Ranney Ranch: An Eco-Friendly Southwest Cattle Ranch – Mother Earth News
Cattle ranches in the West often have a bad reputation. Overgrazing has decimated the environment in places like my old home state of Colorado. I remember many times in my years of hunting and fishing in Colorado, walking through cow pie strewn landscapes where the grass was almost gone. Sagebrush and cactus could barely get a foothold so bare were some of the places I hiked. For most of the past three decades, I thought our public lands and private ranches were nothing more than overused cow-feeding land. That is until I met Nancy Ranney in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was at the annual conference of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association that I heard Nancy speak at an annual culinary roundtable when I realized there was hope.
Nancy graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in landscape architecture who took over the family ranch near Corona, New Mexico. The 1990s were an era of misery marked by drought inflicted on the land, animals, and humans who inhabited the southwest. Nancy knew there was a new and better way to manage her family’s 18,000-acre ranch and pioneered herd rotation and regenerative soil management practices to bring back native grasses. The ranch’s pasture was a monoculture of blue gramma when Nancy took over in the early 2000s. The herd had been reduced in an attempt to weather extreme drought, and the ranch’s future looked shaky.
The plan was to keep the cows moving, instead of grazing in place for days, and to start restoring native grasses. The ranch’s ecosystem was in shambles and birds, along with other species, were disappearing at an alarming rate. Soil health suffered and Nancy knew that restoring soil health was vital to the quality of the herd. This would require restoring the landscape to an intact ecosystem of microbes, grasses and other high prairie plants that would nurture the life forms that make up a healthy landscape.
I asked Nancy what she had in mind when she started transforming the ranch and she said, “The key was to keep the herd moving across the landscape, never grazing long enough in one place to damage the plants and now leave the seeds dormant. in the ground – viable for over 100 years in the Southwest – to grow. Once the native grasses started to return, so did most of the life forms that rely on the ecosystem.
Before the arrival of European settlers about 400 years ago, the high prairies were awash with life. There were bison, prairie dogs, badgers, cougars, snakes, moles, hawks and the plains songbird, the meadowlark. All of these species lived in harmony and the land thrived during this time of healthy grasslands. When the ranchers showed up, it had some of the most magnificent grazing areas a cattle rancher could want.
These lush grasslands have become one of the best ranching countries in the world. After centuries of grazing, much of the land has been depleted.
In more than 150 years of great ranching, ranchers have worked the land in good times and bad in this western paradise. When the drought of the 1990s hit, it was clear that something had to change. Some species had disappeared, and many others were only a shadow of their previous numbers. But herders, like farmers, are not keen on adopting new ways of working the land.
One of the big surprises in the effort to restore our grasslands is the theory that cattle can improve the soil like buffalo once did. Cattle can aerate the ground with their hooves, much like buffaloes did for centuries before the appearance of the white man. Cows also provide fertilization from the many cow mashes they leave in their wake. Native perennials are stimulated when cattle bite them only once while moving, instead of letting them graze in one spot for hours.
In an article by Time magazine, writer Judith D. Schwartz points out that cows could save our grasslands. Instead of abandoning cattle ranching altogether, the pastures seem to benefit from proper ranching techniques such as the regeneration plans used by Ranney Ranch.
When Nancy took over running the Ranney Ranch, the ranch’s longtime manager thought she would fail and they would revert to his ways. Nancy has not failed and has documented the restoration of over 50 native grass types without seeding or irrigation. Ranney Ranch has seen its water holding capacity increase by twenty-five percent under this new management. As neighboring ranches languished in drought, aerial photos showed Ranney Ranch developing a thriving prairie in New Mexico’s high desert. Nancy’s herd showed similar health benefits to the land with the new techniques in place.
Today, the ranch and the herd are doing well. As part of environmentally responsible practices, Ranney Ranch sells most of the beef it raises to local consumers. Nancy knew that less than two percent of New Mexico’s beef stayed in the state. By shipping shorter distances, they have reduced carbon emissions.
By instituting regenerative agricultural practices, operations like Ranney Ranch can bring back healthy ecosystems that benefit everyone on Earth. As part of the restoration of the land, Ranney Ranch was selected by the Audubon Society to be part of their ranching conservation program. Audubon and his conservation ranching program seek to bring back some of the bird species that have seen their numbers decline by eighty percent due to the loss of suitable habitat. The western grasslands are vital for birds which are an essential part of the ecosystem.
When consumers buy Audubon-certified beef, they can rest assured that the rancher they support is helping the planet. Ranney Ranch is also AGA (American Grassfed Association) and AWA (Animal Welfare Approved) certified. Many researches show that grass-fed beef is healthier for consumers than grain-fed beef. I encourage you to read some of the articles posted on the Ranney Ranch website and see how their way of farming has other carbon reduction benefits. Although most of us live too far away to buy Ranney Ranch beef at an affordable price, research other ranchers using similar techniques where you live. We can all play a part in restoring the health of the planet in how we buy our food.
Kurt Jacobson was a chef for 40 years, and after schooling in the US Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under kind and manic chefs. Kurt is entering his seventh year of organic container and raised bed gardening in his backyard. For this and other published stories, check out his travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all about Kurt NEWS FROM MOTHER EARTH posts here.
All bloggers in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS community have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this article, click on his signature link at the top of the page.