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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. The closer we can keep our management to this model, the more apt we are to build ranches that are ecologically, financially and sociologically sound. The major difference should be that humans assume the role of primary predator. This allows humans to benefit – take subsistence and create wealth – but it also means that we must take on the functions performed by predators: control numbers to suit conditions (set stocking rates); prevent abusive grazing (keep animals concentrated and moving) and maintain genetic fitness in the grazing animals by selection and culling.

A second concept of value would be the importance of biodiversity in improving the health of soils, plants, animals and bank accounts. Every type of organism has needs and the abilities to provide for those needs that are different from those of even its closest relatives. Having a broad range of healthy populations – made up of healthy individuals – of different kinds of organisms insures that no one species increases in number to pest status and that the resources of sunlight, water, mineral nutrients and space are fully utilized with none being over utilized. Weeds and brush proliferate because the local environment is degraded and ecological niches are not being filled. Most weed and brush control methods make the situation worse by further simplifying the environment – we should manage for what we want not against what we don’t want.

Stockmanship is a skill of vast importance that is woefully lacking on many ranches. We create most animal health problems by stressing the animals. Bud Williams died recently but there are other people – Tina Williams, Richard McConnel, Joel Ham, Guy Glossom and others – that can teach this skill.

Far too many ranchers lack business skills – the ability to create and analyze a business plan, create and monitor a budget, isolate and analyze ranch enterprises, perform gross margin analyses, understand the difference between cash flow and profit, understand the concept of potential profit per dollar put at risk and why managing according to “best management practices” is a recipe for financial disaster.

Finally, the importance of and the rationale behind planned time controlled grazing – this must include getting in sync with the realities of climate, vegetation, water, etc. and the use of adapted animals. Basic to successful grazing management is an understanding of the relationships between grasslands and grazing animals and that proper grazing builds grassland health.

You are taking on a task that badly needs doing; many of the problems of ranching originated with the shift of emphasis from husbandry to science. We must use science to understand nature but it is a mistake to attempt to use science to control nature. There is a severe shortage of people who understand that we must promote the health of the whole animal-plant-soil-human-wealth complex we call a ranch in order to create profitable and sustainable operations.