Ranchers define buzzword on their own terms
February 11, 2015
It isn't new. It isn't scary. It isn't propaganda.
The term 'sustainability' may be a buzzword in today's marketplace, but speakers at the 2015 Winter Grazing Seminar encouraged the audience to consider defining the word on agriculture's terms.
"To me, it's just my ability to continue on," Chase Hibbard, of Sieben Live Stock Company said. One of the Webster's dictionary definitions he shared included "the ability to last a long time," and another definition keyed in on the term "endurance."
Ranch consultant Wayne Fahsholtz with AgWin Group, LLC, suggested the definition be represented by three equal priorities – economy, environment and community. In other words, he said, the need for healthy profit, a healthy planet and healthy people to survive and thrive.
"Sometimes, people get too focused on one of those things," Fahsholtz said. "It's much more than just one thing. It's got to be all these things working together for us to be successful."
A panel of three ranchers – including Hibbard, Dave Mannix of Mannix Brothers Ranch in Helmville, Mont., and Leo Barthelmess of Barthelmess Ranch Corporation in Malta, Mont., — discussed how they combined those three tenants on their ranches at the Billings-based conference this January.
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"To me, cattle and grazing is one of the bright stars in talking about sustainability to consumers," Fahsholtz said. "We have the best story to tell."
Start with the shortest leg
"You have to live today to fight tomorrow," Mannix said. "So when economics are the shortest leg, you may have to focus on that."
Often, the three tenants of sustainability are interdependent, Hibbard noted.
When he took the helm of his family ranch north of Helena in the late 80s, he knew it would take some creativity to pull out of the farm crisis of the decade. He looked at the traditional year-round grazing patterns and wanted to find a more efficient system for the typical "find higher ground" as the grazing season progressed mentality.
"We were severely overgrazing in the lower parts and under grazed in the upper parts," he said. "So we had to change some things, create some rotations, and manage that grass better." They built more fenceline to break pastures into smaller paddocks, pulling cattle out of the creek beds and more efficiently grazing those hard to reach places, creating two-year rest cycles every three years to regenerate. They take advantage of the different grazing habits of cattle and sheep to fully utilize the diversity of the range.
"With that grazing plan, it's turned out that our density is actually greater and the vigor is fantastic," he said, "so that covered economics and environmental."
They also took a deeper look at their production cycle, making a big shift from a traditional calving cycle to a May-June calendar. It was a huge shift, and came with many challenges, he said, but 30 years later, he said he's confident it's paid off.
They shifted from feeding a ton of hay per day every winter in a February-March calving cycle to just 200 pounds today. With a 20-30 percent decrease in the amount of hay they put up, he said, they were able to return that land to native grass for grazing. The shift required a big shift in marketing, moving them to weaning an average 400 pound calf, holding them over and selling a 900 pound yearling.
It's still a people business
"The really big benefit here was to reduce the crew," Hibbard said. They reduced the necessary workforce on the ranch by nearly 50 percent – from a crew of eight in the winter and 16-18 in the summer with their traditional practices to four in the winter and 9-12 in the summer.
It gave them more time to focus on the people and community they work with and in.
"It comes down to employee relations, family relations," Hibbard said. "If the family isn't working, the business isn't going to be successful."
Barthelmess said focusing on a succession plan with his son has taken a lot of time and work, but believes it's one of the greatest investments he could make in the ranch. Gathering new information and education to share is high up there, too.
"Our ranch invests a lot of resources into knowledge," Barthelmess said. "Our success, our sustainability, is based on knowledge."
That means constant improvement, and an effort to pass it on.
"[My son] has to know everything I know. That doesn't mean he has to do it that way; he just has to know it," he said.
More to unite than divide
The hardest piece of the sustainability puzzle to define is often "people" or "community" health outside the family and workplace relationships, the speakers agreed. But that, too, can have large economic and environmental impacts.
"Our focus in on relationships," Mannix said. Their fourth generation ranch in the Blackfoot Valley utilizes public land leases for grazing.
"How we manage our resources dictates if they continue to be available," he said. "We won't have our BLM lease long unless we take really good care of it."
Maintaining good relationships with fellow private landowners is critical, too.
When a recreational buyer purchased a ranch downstream from them in 2002, they engaged in a two-year process of defining and working toward common goals.
"Fish and water is why he bought it, and our property was a key component of their fisheries goals," Mannix said. "That relationship has been very good to us."
With their focus fully on production, he said the ranch's goal was to maintain at least 80 percent of the productivity derived from the water source, while remaining economically whole.
"The water lease has more than made up the 20 percent we gave up," he said. But the sheer effort to work together had much longer term effects.
Last year, when their BLM lease was up for renewal, it became apparent that a radical environmental group intended to challenge the lease due to critical bull trout habitat on the property. Fishing groups and government agencies, however, came to the ranch and asked how they could help keep the family working on the land, he said, thanks to the relationships and willingness to work together shown between neighbors.
"They recognized that those fish were important, but so is my business," he said. "Working together is more beneficial than drawing lines in the sand and saying, no cattle here, no fisherman here."
Have a seat at the table
Hibbard shared a similar story about tense relationships between his ranching community and wildlife managers.
"We as ranchers did not have a seat at the table in their decision making, and the elk herd was out of control," Hibbard said. "We decided we wanted to take this problem on as a community."
It took a year and a half, but eventually, a management plan that suited ranchers, hunters and wildlife managers was developed. The process was difficult and time-consuming, he said, "but it paid off in spades down the road."
Taking the time to work off the ranch, especially on challenging, controversial issues, sure isn't the highlight of their days, the ranchers agreed, but they recognize its value.
"We're full time ranchers; that's what we want to do," Barthelmess said. "But in order to do it, and keep doing it, we have to invest in some of these other things."
And while 'compromise' may go against the grain of ranching's independent nature, Mannix said he believes without it, ranching will lose out to the bigger money and louder voice of opposition.
"We have to sit at the table. We have to recognize that we don't know it all," Mannix said. "I think our industry needs the reputation of showing up at the table with something other than, 'hell no.'"
Getting involved, treating others with respect, and ensuring the ranchers' voice is heard will be crucial to the continued success of the cattle industry, he said.