How to Save the Grasslands: Bring in More Cattle

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Meanwhile, back at the Western ranch, landowners are using Holistic Management to streamline costs and enhance profitability. Nancy Ranney of Ranney Ranch in Corona, New Mexico, family-run since 1968, says that since introducing Holistic Management practices in 2002, feed costs have plummeted to one-fifth of what they were, fuel and labor costs have dropped 50% and 30% respectively, and the land is more resilient during droughts. She has also noticed that the land — at 18,000 acres it's a mid-sized operation — is healthier. While the pasture had been dominated by one type of grass, blue grama, "within three years we had 25 native grasses," she says. "The seeds were dormant in the soil and reappeared." This attests to increased biodiversity, which reflects a healthier ecosystem.

For Ranney, these changes not only made economic sense, but also spoke to family priorities. "We all feel this land was entrusted to us by our parents and grandparents, and we care about the integrity of the land," she says. "We're also concerned about global environmental health and biodiversity. We're interested in finding ways of protecting land as well as developing it." Some investors are establishing Western ranches with land restoration at the core. Grasslands, LLC, is a vast tract of two ranch properties in South Dakota acquired by investors including John Fullerton — a former Managing Director of JP Morgan and Founder and President of The Capital Institute — and under the operation of CEO Jim Howell, who's affiliated with the Savory Institute. In its pilot season Grasslands has already enhanced the land's productivity: there's 20% more edible grass, rather than opportunistic plants unpalatable to cattle that crop up when grazing is unmanaged. This means the land can carry more cattle. "When you improve the quality of the land in an ecological sense, the profitability follows," says Fullerton. He adds: "We're trying to track not just ecological and financial, but also social improvements so that we can have a thriving rural land based economy again."

Grasslands, LLC is also exploring means to monetize the sequestration of carbon. "Putting a value on the ecosystem services of the land makes maintaining the land more profitable than, say, putting up condos," says Fullerton. "Our approach is triple bottom line people, planet and profit — leading with restoring ecological function. We want to show investors that you can make money and restore the grasslands." Courtney White, Executive Director of the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico-based organization devoted to ecologically and financially sound Western ranch management, has introduced the concept of "The Carbon Ranch," the topic of the group's 2010 Conference, to be held in November in Albuquerque. He says: "This puts all the pieces together: reducing the carbon footprint, providing grass-fed food, restoring habitat, and carbon sequestration."

To White, setting an economic value for sequestered carbon is important for mitigating against climate change — plus for added income to ranchers struggling economically. "It's tough for everybody," he says. "Farmers and ranchers get 19 cents on every dollar in the food system. If you do a good job you can raise your stocking rates. But usually you have to diversify income streams." The question, he says, is: "How can rural landowners be compensated for sequestering carbon? There is a role for government to light this fire: reward early adopters willing to tackle climate change for land use and food production.

Steven Apfelbaum underscores the need to bring grassland soil sequestration into the discussion as the Senate embarks on new climate/energy legislation. "The work of the ranches in revitalizing grasslands is also good for the climate," he says. "Appropriate energy and climate policies that address growing soil carbon would provide a new source of revenue and give ranchers and farmers an incentive to apply ecosystem-based management."

Michael Bowman, a fifth-generation Coloradan, would be happy to see new economic opportunity in the Central Great Plains. "The out-migration has reached epidemic proportions, especially among young people," he says. "The school system here has one-half the students compared with three decades ago." Nancy Ranney says people in her New Mexico town have to drive 2 1/4 hours to find a fully stocked grocery store. More effective grazing management and additional sources of income, she notes, could allow more people to "stay on ranches, otherwise they'd have to sell."

For now, Ranney is still stunned by how grazing management has changed the ranch routine: "We used to have three to four weeks of sustained riding to move animals to new pasture. Now they're in in a day. Where did the old Western round-up go? We're nostalgic for that, but it's all about less work and therefore greater productivity."

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