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Regenerative Ranching: Old Mojo in a New Age

I make my living from grazing cattle on large landscapes in the American West. When it comes to this vocation, making the land and the ecosystems as healthy as I can is even more important than financial viability. I feel this way because the health of the land provides for my business, represents my family’s future, and because I was raised in a community of people for whom working in concert with the land was a way of life.

As a boy living deep in isolated cattle country in northern Mexico, I played and worked with people one would not describe as environmentalists or conservationists. Yet living on the ranch tending to the livestock and was what we knew and cared about the most. We worked six and a half days a week for my father who managed the ranch, his strict hand guiding me carefully through the inner workings of a professional ranching operation that paid its own way financially and provided careful stewardship to the land that supported it.

But in contrast to my personal experience of it, cattle ranching is publicly one of the most mythologized and maligned industries and ways of life in our country today. On one hand, ranching is the birthplace of the American cowboy, a mythical figure romanticized and admired globally. The public, encouraged by Hollywood, imagines him herding cows and shooting his pistol into the sky as he gallops his horse across the landscape. Rough, tough, and independent. On the other hand, ranching is decried in environmentally conscious circles as an industry that degrades natural resources through overgrazing. Both have an element of truth, but both are ultimately misguided perceptions.

It is indisputably true that in the past, and on a smaller scale to this day, some ranchers have allowed herds of sheep and cattle to graze too heavily and long, seriously degrading the land. To the extent ranchers continue to overgraze the land, it is mainly out of a lack of understanding of grazing management and ecology, or because they have no source of revenue apart from cattle and must maximize production to remain solvent.

However, much has changed in the recent decades. The public has become more aware of and sensitive to the ecological health of American landscapes. The makeup of land ownership is shifting, as high-net-worth individuals, environmental NGOs, and others are purchasing large swaths of land. There has been a surge of new thinking about grazing that focuses on environmental impact. All of this amounts to a rising vigilance that places pressure on the way land is managed. In the long run, these forces will reward those who do produce tangible, positive change and help push out those who do not.

This current spotlight has increasingly highlighted ranching known as “regenerative:” a politically progressive viewpoint of innovative, forward-looking grazing management that attempts to shift ecosystems into more healthy, vibrant places. Consequently, it is easy to vilify traditional grazing management methods as a whole because of the poor management outcomes that some ranchers brought about in the past. However, long-established grazing practices developed by land-grant universities, scientists, and ranchers, have been in use for a long time and have also produced outcomes that sustain and increase the health of the ecosystem.

The community that I grew up in upheld these same values long before the notion of “regenerative” grazing came to life. The people I lived with knew the medicinal qualities of plants, made paintbrushes from yucca leaves and whitewash from rocks we mined from the canyons. We had no motorized vehicles and instead used horses and mules for hauling wood that we used for cooking, warming our houses, and branding cattle. Five hours away from the conveniences of the closest village, we truly lived with the land and by the land.

My father knew the value of resting the land during the growing season and understood that, in times of drought, animals should be taken off the land to reduce the stress on it. He knew this not because of scientific studies, but as the recipient of a long tradition of generations of people living in a foundational relationship to natural systems. For example, he would sell a cow that lost her calf to a predator rather than shooting the predator in order to create a cattle herd that was more adapted to survival its natural environment. Just as indigenous cultures lived in relative harmony with nature for most of history, many ranchers were able to achieve and maintain ecological balance as a result of their close connection to the lands they manage. Sitting on the front porch, my father would intermittently identify birds coming into a small pool of water in the corner of the yard while he read from his stack of books about soil, range management, and wildlife. Without exception, the ranchers in our neighborhood lived the same way, reverently caring for their land and managing it the best they knew how – for the long term.

One day my dad handed me the Livestock Weekly folded in half, pointing to a tiny two-inch by two-inch article with a drawing of a wagon wheel. It described a man from Rhodesia who came away from his experience in the African bush as a rogue elephant hunter with an altogether new approach to grazing based on his observations of the symbiotic relationship between large ungulate herds and grasslands. This was my first introduction to Allan Savory, who I now believe to be the most important conservationist living today. Allan came to the United States where his ideas have been developed and popularized by ranchers changing the way they manage land. Even though Allan’s ideas have been controversial, it is perhaps because of him that the term “regenerative grazing” is spreading at such an increasingly fast rate across a broad spectrum of society. His ideas about amalgamating cattle herds to emulate the great American bison herds of the past achieve an important ecosystem disturbance through the hoof action on the soil’s surface. This hoof action helps lay dead standing grass onto the ground surface where it will eventually recycle into the soil and breaks the soil surface crust open in order for seeds to be buried and to allow water to penetrate into the soil. Therefore, hoof action is an ecosystem process in the same vein as wind, water, and fire – all critical ecosystem dynamics that grasslands require in order to function in a healthy state.

Over decades of ranching and managing land, I have incorporated Allan’s philosophy with the old ways handed down to me by the gnarly, wise, old Mexican cowboys and ranchers that I grew up with. The blend that has become my way of working the land has produced positive results that I am happy with and for which I have been recognized by environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Society for Ranch Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. One of our accomplishments has been the removal of the Arkansas darter from the endangered species candidate list. Consolidating cattle herds for hoof impact disturbance and resting streams for longer periods of time has also greatly depressed exotic weed encroachment, replaced by cattails, bullrushes, Nebraska sedge, cottonwood trees – all plants that had mostly disappeared from the ranch’s riparian areas.

The reverence for nature that I developed as a boy growing up on working rangeland is the crux of what guides me today. I feel that the trust in my abilities to provide stewardship for the landowners for whom I manage land is not only an important responsibility but also an honor – especially in a time of rising need. I have always viewed the responsible ranching as practiced by my father and his colleagues as “regenerative,” and my rancher friends today see it the same way, which is why I am always a bit taken off guard when I hear the term “regenerative ranching,” as if it’s something new or exclusive to a few who are using the latest ideas and technology. The recent developments in land management philosophies are vital to the process of healing the earth, but the soul or consciousness that comes from a deep connection born from working and living on the land through generations of trial and error is also important, if not essential. This new vision of regeneration and its rise bring me hope that more people will realize that ranching is indeed the most compelling form of large scale conservation today, which after 30 years as a rancher, is perhaps my most significant realization about our work. It has the potential to save the world, as Allan Savory states in his Ted Talk.

The “regenerative” movement in my mind is not so much a new way to manage the land, but the coalescing of people from all walks of life who care and are actively doing something about the ecological problems we face. Increasingly, more people and organizations are becoming aware of the great opportunity that ranching represents (specifically its ability through skilled grazing to rapidly sequester carbon into the soil). These people are entering this industry with excitement, vital urgency, and new knowledge. New resources are available to us, including social media that provides a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, blink-by-blink log of the emotion, beauty, and power of working in harmony with the land that is needed to spread knowledge and insight and galvanize people. Other new partners like conservation and advocacy organizations – Western Landowners Alliance, Quivira Coalition, and Baby Bathwater Institute, to name a few — government agencies, photographers, artists, writers, birders, bloggers, retail brands, and e-commerce entrepreneurs have all become part of our circle of influence with whom we have developed strong friendships and alliances.

Our motto is “living together to work with the land.” Our mojo. Regardless of what philosophy we use to manage land, who we are, or where we come from, ranchers are at a watershed moment in time. We are on the cusp of the greatest opportunity that we have ever encountered to show the world our worth as naturalists. Our challenge as ranchers is to become aware of our capacity and to change our paradigm of viewing ourselves as strictly cattlemen, sheepmen, horsemen, or ranchers to include in that list of names: environmentalists, naturalists, conservationists. Although these labels carry deep emotional gravity with our cultural identity, in the end, they are just words that bring to the surface a relevance to today’s world and our place in its future. Ranchers bring a deep consciousness of the land and a long legacy of tried and true ways, now enhanced by new skills, knowledge, and technology, an army of partners, and the growing momentum of a grassroots call to the land encapsulated by what everyone today is calling “regenerative”.

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6 Comments

  1. First, you write very well Duke; keep pen to paper (finger to keys). I had some Rhodesian Graduate Students all of whom had a gifted conservation/animal welfare eye. I have not studied range management but as an avid outdoors-man, I have observed the natural way including intensive grazing periodically and resting periodically. The “hoof” magic you describe works. Keep writing buddy. Having hunted in Europe I am interested in their (actually a Canadian started this) harvest priorities as first the yearling or even wean ling, then the female, then immature males, leaving mature males alone until like me, they are no longer productive (Thank God, we don’t follow that philosophy). Indigenous peoples have told us “to listen, nature will tell you the answer”. We need to listen. Sorry to ramble.

    1. Wayne, thanks for your kind words. I think that when you love something all the way, and consequently spend a lot of time doing it, you learn by, as you say – observing, and with time become a part of it. And thats true whether you are a hunter, fisherman or cowman. Thanks for responding and sharing your thoughts – it means a lot to all of us.

  2. You need to share these thoughts with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups where ranching still gets a bad rap. You express well your organic love and relationship to the land. It needs wider distribution.

  3. Mr. Phillips, wise words. I’m a student at a college in the Midwest. I’m discovering that I’m passionate about stewarding the land as you & others do. Could you offer advice on how young folk, like me, can enter into ranching & begin to participate in this movement? I know about the internships & apprenticeships that places like Ranchlands or Quivira Institute offer. These opportunities are something I’d eventually want to take advantage of. But, I struggle with what I should be doing before then. I’m a freshman at a college that cares little about agriculture. How would I benefit the most from my education? Should I be learning about business/economics or environmental science? Would either necessarily help me as a rancher? Should I transfer somewhere that teaches agriculture/ranching or should I put college on hold & start seeking an internship/apprenticeship sooner? I’m sure there isn’t only one right way to enter ranching. But, I’m hopeful that you or someone else that might see this could offer their wisdom on what skills & type of people ranches could use today. God bless.

    1. JP, I feel pretty strongly that your time in college, regardless of what profession you want to enter should be spent learning about yourself, the world around, where you came from, finding the very best professors with whom you identify and who understand you and what you are looking for. I studied creative writing and translation. Learning to write has been the biggest gift I could have received. College, I believe is about learning how to think. Even if you are interested in ranching, I still think you should spend your time in a liberal arts program. You can still work summers on ranches, read industry periodicals, attend workshops and seminars, learn about people who are doing interesting things in ranching. Then, once you are out of college, go to work for the people who are doing interesting things to you whether that be horsemanship, stockmanship, grazing, business, etc. You are young enough to be able to learn everything you need to know in order to become a professional rancher, plus, you will have all the tools that you learned from studying the world around you and where we have come from as human beings. Once you are out of college, find people who genuinely are interested in helping you as well, who have a place for someone whose goal is to learn as much as they can. Good luck! Feel free to contact me at duke@ranchlands.com if you would like to talk further, or have any questions.

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