The art of control

  • Rancher Jim Winder

    Michael P. Berman

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories: Drought cuts to the bone on Southwest range

Jim Winder ranches near Hatch, N.M. He rotates his cattle through 62 fenced pastures on an 18,300-acre BLM allotment. When the customary winter rains didn't fall in January, he started looking for lusher pastures for his 300 yearlings. He sent them to Colorado in May. About a decade ago, he started keeping his cattle out of a wash during the growing season. Now it is a cottonwood-shaded riparian area. It had running water for several years, but ran dry last year due to the drought.

"My father did new things in the drought of the '50s. He inventoried grasses. No one else was doing that. He had a management plan; back then that was unheard of. When I took over, it had good grass and good cows. So I brought in some new stuff like the riparian.

"You plan for a drought before it happens. If your cows get thin, you've already lost the game. This is the fifth year of drought. The people who have been here awhile are pretty conservative. You can be conservative in stocking rate and you can be conservative in how you manage the land. I define conservative as matching production with the resource. You can have lots of control. A lot of ranchers feel out of control; they're just hoping it will rain.

"Most of what I do is almost the opposite of the philosophy of typical ranching. It's not what you take, it's what you can leave. I don't want to sound like some Zen contrarian; I'm not some brilliant guy who knows how to manage things. I just see there's more out there than cows.

"God could easily say, 'You damn fool ranchers; there's more than this. You've simplified the ecosystem terribly. You managed for cows and grass, and guess what you got? Cows and grass!' This debate ought to be on ecological terms. We're talking about custom and culture and crap like that.

"What I do isn't a science. It's an art. Everything I do is so nonlinear. But I get a feel for things. Ask me to measure the effects of not grazing this riparian area. I don't know, but I know I'm right. I take this damn seriously. I get so damn mad (when I hear about people who can't keep their cattle alive). I mean, come on. That's why you're here on Earth!"

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