Sunburnt and saddlesore in the land of shining mountains


by MattBarnes — Jun 07, 2010

A story of the working West, and of a West that is working. Stewardship of western rangeland, using holistic management and planned grazing as a tool for economic, ecological, and social resilience.

In my line of work we measure success toward a triple bottom line of ecological, economic, and social resilience. My goal is to live in the Western landscape in a way that makes sense in the greater whole, that not only does not degrade it but sustains and restores it.
In this quest for resilience, I’ve come around to the most quintessentially Western way of working on the land: harvesting native biological diversity with livestock and minimal external inputs, especially of machinery and fossil fuels. Grazing by livestock or wild herbivores can restore, maintain, or degrade rangelands; it all depends on how that grazing is distributed in space and time, which is to say that it all depends on how it is managed.
As temporary steward of this ranch in the Rocky Mountains, I spend half my time irrigating, half my time fencing, half my time horseback with cattle, and the rest just getting around. It adds up to about seventy hours per week, and over three weeks since I’ve been far enough ahead with my fencing and irrigating to take a day off. I thought I was in shape before I moved here, but I find my hands and arms full of pins and needles from gripping my fence pliers and shovel all day.
All this work is to get cattle to the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons. Their work, in turn, is to eat the grass and deposit their nutrient-rich manure evenly across the pasture, then move on and not return until the grass has recovered from the previous grazing. This requires a lot of pastures, or intensive herding. In contrast, livestock left in a single large pasture, especially in the absence of predators, tend to return to the same plants and locations within the pasture too soon because the re-growth is more palatable than the older material of the ungrazed plants, eventually causing loci of range deterioration—loss of biological diversity, hydrologic function, and soil stability—that tend to expand over the years. Native ungulates maintained the grasslands because their pack-hunting predators did not allow them to stay in any one place too long. It is this role of the predator that I now assume.
Where grazing is planned and managed to prevent this cycle, the animals with their rumen microflora also do the work of biologically decomposing all that plant biomass and then depositing it in a form that can be incorporated into the soil, rather than allowing it to slowly oxidize, releasing its carbon to the atmosphere. This is the true yet almost universally overlooked role of grazing ruminants in nutrient cycling.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts because of the overwhelming importance of the relationships, and everything is related to everything else. These concepts of holism and grazing ecology were synthesized by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield in Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (Island Press, 1999). Their ranch in Zimbabwe, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, recently won the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for its successful reversal of desertification, recognizing holistic management as the most practical solution to “make the world work for 100% of humanity.”
On this ranch here in Colorado, the owners and I practice holistic management. This means we make every decision toward a holisticgoal that encompasses quality of life, forms of production to produce that quality of life, and the future resource base to sustain that production far into the future, including the land, people, and community.
Regenerative rangeland livestock agriculture means that the grass is greener on this side of the fence, the cattle are fatter, the people are stronger and healthier, and our business is resilience in action. And, sunburnt and saddlesore, I know that my work is not just work, but a work of art.