In the empire of desert, water is the king and shadow is the queen.
– Mehmet Murat Ildan
When Duke III was a kid growing up in northern Mexico, his neighbor Maxi would tell stories about when he first came to the area, before ranchers settled the region. The first thing he did was build dirt dams across arroyos–drainages that would form into large lakes of water when flooded with summer thunderstorms. “I’d put one in every valley,” he said. “Then, I’d go get 500 head of cows and put them on each tank. It would hold them for one year, most of the time. And when it dried up, I just moved them out.” It was his favorite story.
The story of cattle ranching in the grasslands of North America–much like almost anything else in this ecosystem–is a story about water. Or a lack of water, more precisely. The scarcity of water, both that falls from the sky and rises from the earth, might be the only unifying characteristic of the diverse collection of places that are understood to be a part of the mythical “West,” from Canada south to Mexico. The distinguishing aridity–and subsequent fragility–of the region defines the ecological, practical, and cultural facts of life here.
For instance, the lack of water is in many ways the cause for the ubiquity of cattle ranching. In these grasslands, it is too dry to farm reliably, and if there is not enough precipitation to grow crops, why not use the native vegetation to grow cattle, just as these plains supported enormous herds of grazing bison for centuries? Range livestock production just makes sense here.
Ranchlands’ Beefmaster-bred cattle herds are hearty and adaptable. Just like prairie wildlife (and their wild bison relatives), they will trail many miles to find water within pastures. We rely on the older animals in the herd to remember where watering points are across the ranch and to pass this cartography on to their young. The best upland grass in the larger pastures is often found in the remote reaches, furthest from watering points, and the cattle who have learned to endure a longer walk to water in the afternoon are rewarded with the best forage that morning.
The modern water systems that we use to serve our cattle today are drastically different from those used by ranchers just fifty years ago, and they have revolutionized our ability to manage and enhance grazing lands. From those first water systems of dammed arroyos that stored water runoff, came the next advancement – wells powered by windmills – which morphed into diesel powered pump jacks, then solar-powered wells. Today’s electric submersible pumps that fit in the well casing at the bottom of wells can distribute water for thousands of cattle across large scale ranches.
At the Chico, we have four main water pipeline systems, each with their own submersible pump and water source, which send water to approximately 50 17,000-gallon water tanks all across the 90,000 acres of the ranch. Three of these pipeline systems pump water from wells, while the fourth system pumps water from a spring-fed reservoir to serve the southern division of the ranch.
Water is the most crucial tool in establishing a regenerative, rotational grazing operation on a large scale.
Were it not for these large water tanks constructed strategically all over the ranch, the cattle would spend a disproportionate amount of time loafing and grazing around the creeks and springs. As managers, we are careful about how we let the cattle utilize these riparian areas, which are more ecologically sensitive than upland pastures. Using fencing and our pipeline systems, we can redistribute water from sensitive areas to drier areas in order to encourage cattle to graze out and away from live watering points. In essence, we can use water tanks as a tool to manipulate how cattle utilize different areas of the landscape, where they spend time grazing, loafing, and defecating (fertilizing), all by pumping water that would naturally be found in a pond or spring and redistributing it to different areas of the ranch.
As a result, water infrastructure is the most crucial tool in establishing a regenerative, rotational grazing operation on a large scale. In order for the principles of planned grazing to be applied, there must be a water system that is able to meet the demands of a large herd. By combining our animals into as few and as large of herds as possible, we can concentrate their density and impact on the land over a shorter period of time, ultimately giving pastures more time to rest and recover, which is the key to growing healthy, vigorous plants.
With our precise control of water, modern day ranchers have more control, but most importantly, more flexibility, as opposed to the old days when nature made the decision to destock (when the dirt tanks ran dry, the cattle were moved). As Ranchlands implements its conservation strategy on the ranches it manages, which is to take no more from the land than it is sustainably able to give, the biggest hurdle is always developing a robust and reliable water infrastructure adapted to the needs of each ranch.