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The Grazier's Gazette

Managing toward specific goals

Cattle grazing on pasture
What does it take for a ranch to be sustainable over the long haul?

I was asked recently to make suggestions as to the curriculum that should be adopted at a Texas university to educate students in sustainable ranch management. This started me thinking about the status of agriculture in the U.S. and what needs to be done to improve long term stability of our industry.

Ranching must be productive (produce the desired products) but to be sustainable (productive over a long period of time) management must be viable in at least three areas: it must be profitable (create fiscal wealth), it must be ecologically sound (create biological wealth), and it must meet the needs of the people involved. We have some highly productive farms and ranches but far too much of agriculture fails all three of the other tests.

To my mind, there are two main reasons for this; reliance on technology that seeks to solve complex problems with simplistic "silver bullets" and the change of attitudes brought about by the shift of emphasis from animal husbandry to animal science. We are too quick to seek a technological quick fix for problems that are actually only symptoms of  deeper under lying problems with our management. Any "problem" that needs addressing time and again (weeds, internal parasites, high wintering costs) is a red flag signaling an opportunity to improve management. We must use science to provide the best husbandry to our animals but we cannot substitute science for husbandry.

Animals don't get sick because of a lack of antibiotics or vaccines; they get sick because of stress. If we do our jobs as caretakers and keep physical, nutritional and psychological stress to a minimum, our animals will be healthy and productive.

Technology that matters
As I have said repeatedly, I am not anti-technology but I am anti technology that does not work. Every new bit of technology should be judged as to its financial, its ecological, and its human effects. In our race to increase production too often one or more of these factors suffer damage. Most farms and many ranches are over capitalized; they have more money at risk in equipment and inputs than can be justified by the potential for profit. This is illustrated by the fact that as the price of any product – grain, beef, or polka dotted mules – goes up the average cost to produce these products rises as well. Part of this is due to suppliers of equipment, feed, seed, etc. raising their prices to share in the bounty but it is also due to producers confusing "I need" with "I want" when they have money in their pocket.

Harder to see than financial loss is ecological damage. Soil washing or blowing away is obvious but loss of soil organic matter and soil life can go undetected while being extremely damaging. Soil organic matter and soil life are the factors that make soil fertile and productive; they make mineral nutrients locked away in rock and in soil organic matter available to plants and they create the physical structure (tilth) that allows soil to take in and hold both water and air. Loss of tilth results in soils being waterlogged when moisture is abundant and droughty when moisture is in short supply.  Soils with good structure are productive with much less spent on irrigation and drainage.

Many common agricultural practices; tillage, pesticides, high analysis fertilizers are damaging to soil life. We would be wise to weigh the ecological cost of practices as closely as we weight the financial costs. Biological capital (healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals) is real wealth and is the thing that allows an operation to survive drought, market wrecks and even some amount of poor management.

We are frequently admonished to treat the ranch as a business; this is excellent advice so long as we don't lose sight of why we have the business. In my first book  "How to Not Go Broke Ranching" I made the statement, "Ranching is either the worlds' best way to make a living and raise a family or an unending struggle that will break the strongest spirit." I believe this totally and I believe we get to choose which result will happen.

Too often farmers and ranchers become so wrapped up in problems that they don't have the time or the resources to take care of the really important things, their health and their families. The average age of farmers and ranchers continues to climb because many young people do not want to live as their parents did and are not coming back to the family operation.  So far as we know, we only get to go around once; it is better to make it a fun trip and enjoy it with friends and family.

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