The Great Individualist Bonus Episode
A while back, I convened a meeting of the minds over Facebook Live to talk about the future of ranching. You, our listeners, piped in with questions, and we had a lovely, insightful conversation on stuff like how to raise animals humanely in a time of climate change and the pros and cons of virtual fencing (that's when you put a GPS collar on livestock to keep them herded together and take down fences so wildlife can migrate through). We brought together holistic ranchers and writers and academics. I recorded the whole thing. And now we're bringing you the highlights in this very special bonus episode.
MELODIE EDWARDS: First I'd like to introduce our guests, starting with Judith Schwartz, the author of several books of nonfiction exploring the intersection of science and culture, with a very clear-eyed focus on solutions. Her books include Cows Can Save the Planet and Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, and she lives in Vermont.
Also joining us is Leo Barthelmess, president of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, which is a way cool organization, a rancher-led conservation organization that represents a big group of multigenerational ranch families who run livestock over millions of acres of grasslands in Phillips County, Montana.
Temple Grandin, you all probably know quite well from the film and books about her life. She's renowned for very good reason; her work has transformed how we manage livestock, making our meat industry more humane and transparent. She's written numerous books and dozens of scientific papers. She's also a vocal advocate for children and adults with autism. She's a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Bridger Rardin is a regenerative rancher who grew up on a sheep ranch just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. He's recently completed the Quivira Coalition's apprenticeship program, which taught him a lot about ranching and how it can improve our land and water quality. And he runs his ranch with his dad, Tom Rardin.
I wonder if you guys could collaborate on a definition of regenerative ranching, also called holistic ranching. Just for folks who maybe aren't familiar with this kind of growing movement.
LEO BARTHELMESS: So I started studying holistic range management back in the 80s. And the ranches have drifted more and more toward the implementation of that. The biggest switch in my mind occurred when I started thinking of cattle as a tool to improve our grazing resources, and now we're improving soil health. That's my basic definition - that grazing and fire and innovation are just tools to improve the soil and the grazing. That's what guides our ranch management.
JUDITH SCHWARTZ: Holistic grazing mimics the herbivore, the ruminant and predator relationship, as has been in nature. So basically, the way I think about it is that in nature, plants are managed by plant-eating animals, and plant-eating animals are managed by predators. And because of what we as humans, how we have impacted the landscape – we have roads, we have cities, we have parking lots, etc, etc. (and we have also killed many predators) – that that relationship is not in balance. And so humans can step in and kind of act as predators in keeping grazing animals on the move.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: I have been out in grazing lands in every part of the U.S. in my 50 year career, also, all over South America, China, Europe, many, many other places and visited ranches where they really cared about the land. And I've seen what good ranchers can do to regenerate ranches and improve them.
MELODIE EDWARDS: One of the things that we've really explored in this last season of the podcast was the idea that we've had in our minds of ranchers and cowboys as these rugged individuals. But I wanted to pass it on to you, Bridger and Leo, because you both have been participating in these really amazing collaborations in which we're really seeing ranchers come together and work towards a goal and are really highlighting and focusing on conservation. Leo, do you mind starting by just telling us a little bit about the Rancher Stewardship Alliance?
LEO BARTHELMESS: The area that I live in, 200 miles west of North Dakota, turns out to be one of the last remaining intact grasslands in the world. There was a lot of conservation study in the area and the ranchers were totally unaware of this.The Nature Conservancy bought a large ranch in the area to preserve the grasslands, and out of that relationship that developed fairly positively through a drought, the Rancher Stewardship Alliance was started. And five years ago, there's a young woman who came to us and said, “I can get a grant for you guys to help the community with fencing and water and grass seedlings.” Since then, that's what we do. We've created this conservation committee within the Rancher Stewardship Alliance. And there's multiple parties, some are ranchers, but the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, the BLM, Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in Montana. So we formed this committee to review projects and everybody in the committee brings projects to lift the three-county area and areas around us up with these projects that help support improved grazing management. Turns out the area is the home of the nesting habitat for 12 threatened birds. So you know, we all recognize we all need the same things. And we're finding ways to do that.
BRIDGER RARDIN: The Quivira Coalition is really kind of a catalyst to create a network of peers within a younger generation of people involved in agriculture. And I agree with Leo, that the collaboration within agencies, nonprofits, going out and helping a tri-state county area or just a county area, at those localized regions is really important. My focus has kind of been trying to create collaboration with individuals within ranching, and trying to help with marketing. I know a lot of people aren't in ranching to be a beef marketer, necessarily. I think in today's age, with where our conventional commodity market is, we have to go out and do a lot more work and a lot more collaboration as individual ranchers to really push the dial in both land management and just quality of life for ranchers. But the Quivira Coalition has been a great catalyst, I think, for me, coming up to help build that network.
MELODIE EDWARDS: You know, it seems like the regenerative ranching movement, the holistic ranching movement, is kind of coming about at a really interesting time when the ranching industry is having more and more challenges. The West is just getting hotter. Droughts, they're calling it a mega drought now. And I just am wondering what you guys are seeing that are maybe some of the biggest challenges for ranchers. Temple, I thought I would start with you because I think that there are especially some challenges for animal welfare due to these rising temperatures and drought.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: One of the big problems I'm seeing with hot temperatures, Black Angus cattle getting hotter. I just talked to a number of ranchers, we had a big BBQ field day out in Bloomington, Colorado, and I talked to a whole bunch of ranchers out there. The problem we've got with some of these animals bred for meat is that the sister for that huge steer out in a feed yard is too big to feed on, on these ranches, and if we feed them hay and stuff in the wintertime. I noticed on my drive, during that 100 mile stretch, a lot of Red Angus there, and they're buying the Red Angus because they're smaller. And recently, I told the guy who was on the board of the Angus Association, they gotta do something about cow size. You see, you just breed something for maximum meat, that doesn't work out on these ranches. I mean, I spent the first ten years of my life in Arizona, we had a lot of Hereford cattle. She gives me a calf every year, a little one, but she gives you one every year. And I think we've got to worry about heat stress in some of these large black cattle.
BRIDGER RARDIN: Going off what Temple said about having an optimal cow, I think that translates actually to having optimal grazing. What I mean by that is, I'm down here in northern New Mexico right now. I'm managing a grazing lease for a ranch based in Colorado, and we're having a phenomenal rain year. It's been great, which is surprising. That's not what you normally expect. I think that optimal management within grazing is, okay, you're gonna get all this rain, you're going to get this moisture, it might come in larger amounts in a quicker period, it might be more sporadic over seasons or even years, in general. So you need to manage so that in these more arid environments. You always have some sort of drought strategy, some sort of way to continue the ranch to be economically viable and to manage your rangeland in a way that isn't destructive, but actually allows for that recovery and regeneration that I think we all are striving for.
JUDITH SCHWARTZ: Echoing what others said about how people are reducing their herds and another way to articulate what Bridger said is making use of every bit of rain that falls. So Allan Savory, who I've spent a lot of time with and written a lot about, always talked about effective rainfall. Because you may get a lot of rain but if you don't keep it on the land, then you might well have not received that rain. So I attended the New Cowgirl Camp, they also have a new rancher camp in eastern Washington state. And I remember quite vividly the importance of making your grazing plan in pencil, so you can always adjust because circumstances are always changing. So if you've planned for drought, you may get rain and then that changes. So adaptability, not being overly tied to a particular plan.
MELODIE EDWARDS: What are some of the most interesting and innovative methods that you're seeing that ranchers are trying, really cool things that maybe people are starting to do to really help steward our Western landscapes? Leo, I definitely want to ask you about virtual fencing because that's one of the things that I think is really interesting. Can you tell me about that?
LEO BARTHELMESS: Yes, I can, thank you. We were the cold weather experiment I think because typically their pilot programs had been in California and southern portions of the country. We thought it was a great opportunity for the ranch to intensify the management and increase the rest periods. We're also in the middle of the second longest mammal migration in North America. The antelope come through the ranch and immediate area in a 300 mile migration from southern Canada, and it's across the public land, and conservation groups are all about not putting more infrastructure out on the rangeland. They were very supportive of this pilot project and we're having good success. I keep telling myself, it's an emerging technology, it's not going to be 100% successful. But last year, I built 50 miles of virtual fence to manage the grazing and the changing water resources. Because of the drought – we're having water issues on the ranch. And it's a very positive thing. And I'm hoping that it's successful in the future.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: I just want to ask you a question, Leo. One thing I've learned, it's very important when you introduce a new technology, to make sure early adopters don't fail. And I want virtual fencing to work. From your knowledge of this, do you have any tips on things to not do with it that could make it fail? Because we've got to make the early adopters work. So maybe you could give some warnings or some tips to help people make it successful?
LEO BARTHELMESS: Well, I think it's a lot about a mindset, Temple, because you have these hard barriers, whether they're barbed wire or electric fences, and you have expectations of 100% compliance. That's not going to happen. I mean, you're going to have 95% compliance when the batteries are fresh, and you're going to have outliers that, if you really want it to work, you maybe have to sell them because they're cows that totally ignore them.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: I would agree with that. I would do a fence record. I've seen that with barbed wire fence. I have a picture of a bull - he learned how to put his head against the post and he just pushed over brand new barbed wire fences. Yeah, you have to sell them.
LEO BARTHELMESS: Yeah, and there's certain economics. I've questioned why some people participate. You said earlier, it takes three to five years to see the turnaround in the landscape with the soil health and those kinds of things. But there needs to be some financial aid and there needs to be a lot of educational components. Just because you can manage the grazing differently doesn't mean you're necessarily skilled to do that, with the learning curve I’m on with our own ranches, with not having a lot of latitude. Now I have a lot of latitude. So we've made some errors, but it's an emerging technology. We all have a lot of work to do to really benefit from it.
MELODIE EDWARDS: Bridger and Judith, do you guys have some thoughts about what you're most excited about, what you're seeing starting to work? And like Temple said, it's really important that this stuff works. So I'm wondering if you're seeing some things that you're excited about?
BRIDGER RARDIN: Yeah, on the current ranch and grazing lease that I'm managing, we're doing some beaver restoration and wetland restoration projects. I think as we get more arid, as we have a more changing climate, I am really intrigued to see this type of beaver restoration and these wetland restoration projects take hold and maybe get some more funding and become a big thing. I think we have to think of the southwest climates and even as we go further north. I think as we move into the future, those waterways are nature's sponge, and that's how we are really helping build that water cycle back up.
JUDITH SCHWARTZ: One thing that I'm seeing that I've found really exciting is the influx of women into ranching, perhaps that haven't had ranching in their family. When I went to the New Cowgirl Camp in the Pacific Northwest, I was so impressed that there were all these young women who just out of a passion for animals, out of curiosity, out of the desire to live this dream. They just kind of picked up their stakes and are doing this work.
MELODIE EDWARDS: I've got a question in from somebody who's joined us. Matt wanted to ask Temple and Judith. Judith, you had mentioned predation as part of a holistic system. Can you talk about how rangeland livestock operations might need to evolve to adapt to a landscape that includes the restoration of native carnivores like wolves and grizzly bears?
JUDITH SCHWARTZ: Yeah, so just one example that comes to mind is when I was reporting in Chihuahua, Mexico. Some ranches were working with bird conservation organizations to create habitat for threatened migratory grassland birds. One of the ranchers, his name is Alejandro Carillo, talked about the importance of changing when the cows would calf in terms of when the calves would be protected by the taller grass. He said that a lot of times the cycle of when the calving happens is according to tradition, how things have always been done, rather than conditions on the ground. So that's one example.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: Well, our ranches are already changing it. I’ve just been out driving in the countryside and I did a big drive in eastern Colorado, and I saw lots of little calves. This was just two weeks ago. But I always thought it was crazy to calve in the middle of wintertime. And they just did it for the market so you'd have a bigger calf for fall sale. But we have a lot of people moving away from that now and calving when nature intended to calve.
MELODIE EDWARDS: We talked a little bit earlier about our depictions of ranchers and what we perceive of them. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about why it is that we do really need to protect this way of life, what's the value of it?
BRIDGER RARDIN: The cowboy culture can be romanticized, but we're still doing it because there is a love for the land. I definitely would say that in today's modern ranching world, the people that are left are maybe curmudgeonly and hard-headed – they're either doing it because they're really, really stubborn or because they really do love the land. Some people don't always know how to manage in the best way possible, but they're still out there trying their best. I think it would be nice if there was more, oh, just more positive conversation between ranchers and the general public and just a more positive perception of ranchers moving forward. And hopefully that occurs through better management and educating consumers and the general public.
LEO BARTHELMESS: Not to be too harsh on the farming industry, but everybody uses the same fertilizer. There's three different tractor companies and they all plant the same wheat and there's this monoculture of thought across the whole spectrum. But ranchers, we're rugged individualists because of the landscape and the things we have to do. And that's, I think, our greatest value, the diversity of thinking that ranchers bring to the landscape.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: Unfortunately the place where I went as a teenager a lot of those ranching families don't exist anymore because those ranches were using government land and the leases have been in question. So that's been really sad. This is one of the reasons why I figure, at the age I'm at now, I want to promote how we need ranching to improve the land. Also as a source of food. I drive 100 miles of land you can't put the houses on - it's too far out. You can't grow crops on it. What? Do we not raise food on that land? Let's raise food on that land and improve it at the same time.
ME: From Wyoming Public Media and PRX, this is the Modern West…exploring the evolving identity of the American West. I’m Melodie Edwards.
ME: Today, we’ve got a special treat for you. A while back, I convened a meeting of the minds over Facebook Live to talk about the future of ranching. You, our listeners, piped in with questions and we had a productive and insightful conversation on stuff like how to raise animals humanely in a time of climate change…and the pros and cons of virtual fencing – that’s when you put a GPS collar on livestock to keep them herded together and take down fences so wildlife can migrate through. We brought together holistic ranchers and writers and academics. I recorded the whole thing and now we’re bringing you the highlights in this very special bonus episode. Sit back and enjoy…
FB Live Intro & Questions
ME: Welcome, everybody, to this live panel discussion of ranching in the American West and how it’s changing and growing. I’m Melodie Edwards, the host and producer of The Modern West Podcast from Wyoming Public Media. I’m excited to get us rolling but before I do. I want to invite you to send us questions that I can ask our panelists later on. I’ve got my assistant producer Noa Greenspan waiting in the wings to take your questions. Just direct message her in the chat at the bottom of your screen. Again, her name is Noa spelled NOA Greenspan. Send her your question and tell us your first name and where you’re from. It’s Wyoming…a small town with very long streets. We probably know each other and if we don’t, we want to get to know you.
Okay, let’s get started. I’d like to introduce our guests…
Starting with Judith Schwartz, the author of several books of nonfiction exploring the intersection of science and culture with a clear-eyed focus on solutions. Her books include Cows Can Save The Planet and Water In Plain Sight: Hope For A Thirsty World. She lives in Vermont.
Leo Barthelmess is the president of the Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance, which is a way cool organization. It’s a rancher-led conservation organization that represents a big group of multi-generational ranch families who run livestock over millions of acres of grasslands in Philips County, Montana.
Temple Grandin, y’all probably know quite well from the film and books about her life. She’s renowned for good reason. Her work has transformed how we manage livestock, making our meat industry more humane and transparent. She’s written numerous books and dozens of scientific papers. She’s also a vocal advocate for children and adults with autism. She’s a professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Bridger Rardin is a regenerative rancher who grew up on a sheep ranch outside Laramie, Wyoming. He recently completed the Quivira Coalition’s apprenticeship program to learn how ranching can actually improve our land and water quality. He runs his ranch with dad, Tom Rardin.
Thanks to all of you.
- To start, I wonder if we could go around and tell us how you each came to love ranching and its potential?
- Collaborate on a definition of regenerative or holistic ranching? Is that an evolving term? Judith, could you start?
- Leo, tell us about the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance and why it seemed necessary?
- Bridger, what was your experience with the Quivira Coalition?
- What are ranchers biggest challenges in the West as temperatures rise and droughts worsen? Temple, especially for animal welfare.
- In our latest season of the podcast, we’ve explored how married we are to the mythology of cowboys, those traditions, and methods of managing the land. How open is the ranching community to evolving?
- One of the greatest threats to ranching way of life is youth outmigration. What ideas do you have to motivate ranching kids to take up the mantle? Temple, I know you have thoughts on this.
- Ranching and agriculture aren’t as big of economic drivers in our states’ as they used to be. In Wyoming, it’s only 2% of our GDP. Why should people care if the ranching industry is struggling?
- What are some of the most interesting and innovative methods you’re using to help steward our Western landscapes? Leo, I especially want to hear about virtual fencing.
- Bridger and Judith, discuss how ranchers can heal the water cycle.
- Your responses to those who argue that we shouldn’t allow grazing on public lands? Leo?
- Share your ideas with how to improve animal welfare? Mobile slaughter units? Silvopasture? Judith?
- How can grazing differently help our landscapes?
OPEN: Join The Modern West podcast live, on Facebook, Thursday, September 15th. We'll bring together voices from our latest season, The Great Individualist, to share ideas and answer your questions.
TEASE: "Now the thing is, small guys tend to be the ones that innovate, small operators. Every industry, little guys innovate."
CLOSE: Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, as well as ranchers practicing innovative methods, and the author of Cows Can Save The Planet. See them live on Wyoming Public Media’s Facebook page Thursday, September 15th at noon.