Go for the Good of the Whole – Part 1

Written by Shaelyn Meyer – Consultant, Crossroads Ranch Consulting, Montana USA.

Hello! I’m writing to you from Montana! I grew up on a 10,000 acre ranch in rural eastern MT, but of course, the “rural-est” places in the U.S. still don’t quite compare to the Australian Outback. I know because I spent a year in AU; five months of which was spent on Moolooloo station in Northern Territory. The stark contrast of the Northern Territory livestock production model, to that of the typically more intensive Montana production model, was fascinating to me. I went on to study Sustainable Livestock Production at Montana State University. This led to a job with MSU Agricultural Extension, a service that brings university education agricultural producers. Recently, I made the bold leap into independent consulting work, specializing in Holistic Ranch Management with Crossroads Ranch Consulting (crossroadsranchconsulting.com).

The desire to share this school of thought with producers stems from a deep love of the culture of rural ranching communities, a desire to facilitate excellent land stewardship and the personal experience of witnessing the effects of the holistic management process on the overall profitability of my own family’s ranch, the improved ecological function of the land and the improved quality of life for those involved.

The first rule of Holistic Management is to “go for the good of the whole” in every decision. Ranching isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. You hear it all the time, so why is it that so many Montana ranchers leave the quality of life portion of the “whole” out of the equation? Holistic Management principles are guided very heavily by personal values. For the Meyer Ranch, that’s family, quality of life, stewardship and community, though the business hasn’t always allowed for balance in all of those areas. Over Christmas this year, sitting with the family talking about the way things used to be, it was very obvious that my older brother and sister grew up on a very different ranch than my two younger brothers did. Being the middle child, I feel like I had a unique experience, being old enough to remember how hard things were early on, but young enough to witness how the ranch has changed over the years.

You see, my dad (Chester Meyer) inherited the ranch, which is near Ekalaka, MT from my grandpa. My dad got his start in the middle of a recession, with an overgrazed ranch, falling down fences, rusty machinery, and three kids (plus two more he hadn’t met yet). We had to work really hard growing up, especially my older brother who (big surprise) decided to join the military and pursue engineering instead of coming home to the ranch. There was a quality of life aspect missing back then and, quite frankly, ranching wasn’t appealing to him, at least the way he’d experienced it growing up.

I remember getting up at 2 a.m. and waddling out to the barn through snowdrifts because we were calving in the middle of winter. There were nights I was in a tractor raking hay at 2 a.m. to beat the summer heat. I left for college in 2006 with no plans to get into agriculture myself. Today, all five of us Meyer “kids” want to get into ranching in some capacity and now the ranch both provides a good management blueprint, and is in a good position to help us all achieve our goals thanks to greater profitability. This, to me, says that holistic management has been GOOD for my family.

My dad first started making some changes in management in 2006. He was just hoping to lower inputs and develop a “thriftier” type of cow. It wasn’t until after a Holistic Management seminar in 2010, where he got in touch with people who could mentor him, that he really started to implement intensive grazing practices and make big changes on the ranch. The big shift in his philosophy was from a prior focus on profits/head to a profit/acre focus. That means that we now raise smaller calves, but more of them. I say “we” because this truly was a family effort. We all have a sense of ownership and that has made all the difference.

To get the kind of low-input cattle we wanted and improve the ecological function of the ranch, we fed less hay in the winter, forcing the cattle to forage for at least half of their diet and stopped supplementing with anything besides salt and mineral. We put in more cross-fencing and water tanks on what were once hay fields to be able to implement intensive (high density/short duration) grazing practices. Doing so decreased the ability of our livestock to be selective in their grazing, therefore increasing the utilization of our forages. Rather than store that forage as hay, we let the cows harvest it for us all summer long, thereby differing the native range for winter grazing.

We’ve stopped using ivermectin for parasite control because we want to select for natural parasite resistance in our cattle and we know that it is harmful to dung beetle populations which serve important ecological functions (Verdu, 2015). Any cows that couldn’t breed up under that kind of selection pressure were culled. Some years, the cull pen was too full for anyone’s comfort level! It was through that process that the animals on the ranch today are so hardy and efficient.

By forcing our cattle to be more non-selective in their grazing, we put greater nutritional stress on them as this can cause a dip in the quality of their diet, especially in the short term, before pasture quality can improve in response to the change in management. As a result, we found that many cattle fell out of our program. Their input requirements were just too high to be suited to our environment. This shift in our herd composition brought about an unexpected enterprise; Meyer Ranch Grassfed Genetics! We have found that there is a tremendous need for low-input, grass-fed genetics with producers looking to utilize resources more efficiently and increase profits.

Read part 2 tomorrow.

References: Verdu, Jose R., and Vieyle Cortez. Nature.com. Macmillan Publishers, Aug. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.