to 58 out of the 75, according to Point Blue Conservation Science, which has monitored the biological diversity on TomKat Ranch—which is owned by Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor—for the past decade.
“[TomKat’s] management of the ranch has allowed for these perennials to expand,” said Chelsea Carey, a soil ecologist with Point Blue. She notes that the deeper roots of perennials provide a habitat for birds and draw carbon deeper into the soil—though there is a larger debate around the extent that this carbon sequestration, which is challenging to measure, counteracts cow’s release of methane into the atmosphere.
The effectiveness of the grazing method depends on the landscape, so moving the cattle quickly through a landscape won’t work everywhere. “In the arid country, like New Mexico, we’re restricted in that regard,” said Marcy Ward, an extension livestock specialist at New Mexico State University. “We can’t follow a lot of those intensive grazing management styles, so most people do large pastures by season.”
The general tenet of leaving enough forage behind, ensuring the ground is covered, still holds true. Yet, without rain, this can only be so successful, a fact that raises broader questions about the viability of ranching in the driest parts of the country. “In the last two years, it’s been extraordinarily dry,” said Ward. “Ranchers have had to cull anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their herds in some cases.”
Across ecosystems, biodiversity is another crucial determinant of the ability to adapt to extreme weather events and diseases. This has been a focus of the Dixon Water Foundation, which operates several cattle ranches in the grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas. According to a plant inventory of their ranch in Marfa, Texas, the pastures contain 51 different species of grass, which helps build a more complex, healthier ecosystem below ground.
“In times of fire and drought, there are certain plant species that are better adapted to different types of disturbance,” said Philip Boyd, the director of science and communications for the foundation. “If you have a monoculture, it’s easier for a disturbance to wipe out an entire community.”
Recently, the foundation staff have been experimenting with restoring degraded creek beds on land that was once mined for timber. That way, “when there is water there, it’s getting slowed by the vegetation and it’s staying in the system. It’s recharging the groundwater. It’s rehydrating the soils,” said Boyd. Ideally, the restored creek will allow the water to spread slowly through the grasslands.
As they restore biodiversity, they’ve also taken additional measures in advance of the drought, selling off a good portion of their herd and relocating some cattle to another ranch in Texas.
The Malpai Borderlands Group is also dedicated to protecting the biodiversity of the borderlands wilderness along the U.S.-Mexico border, which includes parts of the Chihuahuan Desert. The coalition of ranchers have been able to survive in a landscape that receives so little rain, in part, because they are nestled in a largely unfragmented wilderness, where healthy watersheds recharge the aquifers.
The Malpai Borderlands Group also pioneered a practice called “grassbanking,” wherein a conservation group leases out land to ranchers at a lower rate in exchange for an agreement that the ranchers will adopt conservation practices on their own property. This allows the conservation group to protect more land, and the ranchers get access to more land than they could typically afford.
The coalition has worked to restore watersheds and has protected 86,000 acres of land through conservation easements. They also took a stand against Trump’s border wall, which, along with the dangers posed to migrants, disturbs the working rangelands on which they depend.
Julie Sullivan and George Whitten have gained a reputation in the San Luis Valley for being good land stewards, which they say makes people more interested in leasing their land to them. That way, if it’s too dry on their own land, they have greener pastures available.
“We’re kind of like a traveling circus. We go where we need to go,” said Sullivan. “It’s not just the relationship with the grass and the sun and the soil and the animals, it’s relationships with one another.” This has been a key strategy for them to survive the dry periods since 2003.
But even the best business and land management practices can’t make grass grow under rainless skies, and most ranchers Civil Eats spoke to are bracing for the possibility that the West may one day simply become too dry to keep ranching viable.
“If it doesn’t rain, nobody is going to get grass,” said Sullivan. “It remains to be seen what exactly climate change is going to do and how creative we’re all going to have to get.”
Top photo: Doniga Markegard with Markegard Family Grass-Fed cattle grazing on the Jenner Headlands Preserve. Photo courtesy of the ranch.
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