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Sustainable Ranching--Holistic Grass Farming is the Wave of the Future


GRASS FARMERS: A three-part series on sustainable ranching in Wyoming

Seeing the big picture

Ranchers who practice Holistic Resource Management focus on keeping the
native grasses healthy-everything else follows from there.

By Lisa Hamilton, Posted
June 14, 2004

The palette of the High Plains is subtle. From the moment the sun rises in
the enormous sky until the moment it sets in the mountains, the land is
flooded with sunlight. As the light hits it wrings out the reds and the
greens, drains even purples and oranges into submission. There is color
here, but no contrast.

The valley known as Iron Creek would be no different were it not for the
fence that runs down its center. The pasture on either side is as muted as
the rest of Wyoming; if you saw only one of them, it would blend into the
hills without remark. But here, side-by-side, the two places are like night
and day.

Undeniably better looking is the east side, Jim Gould's land. It is thick
with native grasses, and the field they make is bumpy and golden. They even
wave in the breeze as if consciously trying to look idyllic.

The west side is gray. Its surface is dusty dirt checkered with dried
manure and big sage, the official plant of parched lands. Jim tells me that
in summer the cows there poke through the barbed wire to drink from his
side, for the springs on their land have gone dry. "It's really that bad,"
he says.

Jim calls himself an environmentalist. As caretaker of this land, he values
the individual plants, the wildlife, and even the predators that most
locals loathe. Yet if he had to choose, he'd call himself a rancher first.
His family arrived at this spot in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in the 1870s, and
they have raised livestock on it every year since. His work is the same as
the guy's on the west side of the fence; what's different is how he does it.

A new way of understanding rangelands

Jim Gould practices Holistic Resource Management (HRM). (HRM is also known
simply as Holistic Management, or HM.) The first word is meant less
metaphysically than literally: cattlemen like Jim think of their ranches
not as commodity-producing businesses but as entire ecosystems-wholes. With
HRM, cows go from being the sole focus, the raison d'etre, to being tools
that serve a larger system. The land does the inverse: it goes from being
merely a place to grow cattle to an end in itself. HRM practitioners often
call themselves grass farmers rather than cattle ranchers, but really what
they are growing is nature.

It is a slow process. The changes begin as soon as you take action, but
before you can do anything you must understand the concept. This takes more
than reading books; it requires learning to see the land differently. All
four ranchers I visited in Wyoming this spring told me it was several years
between when they began studying HRM and when they actually changed their

The first step is to set a goal. It starts with a vision of how you want to
live and what you want to accomplish. This is not mere numbers, but all the
things you value-a strong family, a healthy landscape, financial
independence. (As Jim Gould put it: "Your vision is: When you wake up in
the morning, what do you want to see?") Next you consider what tools you
have and what others you'll need in order to realize that vision. Finally,
you imagine what resources are necessary to maintain it into the future.

"Your vision is: When you wake up in the morning, what do you want to see?"

--Jim Gould

Moving forward, you check each decision against those three criteria: Does
this further the vision of what I want? Am I using the most efficient tool?
Does it detract from future sustainability? At the same time, you are
constantly monitoring important details, to determine whether the decisions
made have moved you toward the goal or away from it.

This abstract description suggests a self-help book, and indeed many
non-ranchers use the model to guide their non-ranching lives. But the
original process was inspired by and conceived for agriculture. African
biologist Allan Savory developed the model in the 1980s as a response to
the desertification of Zimbabwe. There, as in Wyoming, livestock grazing
had left the soil dry. The land became less hospitable to wildlife, which
declined as a result.

As Savory saw it, the problem was one of concentration. Wild grazers stay
in herds as protection from predators. But domesticated grazers-with men
guarding them and killing their predators-have no reason to clump together.
Their impact on the land is therefore scattered and erratic. This was
important because in that dry environment, plants rely on the concentrated
impact of animal herds to help them decompose and thus return their energy
to the soil. Without that impact, the nutrient cycle is retarded and the
whole ecosystem gradually weakens.

Savory's model for a holistic solution was this: to return the grassland to
its original state, with native grasses and wildlife. Oddly, the most
efficient tool was cattle. If herded in patterns that mimicked the wild
grazers, they would break down the plant material correctly, and thereby
stimulate the system to regenerate itself. The cows still needed to bear
profit-that money was what made the approach possible-but fattening cattle
would no longer be the goal. Instead, Savory focused on restoring the land,
believing that as the whole system gained strength it would better support
all its inhabitants-including livestock.

Cows, grasses, and water

In the North American High Plains, water is the key to life. Annual
precipitation ranges from 8-14 inches, and in the recent drought that has
become 5-10 inches. The more water a place retains throughout the year, the
more complex an ecosystem it can support. So for most holistic managers in
Wyoming, water runs throughout the vision of what they want to see when
they wake up in the morning.

It's not as easy as just putting a pool in the backyard. As in Allan
Savory's Africa, the strategy is based on strengthening the whole
ecosystem. Once again, the tool of choice is cattle. In this case their job
is to approximate the impact of buffalo.

The High Plains evolved with buffalo herds that were massive. It's said
that as one herd crossed a river it would raise the water level several
feet. Though modern ranchers would be hard-pressed to replicate that, HRM
practitioners come as close as they can. They pack large groups of animals
onto small sections of land, at concentrations even 20 times what a
conventional rancher would use. They move the herds often, even twice a
week in summer.

Most ranchers argue that cows thrive when you spread them out and leave
them alone-the opposite of the HRM approach. But here the aim is to grow a
strong landscape, so the question should be instead: when does the grass

The aim is to grow a strong landscape, so the question should be instead:
when does the grass thrive?

Cattle left in a large space for a long time first eat the choicest grasses
throughout the pasture. They then return to the same spots to eat the
tender new shoots again and again, never allowing the plants to recover.
Meanwhile, the cows don't eat the less choice plants, which dry out and
oxidize. Their nutrients are thus lost to the atmosphere rather than
recycled into the ground. This cycle of overgrazing good grass and
undergrazing the rest diminishes the energy that land can produce and in
turn give to cattle and other organisms.

The strategy involving big herds, small spaces and frequent moves is
designed to correct that. When grouped densely, the cattle eat not just the
good grass but all the grass, then are moved and don't return until the
grass has repaired itself.

The numbers (cows, acres, days on and off) depend on the land and the
growing season. The tall-grass prairie of North Dakota needs as little as
40 days of rest. On the other hand, in the foothills of Wyoming's Wind
River Mountains, rancher Tony Malmberg gives the land a whole year to rest.
In certain places, his cattle will be in a pasture only four days out of

It sounds as if Tony is hardly using his land, but in fact he's just
concentrating the use. For those four days out of the year he'll have maybe
450 cows on 26 acres. In such close quarters, the cattle walk not just on
well-worn paths but everywhere. As they go, their presence becomes a tool.
They trample their own manure, sending its nutrients back into the ground.
Their hooves break up dead plants, helping them decompose. As their hoof
prints collect water and plant litter they become moist, protected areas in
which seeds can germinate. And the cows' non-selective grazing sets all the
plants back to square one, which gives slower-growing perennial grasses a
chance to compete with annual invaders.

As the ground changes with the cows' impact, so does its ability to retain
water. The key to keeping water is having something there to hold a
raindrop when it hits. On bare, hard dirt, water just rolls away. But after
Tony's cows have been tramping around, their hooves have roughened the soil
enough that it will catch rain. They have broken dead plants into stems and
twigs that lie on the ground and act like so many little dams. And they
have laid a foundation for the future: with their manure as fertilizer and
their hoof prints as planting pots, they encourage the growth of new
plants-the best tool there is for retaining water.

The more water there is available, the more varied the plant community will
be. Think of the two halves of Iron Creek: on the desiccated west side grow
sagebrush and prickly pear, on the well-managed east side grow prairie June
Grass, needle and thread, western wheatgrass, blue bunch grass, and many
other species.

Making a place for wildlife

As the plant community is increasingly varied, so is the wildlife it
attracts. Jim Gould's place is like a wildlife park, with pheasant, geese,
antelope, deer, ducks, beavers, and elk-to name a few. Like the grasses,
the wildlife is more than pretty-it is a tool. Ducks and geese control
mosquitoes. Pheasants and chukars process manure. Beavers build dams that
retain water on a grand scale. Some ranchers believe the larger animals
compete with cattle for rangeland and attract predators, but that's a
matter of opinion. Jim Gould, who lives amongst grizzlies and wolves, is
thankful to have deer and antelope around because they're smaller, easier
prey than his cows.

Of course, that's a tricky topic, even among the holistically minded. No
rancher likes losing livestock, and even many HRM practitioners have not
welcomed predators into their vision of the whole, happy ecosystem. But
others, like Jim Gould, accept and tolerate predators, even as they try to
avoid them. When Jim has trouble with them he tries to figure out why it
happened and changes the variables accordingly. For instance, he used to
calve on a steep hill with lots of trees, perfect mountain lion territory.
When he started losing calves, he switched to a different spot. Another
favorite calving area proved to be bear territory, but it was good summer
ground and so couldn't be abandoned. The next year Jim tried yearlings
there, and none were killed. When he does lose animals, he accepts it as a
compromise necessary to achieving his larger goal of a vibrant, complex
ecosystem. As long as it doesn't break him financially (and therefore
compromise the long-term sustainability of his plan), the loss is
considered smaller than the total gain.

That's partially because predator damages are offset by predator benefits.
For instance, when prairie dogs hit Iron Creek, Jim brought in stacks of
brush for coyotes to hide behind and erected old telephone poles as eagle
perches. The rodents were gone in a matter of months.

"They probably just moved over to my neighbor's," Jim told me with a smile,
nodding to the west side of the fence. "But you see? Even predators have a
place. Everything has a place in this life, you just have to figure out
what it is."

A process of questioning, monitoring and adjusting

Someone once joked that the tagline for HRM should be "grazing made
difficult." It requires that ranchers not only move their cattle often, but
plan, question, reevaluate, and adjust on a daily basis. In order to do
that, they must monitor the land constantly. They collect information for
today-do the cows have sufficient water? is the grass gone earlier than
expected? And they also collect more far-reaching data-plant variety, soil
moisture content, and so on. This allows them to chart the land's changes
and see whether the decisions made have been the right ones.

"If you haven't made any mistakes, that means you haven't tried anything."

Say, for example, the goal is a more complex biological community. The
harbinger of success is the presence of perennial grasses. But simply
noting that a perennial grass appears one year is not enough. Maybe the
previous year there were twice as many. Likewise, seeing weeds or sagebrush
doesn't necessarily mean the land is unhealthy-perhaps the previous year
the soil was so poor it couldn't support any vegetation, so that the weed
is actually a good sign. The only way to know is by looking year after year
at the same fixed points, charting the information, and thinking about the
results. It's time-consuming, but it gives a much deeper understanding of
the land. It's also a sure-fire way to know when you've made a mistake.

This is perhaps the hardest part of HRM: not the act of moving cattle often
or tracking squares of soil over decades, but being able to admit errors. A
basic rule of HRM is to always assume you're wrong, since otherwise you
wouldn't question your actions. Frankly, in dealing with such a big,
complicated, volatile thing as nature, you often are wrong. Admitting that
is difficult, but not admitting it prevents the system from improving.

Raising cattle in the United States is an occupation that requires thick
skin. The business is at the mercy of weather systems that can deal fatal
blows without warning. Even in a good year the business is financially
tenuous, thanks to rising real estate values and international competition.
Most ranchers deal with this by sticking to traditional
practice-recognizing that a mistake would require them to change, and
change could topple the whole operation like a house of cards. The thought
of approaching each day with the assumption that you're wrong is
inconceivable-it suggests certain death.

For More Information...

The Savory Center
1010 Tijeras NW
Albuquerque, NM 87102

Yet the beauty of HRM is that being open to mistakes leads you inevitably
toward a stronger version of your ranch. If you are using the wrong tool,
your questioning will tell you. If your land is losing productivity, your
monitoring will show you. If your market is a dead end, you will see what
to change. Each time you identify a problem you move toward replacing it
with a more effective choice. And with each new choice you make a system
that's more resilient.

"Mistakes are fine, as long as you're willing to learn from them," Jim
Gould told me. "But if you haven't made any mistakes, that means you
haven't tried anything. And if you haven't tried anything, well, then
you're nowhere."

- END -


Lisa Hamilton profiles four Wyoming ranchers who have used Holistic
Management to rethink their land stewardship and business methods.

All material (c)2004, The Rodale Institute(tm)


GRASS FARMERS: A three-part series on sustainable ranching in Wyoming

One set of guiding principles, a wealth of different practices

The key to Holistic Range Management is thinking creatively and
independently, adapting its rules to the ever-changing conditions of ranch

By Lisa Hamilton, Posted July 2, 2004

Merlin Ranch

Holistic Range Management is not a set of actions but a way of thinking.
Specific practices are determined by a ranch's resources, its
personalities, its finances, and most of all its land, so each rancher's
version of HRM will be unique. Some ranchers use HRM as a pasture
management tool, others consider it a lifestyle. On the four ranches I
visited this spring in Wyoming, I found four interpretations, each as
different as the men behind them.

Jim Gould, Park County

70,000 acres; certified organic beef cattle

Jim Gould characterizes himself as an "open-thinker." It's a family trait
that dates back to the 1870s, when the Goulds drove their wagons from
Missouri to Meeteetse, Wyoming, in search of a new and better life. "I read
my family's diaries," Jim tells me, "and even back then, they were all

Jim learned to have an open mind from his father. The two began studying
HRM when Jim was 15. (His father is now retired.) Since then, the
management decisions made on the ranch have often flown in the face of
convention. The industry standards that others take for granted, Jim will
dissect, question and usually replace.

For instance, calving: Every cattleman along the Greybull River still
breeds his cows for February births-that's just the way it's done. But
during deep winter the grass is at its least nutritious. This means all
cows-mothers and others-need their forage supplemented with hay until the
grass peaks in June. The minute a calf is born, the mother's feed
requirements double. In winter, that translates to twice the supplements.

When Jim and his father looked closely at the range's annual cycle, they
recognized this pattern. To them, it made sense to switch the calving to
coincide with the grass's peak in June. That way, the land would take care
of the extra requirement.

Many would argue that going against convention like this puts a rancher
behind the market, since his calves are four months younger than his
neighbors' and therefore bound to be smaller. But when Jim and his
neighbors wean their calves in November, Jim's end up being roughly the
same weight as all the others. Jim says this is because his calves don't
endure the stress of being born into a fierce season of blizzards and
frostbite. Nor are they penned up to protect them from the weather, so they
avoid scours and other bacterial problems that accompany confinement. By
the time Jim's calves do encounter winter, they're old enough to take it.

Jim has recognized that nature itself can be a tool, one whose work
replaces costly inputs and time-consuming labor. By calving with the
grass's cycle, Jim spends less money-if any at all-on medicines, hay, and
supplements. He also now spends almost no money on feed. In the 1960s and
'70s, the Goulds owned several hundred thousand dollars' worth of machinery
and used it to put up hay each summer-again, it was what everyone did. When
they thought about it, though, Jim and his father decided it was
inefficient to own all that equipment when they used it only 20 days a
year. They took stock of what other tools were available and found they
could eliminate the machines.

Jim hasn't disked a field since 1990. The fields are now planted largely to
rhizomatous species that are suited to high-altitude climates like his. He
reseeds rarely-one field has been left alone since 1989. When he does
replant, he'll let the plants go to seed or, for small areas or new
varieties, he'll broadcast the seed himself. He irrigates, then lets the
cows in to graze. While they eat the tall grass, their hooves turn the dirt
and push the seeds in. Their manure provides fertilization.

Jim's cows also "put up" the hay. Using mobile electric fencing, Jim herds
his cattle through the fields daily to strip-graze concurrent sections. He
moves them often, leaving the grass with enough substance to re-grow. This
allows him several "cuttings" a year. Because Jim's operation is certified
organic and there's no suitable hay available in the area, he does need to
put up some of his own. For this, he calls in a neighbor who still has
hay-making machinery. It's an expense, but compared to the cost of
maintaining that equipment throughout the year, the price is relatively

Eliminating inputs like this has added up. Even when Jim and his father
were selling to the commodity market, they always came out on top. They
chose genetics that leaned toward a smaller cow, one that would do better
on their high-altitude pastures. They got slightly more per pound for the
smaller animal, but more importantly, their overhead was far lower than
their neighbors'. Where most people needed 67 cents per pound to break
even, the Goulds needed only 30 cents. "Sure, our figures were all lower,"
Jim said, "but our net was higher than anyone else's. The thing is that a
lot of people don't weigh those expenses, but you can bet they sure come
out of your pocketbook in the end."

Dave Grabbert, Park County

24,000 acres; beef cattle

Dave Grabbert learned to cowboy the old way. As a kid, he would round up
wild horses in the mountains. Then every spring he would get in the saddle
and help drive the family's cattle more than 100 miles to their summer
grounds, outside Yellowstone National Park. As an adult, he has ranched on
land lying just shy of the Canadian bush all the way to Mexico-so far south
he used to repair corrals with wild bamboo.

Today he is settled once again outside Cody, Wyoming, not far from where he
was raised. As was true with his family's ranch, he owns only a quarter of
his land. The rest is in long-term leases with government agencies,
primarily the Bureau of Land Management. Ranchers who lease generally
loathe the agency. They accuse the BLM of managing by remote, telling
ranchers how to work the land without knowing how the individual pieces
actually work.

Dave, too, felt this frustration with the BLM. Each year the agency awarded
each of his parcels a certain number of Animal Units per Month (AUMs)-the
number of animals allowed on a piece of land, as determined by its health
and composition. Then, as with all leases, the BLM told him what kind of
animal, which months, in herds of what size. "Before I even started, the
whole thing was already in the file cabinet," Dave told me. "There was no
room to move."

This was even more frustrating when Dave started HRM. "The BLM is full of
good people," he said, "but my problem was to try to make the range better
and I didn't have the flexibility to do it."

The BLM's directions were based on the traditional method: grazing small
herds in large spaces for one long season. The system couldn't accommodate
frequent moves or high-density groups of animals, the very roots of
holistic management. Nonetheless, Dave reflected on what tools he had and
found a way around the obstacle. He followed the BLM's guidelines-he had no
choice-but additionally he began herding the animals within each section.

Merlin Ranch

It took about seven years, but the agency finally acknowledged that his
method was improving the land. They responded by giving him more freedom.

"I've got the most liberal grazing plan in the whole U.S."

Having relied on fences for generations, few modern American ranchers know
how to herd. But Dave had learned, both on the family ranch and in his vast
experience ranching throughout western North America. He in turn taught his
hired men, and before long some of them were living way out on the range
with the animals. It was more time-consuming than simply turning cattle
loose for three months, but it was the only way to achieve the concentrated
animal impact so critical to HRM.

As the range responded, the BLM noticed. Dave monitored his land carefully,
and the results showed a steady progression: less bare ground, ever more
desirable plants. It took about seven years, but the agency finally
acknowledged that his method was improving the land. They responded by
giving him more freedom.

"I've got the most liberal grazing plan in the whole U.S.," Dave told me
with delight.

The BLM still determines the AUMs for each allotment leased, but that's it.
Dave decides the what, where, when, and how. Instead of mapping out his
usage before the season starts, he now decides how a pasture should be used
as the season unfolds. No longer does he speculate about how the land will
be and then try to fit reality into that prediction. Instead, he watches
the weather, the plants, and the animals, and manages in response to their

Tony Malmberg, Fremont County

16,500 acres; "beyond organic" beef cattle, dairy goats, ranch recreation

Growing up as a third-generation cowboy in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, Tony
Malmberg learned early on to not let anything stand in his way. So when
beavers dammed the creek by his barn and water flooded his horse pasture,
Tony knew exactly what to do: blow them up.

As soon as the dynamite ignited, he knew it was a mistake. The dam became a
pile of sticks and floated downstream. The water that had stood behind
rushed through, carrying with it the loose soil of the creek banks.
Standing there today, Tony measures the chasm as 24 feet wide and about 6
feet deep.

But his measurement is a guess. That's because in the 17 years since he
blew up the dam, the chasm has filled in. Before the dynamiting there was a
stream deep enough to keep the horses in their pasture, and after the
dynamiting nothing could cross. But the area is now called West Meadow. It
is so flat and filled with grass and willows that Tony has had to build a
fence to contain the animals. The repair is, oddly, because of beavers.

After watching the ramifications of his impetuous dynamiting, Tony realized
the creatures could actually be a tool. Rather than see their flooding as
inconvenient, he began to see it as the equivalent of the reservoirs people
had built downstream. Anything that retains water is an absolute gift in
places like Tony's ranch, which gets only 13 inches of precipitation a
year. As Tony puts it, "From the time that it drops on top of the hill to
the time it flows out in the stream, my job is to slow the rain down."

Uphill the plants take care of that, but once precipitation reaches the
creek the best delay is a dam. Tony stood back as the beavers built a
second, larger one across the chasm left by the dynamite. Water slowed down
and backed up behind it, encouraging water-loving species like willows to
thrive along the banks. Those plants harnessed the preexisting soil and
caught silt as it washed downstream.

The plants gradually closed in the banks of the creek. The stream went from
wide and shallow to thin and proportionately deep. The creek's channel
actually grew smaller, but that was good: where once fish had perished in
the hot, slow channel, now Tony's nephew was catching fat brown trout. The
creek and the plants that depended on it were visibly healthier.

During times of heavy flow, water in this new, tighter course would rise
above the floodplain to irrigate the surrounding fields. The area around
the creek bed became positively marshy, and the creek multiplied into
numerous smaller channels that distributed water more widely. As the
surrounding pasture received more moisture, the sagebrush died off and was
replaced by grasses. The riparian area grew from thirty feet wide to a
flat, green half-mile.

Today, there are again no beavers in West Meadow. They have moved up- and
downstream to colonize areas more conducive to damming-all with Tony's
blessing. In their place there are now elk and, for about twenty days a
year, cattle. Tony moves his herd through quickly and intensely. With
electric fencing he splits the area into four, 26-acre sections. Last year
he grazed all 450 of his cows in each pasture for about five days of summer.

It sounds like a lot for the riparian area to handle, but in fact the land
benefits. This is because the animal impact is concentrated and then
balanced with 361 days of rest. Its boosted productivity in turn benefits
Tony. Even grazing it for just five days out of the year, he gets seven
times as much raw productivity out of the meadow than out of the uplands.
Only 3 percent of his 16,500 acres are riparian, but they make up 35
percent of his total production. "That's where the production is, 'cause
that's where the water is," he says. "It's as simple as that."

Mark Gordon, Johnson County

33,000 acres; beef cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, laying hens

"The first year we started holistic management everyone thought we were
wacko," Mark Gordon told me. "It flew directly in the face of the American

That was in 1983 on the family ranch in Kaycee, Wyoming. He got support
from the old, old-timers, who had lived before there were fences on the
range and herding was a way of life. But the generation that followed saw
tight herds in small places as bad management. Those people-most
importantly his father-were the ones Mark couldn't convince.

Merlin Ranch

"The first year we started holistic management everyone thought we were
wacko. It flew directly in the face of the American rangeman."

Because HRM is fundamentally a decision-making process, when practiced in a
group it requires consensus. Recognizing that that wasn't going to happen
on the family ranch, Mark set out on his own. First he partnered with a
likeminded neighbor in Kaycee, and then he and his wife bought the Merlin
Ranch, in Buffalo, in 1988. (Mark remains partners with the neighbor, but
his primary business is the Merlin.)

Since then, partnership has been a major tool for the Merlin. Mark believed
that HRM could make the place much more productive than it had been, and
therefore enable the business to expand, but he needed help in order to do
it. When a destitute man named Barry Bauer came to work for him in 1989,
Mark made him a deal: They would go devote themselves to this ranch. If it
succeeded, Barry would own his share of the success. If it failed, the two
would fail together. The condition was that Barry had to pay for his own
HRM education, a seminar that cost $850. Only years later did Barry tell
Mark that the decision to go forward left a mere $50 in his pocket.

Mark predicted correctly. As a likeminded team they boosted the ranch to
new heights and Barry became a partner. What they couldn't predict was that
their education would be completed by two people who weren't on board with
HRM. In 1995 they hired Mike Rodriguez, and in 1990 Sean Acord. Both came
from mainstream ranching traditions and initially recoiled at the new

Merlin Ranch

"He has taken a regular old cowboy and taught him to be a scientist and a
mathematician. It's just incredible."

--Sean Acord

"While Barry and I spent a lot of time contemplating our ideas and being
really critical with our decisions, we had a blind spot," Mark said. "Sean
and Mike came in with these fresh perspectives, and they helped us truly
question what we were doing."

In other words, they thought HRM was ridiculous and they didn't hesitate to
say it. But both hired men were quickly convinced of HRM's merits by the
undeniable evidence in the pasture. "At first I thought he was crazy," Mike
said. "But then when suddenly we were riding through and the grass was up
to my stirrups, I thought, 'Hey, there's something to this.'"

Sean made the same quick transition and speaks of Mark, as the others do,
with sheer reverence. "He has taken a regular old cowboy and taught him to
be a scientist and a mathematician," he told me. "It's just incredible."

But while their interest in HRM is deep in terms of the range, it has not
become a value system as it does for some. Mark respects that.

"It's important that people not be ripped out of old lifestyles and forced
into something that's supposedly right," Mark said. "So we've concentrated
instead on defining and creating a future that everyone wants to live."

They keep the application of HRM strictly to business. Take, for example,
the coyotes that claim anywhere from nine to 60 of their lambs each year.
Mark sees the predators as a creative challenge-even as a tool for
controlling the prairie dog population-while others see them as something
to eliminate. But nobody aims to "enlighten" anyone else. Instead, they
focus their discussion on what response makes the most practical sense for
the ranch.

Every issue prompts extensive meeting, planning, and talking, all geared
toward finding the most efficient path toward their shared goal. But the
goal itself is not all business. It includes enjoying life. If the ranchers
have been working too hard and need to just go fishing, they delay moving
the cattle-even if that contradicts their grazing plan-and just try not to
do it again. Mike's kids do the rounds with him a few afternoons a week and
ride along when he's rounding up cattle on horseback. "I get in trouble
with Mark for working too many hours," Mike told me, half joking. "He says
I should be home with the family instead."

The Merlin calls itself a family ranch, and in a sense that means it's in
the business of growing more families. The idea is that as the Merlin
succeeds, each man will become a partner and be able to buy land of his
own. The Merlin will then run livestock on the new land until the
individual can stand alone. It is the ultimate model for the aspiring
rancher, and the commitment it inspires makes the business exponentially
stronger. Even as they "wobble forward," figuring out what is best for the
ranch in the day to day, in a sense they've already gotten where they want
to be.

All material (c)2004, The Rodale Institute(tm)

GRASS FARMERS: Part 3 of a three-part series on sustainable ranching in

In search of the real tough cowboy

To survive in the 21st century, ranchers need to be skilled natural
resource managers-and good communicators.

By Lisa Hamilton, Posted July 20, 2004

Lilly herds every animal she meets-cattle, goats, dogs, even people. She
once had an eye kicked out by a stallion she corralled, but the loss hasn't
stopped her. In fact, right now, as her cowboy trudges through the snow to
steer his horses behind a fence, she is ahead of him, running an imaginary
circumference around the animals. Alzada, the other dog present, hangs back
with me to watch.

After securing the gate, the cowboy walks back to us and notices my gaze on
Lilly. "You should see her with the cows," he says, "just like poetry, the
way she does it. Alzada isn't much for herding, but she runs like the wind.
It's a beautiful thing to watch." He passes me, slogging through the slush
and back to his rumbling pick-up. Without turning around he says, "You
can't make that beauty happen. But when you let something be itself, then
it comes naturally. It's all about self-actualization."

Now I live in Northern California, and therefore am accustomed to hearing
talk of things like "self-actualization." But coming from this man, who
fits the cowboy of fiction to the last curve of his hat-well, it threw me

And yet for every bit of Tony that is a classic cowboy, there is another
part that shatters the stereotype.

Tony Malmberg is a wrangler by blood: His Swedish grandfather ran away from
home at age 12 to ride for the Matador Ranch. Tony himself was raised in
Nebraska's Sand Hills, and has been riding since he was a child. He passes
no morning without an eye on the weather rising over Sheep Mountain. He
goes nowhere without a hat-dusty straw for chores, black felt for dinner in

And yet for every bit of Tony that is a classic cowboy, there is another
part that shatters the stereotype. He has been a leader of the Farm Bureau
and Wyoming Stock Growers' Association, but he also rubs elbows with the
local Nature Conservancy chapter and belongs to a book group at the
library. His back still hurts from an incident with a bucking bronco, but
he treats it by doing yoga. He runs cattle as well as anybody, but he also
keeps goats. He has even milked them.

Tony will gladly tell you any of this, even illustrate it with a quote from
Emerson or Kahlil Gibran. Oddly enough, he credits it to being tough-"like
a true cowboy," he says. He is quick to explain: "Being tough doesn't mean
bitching about the damn environmentalists, it means breaking your leg five
miles from the ranch and being able to ride home because you have to. It's
about being able to survive."

Tony found that as a rancher in the ruthless beef industry, being tough
meant changing who he was and how he saw the world. He began one grim
winter while working in the mines of Battle Mountain, Nevada, a town voted
"The Armpit of America" by The Washington Post. Most workers there prove
the stereotypes true, blowing their riches in casinos, bars, and brothels.
During his stay Tony did play Texas hold-'em once a week, but the other six
nights he spent reading books on three subjects he felt were missing from
his education: economics, philosophy, and self-improvement. He was perhaps
the first person ever to be enlightened in Battle Mountain.

"I made more money there than I ever had in my life," he says, "but at the
same time I realized that something else meant much more to me. That was
the first time I decided consciously to be a rancher. It came clear that I
needed to return to the ranch and make it work, somehow."

To survive, Tony threw status quo out the window. He replaced it with a
process of self-actualization. Today, he evaluates the ranch's tools-land,
animals, people-and allows their strengths to determine how the business
grows. It has turned out to be his most radical departure of all.

Finding your edge-and using it

A more business-like version of Tony's philosophy is described in the book
Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap...and others don't, by Jim
Collins. Using case studies of the world's most successful companies,
Collins argues that to succeed, one must be the best at something. He goes
on to say that everyone and everything has a distinct competitive
advantage; being the best is simply a matter of determining what that
advantage is and how to use it.

The distinct competitive advantage of Tony's Twin Creek Ranch in Lander,
Wyoming, is not immediately apparent. His 16,500 acres lie at the base of
the Wind River Mountains, so his ground ranges in elevation from 5,600 to
7,440 feet. "It's tough country we're ranching here," he says. "It's cold,
sagebrush steppe. Cold winters, hot summers. A tough place to make a

The road to the ranch is a rutted track of red clay that stretches a slow
nine miles from the highway. It passes two flat, irrigated pastures, but
otherwise the land here is untamed: rough hills, thick creekside brush, and
sandstone spires carved by eons of rough weather.

In 1978, Tony and his parents bought the ranch and started a cow-calf
operation that was augmented by pasture cattle in summer-the same as most
local ranchers. It wasn't until 1987, when Tony attended his first holistic
management seminar, that he thought to question the routine. For three
years he changed nothing, instead just watching and thinking about the
land. When he finally applied HM's basic herding techniques, his stocking
rates improved. Anyone else would have responded by buying more cattle, but
Tony had gained a reason to think twice.

On the cliffs above his best pasture he had found petroglyphs depicting
sheep, antelope, and men with spears. They were carved by the ancient
Arapahoe as they waited there each fall and spring, ready to ambush the
animals they knew would come through. Twin Creek turned out to be a grazing
animals' migration route.

In realizing that the place was naturally a passageway rather than a
destination, Tony reconsidered his large, year-round operation.

"I changed my view of being in the cattle business to being in the grass
business...a cow is just a package to put the grass in and transport to

In realizing that the place was naturally a passageway rather than a
destination, Tony reconsidered his large, year-round operation. He
increased the cattle he pastured for others from May to October, but
downsized his own herd. The move made business sense, too: He had a major
debt load, and investing in a volatile commodity like cattle didn't
guarantee him a reliable return.

"I changed my view of being in the cattle business to being in the grass
business," he wrote to me before I met him. "I realized that a cow is just
a package to put the grass in and transport to sale. There are times when
we can add more value to the grass by owning cattle, and other times when
we prefer to transfer that risk to someone else."

A few years later, Tony opened a lodge. The attention required for holistic
management had increased his labor costs; having tourists stay at the ranch
would pay for the new hired hands. He made sure that the place remained a
traditional cattle ranch that had guests, rather than turning into a guest
ranch that had cattle. Still, the act itself defied the notion that no
rancher worth his saddle would do anything but raise livestock.

And that was just the start. Tony's wife, Andrea, suggested they raise
goats and make cheese. Even Tony balked this time. Sheep, perhaps, but what
self-respecting rancher would raise goats? Then he considered the
landscape. With only cattle, a significant part of his land went unused
because it was too steep or rocky. But on those slopes and cliffs, goats
would be right at home.

Today a small herd of goats munches sagebrush on a 70-degree slope behind
the barn. The day before I arrived at the ranch, Tony had found them on top
of a sandstone spire that even he couldn't climb. The year before, a
neighbor had returned a doe after finding her out on the range, alongside
his cattle. Talk about a distinct competitive advantage: she had been
missing for 14 months-surviving in the wild-and came home without a
scratch. "This land will never be the best cattle country in world, but
it's excellent goat country," Tony told me. "Maybe we'll be the best in the
world at making goat cheese."

Tony's wife, Andrea, suggested they raise goats and make cheese. Even Tony
balked this time. Sheep, perhaps, but what self-respecting rancher would
raise goats? Then he considered the landscape . . .

"This land will never be the best cattle country in world, but it's
excellent goat country."

The Malmbergs still run a handful of their own cows, but none for the old
markets. Instead they have refocused on a new goal: to feed the local
community. They sell their "Beyond Organic Beef" to neighbors and a local
restaurant, through several retail stores in town, and online. The yield is
much less than in past years-in 2003, they processed only 17 head-but the
return is just the opposite. Hamburger is $5 a pound, steaks are maybe $15
a piece, and nearly every cent of that returns to the Malmbergs. In the
past year, they have even expanded the lodge business to host private
dinners showcasing their beef and other locally-grown foods.

Each new piece of the business emerges from what Tony figured out early on:
holistic management doesn't stop at grazing. "You can go ahead and do
environmentally sound range management, but people don't just start
throwing money at you for it," he told me. "You still have to package those
values into something they can buy, pieces that are familiar to consumers."
Hence the retail sales, the lodge, the dinners-the Malmbergs even do

Reaching out to the local community-and beyond

So, are they sell-outs? To be honest, when I first heard that Twin Creek no
longer did conventional cattle sales, my interest waned. Who wants to write
about a hobby rancher? And yet Tony showed me that there's no longer only
one definition of what makes a ranch real. Really, what is more honorable
than feeding your community? Granted, the local community-about 35,000
people in 100 square miles-is not enough to sustain the Malmbergs and their
employees, barring major reorganization of the regional economy. Hence the
lodge, the pasturing of other people's cattle, the burgers sold to tourists
at the local grill.

Then again, for Tony those things no longer feel like compromises. Take the
lodge, for instance. It provides the Malmbergs with an influx of
international culture and varying viewpoints, a great gift considering the
relatively homogenous community around them. They, in turn, educate
visitors about how the land works, what it means to grow food, and how the
table and the range are connected; they give tourists a reason to care
about this place. In an era when ranchers are widely scorned and the
working landscape of the High Plains dismissed, that education is
invaluable. Better to have people introduced to Wyoming by a rancher than
by a real estate agent.

What his critics don't understand is that, more than anything, Tony wants
to save the cowboy way of life-and not just preserve it on so many 400-acre
hobby ranches, but make it a working part of modern life. What makes him so
different is that he accepts that the West is no longer populated solely by

"You can go ahead and do environmentally sound range management, but people
don't just start throwing money at you for it . . . "

"You still have to package those values into something they can buy, pieces
that are familiar to consumers."

"To be a rancher in the 21st century, you need the language to communicate
with other ranchers, which is story-telling," Tony told me. "We're
task-oriented. We talk about, Is your branding done? How's your calving
going? Ranchers communicate by telling stories about the tasks that we do."

But to communicate with the agency people, a rancher needs to learn the
language of data. "With the BLM range con [rangeland conservationist], you
have to talk about percent bare ground, plant density, species
diversity-numbers-or it won't connect. Then we have the environmentalists.
To communicate with them, you need poetry. By that I mean you have to ask
what their values are. If they value biodiversity, you can explain to them
how your approach to range management encourages that value. If you just
talk about your tasks, they think you're a goddamned redneck."

It makes sense that the best-liked BLM employees are those who can shoot
the breeze, and the most productive environmentalists are those who value
agriculture. In holistic management terms, being "multi-lingual" is a
powerful tool. The talking inevitably reveals common goals; the common
goals lead to compounded power.

For instance, a few years ago Tony invited the government to catalog plants
on his land. Naturally, everyone called him crazy. "But think about it," he
says. "If there's an endangered species here I want to know about it.
Pleading ignorance down the road won't help me."

In fact, several rare plants turned up. One of them was Barnaby's clover,
which is otherwise found only on The Nature Conservancy's preserve down the
canyon. Naturally, the organization took an interest in Twin Creek Ranch.
Today, as the Malmbergs figure out how to protect their ranch in the
future, there is a chance that the non-profit will buy a conservation
easement on the land. The deal is spurred by Tony's outstanding
stewardship, but also undeniably by the presence of the clover.

The specific details of Twin Creek Ranch are hard to replicate. Not every
landscape hosts an endangered species. Not every ranch is located in a
place that tourists want to visit. Not every cowboy wants to make goat
cheese. But, as long as there's a willingness to think differently, the
process itself can apply to anyone. After all, every rancher knows his or
her land is special; the trick is just to make that matter.

Lisa Hamilton is a freelance writer based in Mill Valley, California. Her
feature stories appear regularly on

All material (c)2004, The Rodale Institute(tm)