Ranching developed as a way to convert low value forage, often growing in remote or inaccessible areas into valuable commodities that could transport themselves to market.
At this stage, it was about as simple a process as could be conceived: Let the animals eat the grass and the well-adapted ones reproduce, walk some of the fat ones to market, let the grass re-grow and repeat annually.
We have taken this very simple biological model and turned it into a much more complicated model that becomes more industrialized with each passing year.
As late as the 1940’s, most US ranches were very low tech. Water availability was improved with windmills or dirt tanks and perhaps some supplemental feed was supplied, but basically the livestock were expected to survive and produce on the natural production of the land. A high degree of natural selection was applied, because those animals that could not tolerate this regime did not reproduce.
Today, most ranches are managed with a mindset that is much more industrial than biological. Modern conventional management looks upon a ranch, or a farm, as an area of land where capital and labor are used to apply technology for the purpose of producing commodities. The natural processes that determine the health of the soil-plant-animal complex -- meaning the water cycle, nutrient cycle, energy flow and biological succession -- are assumed to be completely controllable by technology, and the state of their health to be of little consequence.
Nowhere is this seen more strongly than in the decision several years ago of some soil testing labs to stop testing for soil organic matter content on the theory that nothing could be done to increase it and that its beneficial effects could be duplicated with technology.
The era of modern agriculture is 50 to 60 years old and its record is not good. We produce a lot more product but at a very severe financial and ecological cost. In 1940 we used one calorie of fossil fuel to produce 2.3 calories of food energy. Today we use 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food energy.
Modern agriculture does not have a very good track record when it comes to designing an agricultural system that is productive, profitable and sustainable: One out of three doesn’t cut it.
We have wandered down one dead end after another from confinement feeding of livestock, to replacing forages for ruminants with grain to breeding “what the trade demands” or cattle that “will fit the box” instead of using practices and breeding animals that will produce profit and be sustainable under our local conditions.
I suggest that we would be much better off both ecologically and financially if we looked upon ranching, indeed all agriculture, as being primarily about converting free solar energy into biological energy and then into wealth through photosynthesis, green plants and animals. When done will, this is far more profitable and involves much less financial risk, as well.
Agriculture should be the art and science of promoting life so that we can harvest some of the surplus for our own use.