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for people who care about the West

Sid Goodloe

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story: Raising a ranch from the dead

"Allan Savory said it best when he said we're grass farmers and not animal ranchers. But I would say that much more emphasis has been put on breeding animals than on proper care of the range. Ranchers are much more interested in discussing how good their bulls are and how much their calves weighed than in talking about the land.

"That's beginning to change. Environmentalists are making us more conscious of the land. But it takes awhile. It takes hardheaded people like me a long time to change. But if we weren't hardheaded, we wouldn't have stuck it out; we wouldn't still be here.

"In the beginning, my first priority was to have good cattle. That was a thing to be respected. In college, I majored in animal science. But when I went back to school, I got a master's in range science.

"I started out with cattle that didn't fit the land - the Hereford breed. We have a lot of wind and snow here. The hair around their eyes is white, and they get a lot of cancer eye and pink eye. And their udders are white. If we get snow in the spring, and then the sun comes out, they get blistered and they kick their calves off. And then I have them in the corral greasing their tits every day or their calves would starve.

"So I went to black cattle. They don't have that problem at all. Also, a black animal will absorb more heat in the winter. And since it's cool here in the summer, that doesn't hurt them. They just fit the land better.

"But it's not just the cattle. It's also the wildlife and the plants. You have to understand the ecosystem and try to make it produce at its maximum. Because of the abuse of the land here after the Civil War - too many cattle and sheep - the direction of the range, the dynamics of the range, began to go away from climax and toward desertification.

"I stopped the downhill run toward desertification and headed it back up the hill toward climax. On this ranch, climax is a savanna - large, scattered trees that can survive periodic fire - and ground that is covered with native grasses that absorb water instead of letting it run down the canyon.

"Now I've got the place pretty close to climax. I can't say it's at climax because no one knows what it once was. So I say I'm 95 percent there.

"With short-duration grazing, with the proper number of animals, with adequate brush control, you're improving the condition of the watershed all the time while you're using it. I'm not damaging this ranch anymore, and yet I'm making money off it.

"But you have to stay on top of it. The number of birds that eat and spread juniper berries has increased vastly. It's a snowball effect of birds and seeds and seedlings. When I can't burn, I get on my four-wheeler and drip herbicide on each seedling. But there are too many seedlings for this. You need fire. It's a constant battle.

"And where the trees have already taken over, like on the national forest next to my ranch, you need to chain. Not the old kind of chaining, where you just knock the trees down and put the cattle back. But chaining where you keep the cattle off for a year after you knock the trees down. And then you burn and reseed with native grasses. And then you don't put the cattle back on for another year. After that, you use short-duration grazing so they can't just eat their favorite grasses or you'll be right back where you started. You make them eat their spinach as well as their ice cream."