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How to go Broke Ranching without hardly trying

There have been how-to books on lots of different subjects lately and I thought that it might be nice to help those people who get up every morning and wonder “what can I do today to lose money in the ranching business?” There is bound to be a huge demand for this kind of information since regardless of weather or markets, losing money is the main topic of conversation in every coffee shop in the country. The following is a collection of thoughts that should be of use in preventing any accidental out break of profitability.

Set your breeding season so that calves, lambs, kids, etc. are born well before the onset of new growth. This ensures that the young animals will be big enough to utilize the forage when it arrives and thus will wean off heavy. You will hear some nay-sayers blather about; the expense of maintaining lactating females without green forage, trouble getting females re-bred, disease and death loss in the young and even predictions that losses to predators will be worse since there are no young rats or rabbits around at this time of year.

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The Great Wild Mare Race

      As he enjoyed – soon as the coughing stopped – his first smoke of the day, Mac thought that all in all he was lucky that he wasn’t broke up worse than he was or even dead. He had been in some serious wrecks over the years, most of them coming before he and his running buddy Windy Barton got old enough to have a little sense. Cowboying is not the world’s most genteel profession so they had both acquired the normal amount of broken bones, rope burns and mesquite thorn punctures in their everyday activities but looking back it was their recreation time that did a lot of the damage. Like the time that they got enough beer in them at a rodeo in Pecos to make entering the wild mare race seem like a good idea. The way it worked, they turned eight wild mares out of the bucking chutes at the same time and two man teams were to catch a mare, get a surcingle on her and have one team member ride her across the finish line at the other end of the arena. They planned it out that Mac would rope the mare and Windy would help him get her stopped so Mac could go up the rope and ear her down.

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Regenerative Grazing


Regenerative Grazing

           The concept of sustainable agriculture has received increasing amounts of attention in recent years; there is wide spread realization that much of modern agriculture has become an extractive process with production being taken at the expense of losses in soil health and increasing amounts of inputs from outside the system. Loss of soil organic content and soil erosion are common on most of our cultivated land and these degraded soils require ever greater quantities of fertilizer, energy and irrigation to maintain good production.   There are a number of factors contributing to the loss of soil health but one of the prime culprits is that animals have been removed from the farm. A farm without animals loses the manure that for centuries has been the basis of soil health – the manure is now generated at feedlots and confinement housing where it becomes a waste product with a disposal cost. Without animals to convert crop residues into food for soil life and give value to pasture and cover crops, the loss of soil organic matter and the soil life that this material sustains increases with each passing year. The movement of animals off of the farm was done in the name of efficiency of production and while a farmer can sell more bushels of grain off of a farm than when much of a farms production of grain, hay and pasture was sold through animals, it is debatable as to whether the farmer is better off under the new system.

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Biological Capital

Biological Capital

The Real Wealth of the Land


   Conventional agricultural practice is tailored toward the production of monocultures of various plants and to the concentration of large numbers of animals in small areas in search of efficiency of production. This reliance on monocultures plus common production practices such as pesticide use and tillage greatly reduces the number of kinds of plants, animals and microorganisms present on the land and in the soil. This lack of biological diversity in the production units sets the scene for a large number of the problems encountered in modern agriculture since simple communities of plants and animals are inherently unstable. The constant onslaught of weeds, diseases and pest animals that plague the modern farm or ranch are nothing more than nature’s efforts to put in place those organisms needed to reestablish a functioning community of plants and animals that uses and reuses all of the available resources of water, energy, minerals and space while wasting none of them. Encouraging biodiversity is the only way to promote production that is sustainable and both financially and ecologically stable.

    There are no monocultures in nature for the reason that no single species of plant can utilize all of the resources of water, sunlight and mineral nutrients that are available in an area over the course of a year.

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Critical Knowledge for Ranch Managers


     I recently was asked to comment on what knowledge should be presented in a curriculum designed to educate ranch managers at a Texas university. The following was my response.

         The first bit of knowledge that I would suggest as critical to ranch managers is that all agriculture, ranching included is a biological rather than an industrial process. The ranch most likely to be both profitable and sustainable will be the one that best mimics the complex web of relationships between soils, vegetation, grazers and predators that nature has used to create the productive and stable grassland communities that existed in various parts of the world prior to human intervention. This program of natural management evolved over eons of time and is based in the fact that anything that is detrimental – in the long run – to any part of a functioning system is harmful to the entire system. It does not produce the most pounds per acre of animal life or the most pounds of grass but rather a system that is highly resilient and effective in converting solar energy into biological energy over long periods of time.

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The Green Revolution Delusion - North Central Mexico

Antonio had not deserted the ways of his father but the new methods still affected him and his family; the pollen from the hybrid corn blew into his field and contaminated his corn. His corn began to show the same problems that devastated the new corn and the price of corn fell so low that Antonio knew that he too would soon have to give up the land he loved and find other ways to feed his family.

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How to Create a Weed Patch


      I am continuing to write about drought because dealing with drought and its effects is going to be important to a lot of people for some time to come. Though at times it seems as if it never will, droughts eventually end. Depending on how an area has been managed during drought, recovery can be rapid and complete or it can require years of good management to get back to pre-drought levels. Part of the damage is due to the loss of high quality forage species to over grazing but the most serious and long lasting harm comes through damage to the ecological processes: water cycle, nutrient cycles, energy flow and biological succession. It hurts to lose favored forage species but these plants can and do re-produce themselves if conditions are right. If conditions are not right, the high quality forage plants, which require good growing conditions, will be replaced with plants able to thrive under the poor conditions.

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Romancing the Clover Gods

How to establish and keep forage legumes

Walt Davis 2007

Published in The Stockman GrassFarmer

     In the early 1970’s we were running Davis Ranch in southeastern Oklahoma as a high tech beef cattle, pecan and crop operation and were following all of the land grant college recommendations as to fertilization, weed and insect control. We routinely used 100-150 pounds of actual nitrogen on our cropland, almost that much on Bermuda grass pasture and were producing a lot of product. Production was high but so was the cost of production and all too often we found ourselves losing money on every pound we produced and trying to make up the difference by producing more pounds. This was the period when conventional wisdom was “get big or get out” and efficiency of scale and specialization were the buzzwords of the “agricultural experts”.  In 1974 the cattle market broke, as it had about every nine years for over 100 years, and we found ourselves in serious financial trouble. After ten years of trying to “do it right”, we had the choice of changing the way we operated or going broke. A look through our books made it crystal clear where the money was going; fertilizer, machinery upkeep, chemicals, fuel and labor expenses were all much too high.

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Diary of a Serial Killer (Retired)

First published in Acres USA

        For much of my working life, I spent a lot of time and energy killing. I grew up on a west Texas ranch in the fifties and as soon as I got old enough to work, a regular warm weather job was finding, catching and treating cattle, sheep and goats that were infected with screwworms. This took a lot of time since the animals were running in large brushy pastures and a sick animal’s instinct is to hide. If we did not find the infected animals and kill the screwworms, the animals would die. The worms would literally eat the animals’ alive, one tiny bite at a time. We used a variety of noxious materials in the attempt to kill the screwworms and to prevent the mama cattle, sheep and goats from licking the worm dope off of their babies.

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