The Whitten Ranch: Holistic ranching in the San Luis Valley

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by Paul Shippee

Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field, I’ll meet you there.     —Rumi

Home on the range

George Whitten, a third-generation rancher in the northern San Luis Valley, likes to read ecology books. He agrees that holistic, ecology, environment, ranching, and sustainable are all words that stick together to describe a turning point, a new direction in holistic resource management. George discovered this some 20 years ago and has been implementing it slowly ever since.

But like many people, I had always heard that ranchers and conservationists (aka environmentalists) do not exactly see eye to eye about land values and how to use the land. Since I am a resident of the northern Valley and naturally interested in sustainable and local food and energy production, I decided to ask George what exactly is new in how he is managing his ranch and cattle operation. He replied, “Not much. My grandfather did things very close to how we do it now.”

Relearning how to farm and ranch with very low inputs of embedded energy (big machinery) and fossil fuels (chemical fertilizers or pesticides) is part of the big picture, one baseline of the sustainable operation being created and pioneered by George Whitten and his wife Julie Sullivan at the Blue Range Ranch (formerly San Juan Ranch). It is located west on Road T near CR 52 on 4,000 acres George inherited from his father and grandfather.

George explained that as a young man sitting on a tractor one day ready to bale a field of cut grass he saw a dark cloud approaching in the sky. He felt irritation at the cloud because it would foil his plans by wetting the nice dry hay. He realized at that moment that hating a rain cloud was no way to farm; there must be a better way.

George and Julie love the land and their cows. I felt the passion in their voices and words as they talked to me about their life commitment to applying the expanded views of ecology to their ranch work. They agree that raising cattle in accordance with deep ecology, connected to environmental science and caring for fragile land and plants in the brittle and dry conditions of our San Luis Valley is a doable challenge when managed with finesse and close attention to detail.

I went out on the range one morning in June with George and Sam Ryerson, a young cowboy apprentice from Montana (with a degree from the Yale School of Architecture) to help with chores and to observe. I asked a million questions, still trying to get the whole picture of what is new in his cattle operation. George explained patiently, like the natural teacher he is, about the intricate relationships between plants, soil, and the cows we were looking at. When he mentioned in passing that the next morning they would round up the cow mothers and their new calves for branding I felt a light go on in my heart. It was an old dream coming alive, framed by the wide open spaces that cowboys love, the blue mountains in the distance still streaked with snow waking up under the morning sunrise, and I immediately asked if I could come along.

George hesitated as he walked along in the brush ahead of me in silence. I said, it sounds like you’re hesitating. He said, well, yes, we’re doing it the old way and some people might not like it so much. I came right back and said, well, I’m pretty wild anyway. At that George said I could show up early next morning for the roundup. Yippee! It was an old dream come true to be at a real cowboy roundup. Sam had invited several working cowboys to help out and they called it “neighboring”. It was going to be done the old way, which made it twice as exciting for me!

Revolution on the range

But first I was eager to get a grasslands ecology lesson. After moving/herding the 250 cows to a new paddock I found myself down on all fours, with George poking into the grass, as he explained in detail the benefits of “planned grazing”. Planned, or rotational, grazing is a technique that actually helps plants grow in arid grassland soil. This short duration grazing allows the plants to be grazed once, then rested for a suitable period so recovery and new growth can take place. Growing healthy plants naturally on the range is one important bottom line for profitable and sustainable ranching in the northern San Luis Valley.

The beneficial effect of this grazing practice on grassland health and especially soil health depends on its close interrelationship with cow hooves, urine and dung, bunching up the herd with movable solar-powered electric fence—single-strand polywire—and moving the herd every day or so to a new paddock. Moving cows like this is a way of mimicking the ancient ruminant grazing of herbivores (cattle, bison, elk, antelope, deer, goats—all having four stomachs) resulting in old time amber waves of grain that was native, natural, healthy and abundant in North America.

Domestic cows held closely bunched up by the electric polywire and moved every day is modeled after ancient wild herds moving over the land, pushed on by wolves and other predators. Wild herds would not damage riparian habitat because they’d visit for a quick drink, tightly bunched for protection from waiting predators, and then leave, knowing their vulnerability at the water hole. They’d not hang around there wrecking the land like cows might when allowed to.

George calls this practice of bunching up the cows, grazing briefly with heavy hoofs breaking up the soil, pushing the seeds down, fertilizing naturally, and moving the herd every day:  getting the soil ready for rain.  Others call it the brown revolution, or ‘poop ‘n stomp’.

This controlled grassland disturbance, similar in its purpose to fire, finds its ecological place between too much rest and too much disturbance. The fact that it is planned and implemented with precision and care, and also monitored carefully, is one important detail in the management mosaic of applied range ecology. Then when you see the grass flourish under this care it becomes an exciting detail—a beautiful sight to see.

When I asked George how he learned all this, he mentioned the name of Allan Savory, an African biologist from Rhodesia who had come to America in the 1980s and revolutionized ranching practice to help create what Julie Sullivan told me was a healthy triple bottom line: environmental (soil, plant, water and energy health), economic (making a living) and social-cultural, such as getting along with all parties like stakeholders, neighbors, range managers, brand inspectors, government scientists, bankers, family, etc.

However, new ranching practices have not always been received graciously by all the formerly feuding parties concerned. Change comes hard to some people who are used to traditional ways. New knowledge, such as the seemingly odd practice of moving cows daily for short-term herd grazing, and allowing for proper (i.e., temporary) rest intervals, taught by Allan Savory, can combine with traditional ethics about what is healthy land use, but it usually takes time. It has been important to recognize that both ranchers and environmentalists want the same thing, a healthy sustainable world, but are often stuck on agreeing how to get there. Thus, cooperation, an important piece of ecology, is delayed or even lost.

One example of this is the environmentalist view that “protected” lands must be fenced to keep cattle out so the land can recover from former abusive grazing practices. This view has proved mistaken because after 15-40 years of exclusionary fencing these areas have been observed to be a biological desert instead of pristine “wildness”. Allan Savory’s view is that grassland and grazing herd animals have coevolved since ancient times. The herd concept is key here and it means grazing close together, bunched up, rather than dispersed grazing.

Holistic management of cattle embraces the whole picture of semi-arid grassland restoration by paying close attention to the smallest details of soil health, plant growth, water distribution, nutrient and energy flows. In fact, intact grasslands sequester carbon as well or better than forests, Julie told me. In our modern times, marked by fences and ownership, all these holistic elements, including cattle, are actually needed to restore lands from adverse permanent fencing, overgrazing abuse and industrialized practices that precipitate desertification.

In other words, well-managed cattle ranching is needed to mimic ancient grazing patterns. Savory calls it saving land with livestock, and he has an impressive track record. So the “cattle-free” sentiments of some environmental folks appears to be misguided and under-informed, just as much as the narrow focus on animal weight gain and chemical feedlot management common to many conventional ranch operations.

However much it has been resisted, the “new ranch” ideas have taken serious root on healthy and profitable ranches from Texas to Montana over the past 20 years. A recent book by Courtney White of New Mexico, cofounder of The Quivira Coalition, contains many well-documented examples under its fresh and innovative title: Revolution on the Range—The Rise of the New Ranch in the American West.

These “new” practices are deemed ecological because they begin with a view of the whole, and proceed from there to achieve what everyone agrees they want: healthy landscapes teeming with biodiversity, open space, sustainable food supply, business success and a positive outlook.

Cows on the Baca Refuge

The roundup and branding operation was held on the Baca Wildlife Refuge with George and Julie’s cows on a brilliant blue morning. When I got there just before 8am five or six very professional working cowboys were already slowly moving the mooing herd of 250 calves and mothers toward a partial enclosure made from wood pole fences, horse trailers and pickups. As the sun climbed up the skies over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains there was excitement in the air. The friendly cowboys were chatting it up a bit as George got the branding fire ready in an old cutaway steel barrel lying on the ground. Their mounts stood silent in the shade of horse trailers waiting for the action to start. A cooperative warm feeling of “neighboring” hung in the air. Even though cowboys are quiet types, it was clear to me that people here were doing what they loved and having a blast doing it.

George erected an iron bar over the fire and said it was to heat up the three cast iron pots of chili later on that sat waiting on one of the flat bed pickups. I was excited to watch, learn, and help out where I could. The cowboys mounted up on their beautiful horses, began coiling and stretching their lassos and slowly moved into the steaming and mooing herd of nervous cows. I watched with wide eyes as the first calf was roped around the neck and then the back feet by a second rider and dragged over to the branding fire. Long-haired young girls ran to grab the struggling calves and wrestle them to the ground.

The day was on and the next several hours were full of whirling action that spoke of a romantic mixture of calm and intense action. There was something about the cowboys and their incredibly skilful cooperation in the handling of the action of wheeling horses and roping the calves that was imbued with a colorful and earthy romantic feeling mixing with little dust clouds kicked up by the horses on this summer morning. I felt happy, energized and connected amidst the action and never was heard a discouraging word or the groan and rumble of a gasoline engine the entire time.

Ron Garcia is the on-the-ground manager of the new Baca National Wildlife Refuge comprising over 100,000 acres stretching from Crestone to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. This is where the roundup and branding of the calves, required by state law, took place. This wildlife refuge is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior. Their mission is to recover, provide and sustain healthy habitat for any and all wildlife, including nesting birds that find a suitable home or resting place there. But many of the areas on the refuge are not as healthy as could be due to neglect, management of cattle in the past, over-grazing, over-rest (i.e., under-grazing), and other conditions of conflicting interest around past use.

After learning of some of these “new” ecological ranching practices, the Wildlife Service and Ron Garcia decided to negotiate a year-by-year limited contract for up to seven selected permittees. George Whitten feels pleased to be among this select group of local ranchers and he runs a large part of his herd on the Baca Wildlife Refuge. He is eager to help experiment, monitor and evaluate, in cooperation with Ron Garcia, whether such new-fangled and scientific rangeland cattle management practices will, in fact, improve the land and plants for the ultimate benefit of wildlife such as the large herds of elk, up to 6,000 of which graze in the northern Valley. At present all the cattle permitted on the refuge are allowed to occupy 3% of the total land areas.

If things work out well, then perhaps a win-win partnership could evolve in which cattle, wild life and people work together under careful management to demonstrate a common goal: the continuing and healthy coevolution of grassland plants and ruminant grazers. It all depends on how soil, water and plants respond because they are the source, along with the sun, of all grassland health.

And ultimately, if things work out very well, George Whitten and Julie Sullivan, whom I consider my neighbors and teachers in this applied ecology stuff, might engage us all in some healthy dialogue about their premise that raising beef around here is the only truly sustainable food production method.

Meanwhile, they heartily invite you to try out their local organic grass-fed and grass-finished beef (high in CLAs and omega-3s), by calling the Blue Range Ranch at 719-655-2003 or www.bluerangeranch.com

In these new ranching ways I see some steps being made in our common journey from destructive industrialism to sustainable localism.

Some references about Allan Savory’s seminal influence:www.savoryinstitute.org; www.holisticmanagement.org; www.quiviracoalition.org

Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making by Allan Savory (1999)

Revolution on the Range—The Rise of the New Ranch in the American West by Courtney White  (2008)

The Last Ranch—A Colorado Community and the Coming Desert by Sam Bingham  (1996)

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