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Opinion by Tony Hoch

A Look at the "Radical Center" of Ranching by: Tony Hoch

I was given the opportunity by my board of supervisors at the Laramie Rivers Conservation District to attend the 11th annual meeting of the Quivira Coalition in Albuquerque, N.M. in mid-November, to see what kind of ideas I could bring back to the table for discussion. The Quivira Coalition rejects the acrimony of past decades that has dominated the debate over livestock grazing on public lands, because it has yielded little but hard feelings among people who are united by their common love of land and who should be natural allies. I did my best to see it through the eyes of ranchers I’ve become acquainted with in the past 10 years, and I’m sure I rolled my eyes more a few times on behalf of my Wyoming ag friends. That said, I saw 300 well-intended and often very sharp agriculture people taking the meeting theme, “How to Feed 9 Billion People from the Ground Up,” very seriously. The ongoing theme of the entire group keeps coming back to the “radical center” – these are people who don’t mind a little cow manure but don’t buy the concept sold by the multi-national seed and fertilizer companies of “go big or go home.” They believe that traditional agriculture and environmental-minded newcomers can and must work together to address the problems facing our planet today.

Over three days, over 20 speakers represented traditional agriculture with a twist – foresters, research scientists from top universities, non-profits and urban agriculture. Among the themes that stayed with me were that there has to be a way to gainfully engage and employ more than the current two percent of our population in production agriculture – and that percentage is dropping quickly with the aging of the farmer and rancher population. We were also challenged to imagine a beef industry without industrial feedlots, and it was suggested that there might be more to food production than maximizing activity – a theme I’m hearing now in the drought as producers are talking about managing the ranch for the long term.

The presentations that stuck in my mind were the ones from traditional ranchers and farmers, like Gabe Brown of Bismark, N.D. Brown talked about how he regenerated his farm through consciously trying to avoid imposing his will on nature. Brown’s farm operation has been 100 percent no-till since 1993 – he says, “There is no place for tillage in production agriculture.” He always plants nitrogen-fixing plants as cover crops along with cash crops – sometimes he only plants cover crops, which excludes the need to ever use additional fertilizer. The cover crops provide habitat for “good insects,” which eat the bad insects, and he never uses herbicides. Brown never uses fertilizer because the cover crops provide nutrients. Brown’s primary livestock operation consists of cattle grazed with holistic management principles, but he has also diversified his grazing to include chickens, hogs and sheep. With regard to the bottom line on farming, Brown claims that if you exclude land cost to put everyone on an even playing field, he produces his corn for about one fifth the national average cost. Many more details of the operation can be found at brownsranch.us.

Another inspiring producer/speaker was Colin Seis who owns a 2000 acre ranch in Winona, Australia and told the story of his life in the 1970s when, after generations of non-sustainable practices by his family, soils were compacted, fertilizer costs were too high, and they were having salinity problems. To top it all off, they lost everything to a wildfire and had no resources left. After the fire Sies tried to figure out how he could salvage his operation by purchasing only one piece of equipment, and he decided that piece of equipment would be a seed drill. He used the drill to plant cereal crops in dormant grassland and combined this practice with targeted cell grazing. These practices address concerns about poor soil structure, the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds and soil erosion. Seis combined cropping and grazing into one land management strategy where each practice benefits the other. Although he does this in an area of Australia with 26 inches of annual rainfall, he says it can work in areas on 10 to 12 inches, like the desert southwest where the conference was held, saying, “You just need dormant grassland in which to drill the seed.” Now the details of this were a bit fuzzy to me, but Seis says he drills the cereal crop seed and does the grazing during dormancy, harvests the cereal crop when it is ready and harvests the perennial grass for last in the cycle.

Seis added, “If people are calling you a lunatic, you must be on the right track.”

More info on the Seis operation can be found at pasturecropping.com.

One of the most noteworthy speakers was Alan Savory of the well-known Savory Institute. Savory has spent a lifetime working on grazing and soil erosion issues in the desert southwestern U.S. and in Africa. Savory made the bold assertion, which should be obvious to readers of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, that our “global civilization will survive or fall on agriculture.” He was looking at the really big picture of agriculture and said we should throw the whole system out and start over by looking at the problems and not the symptoms, which is often the case with congress, the USDA and industry. He likened the government’s weed policy to its war on drugs – again, looking at the symptoms rather than the real root causes of these problems. An example of this is simply reseeding grasses instead of looking at why the grass needs reseeding, or attacking a weed instead of looking at why there is a weed infestation in the first place. These are really complex issues and can’t be addressed by targeting new single problems or symptoms as they arise Savory firmly believes that mismanagement of livestock has created additional erosion and desertification problems in the U.S., and only proper use livestock grazing can reverse this trend. He is no sentimentalist when it comes to ranching, but is one of the most convincing champions of cows on the open range as a way to restore soil and rangeland health and return CO2 to the most important terrestrial carbon sink – our precious soils.

After I presented some of these ideas to my board, one of my supervisors stated skeptically that even some of today’s most established ranchers aren’t able to make it. To that I would recall Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. My point here is that there are people out there thinking completely outside of the box created in the last 100 or so years of ranching, less than a blink in time to this geologist, and by the mainstream agro-industrial complex. It can’t hurt to take a look at some new ideas.

For more information visit, quiviracoalition.com.