Ranney Ranch: an eco-friendly Southwestern cattle ranch – Mother Earth News
Cattle ranches in the West often get a bad rap. Overgrazing has decimated the environment in places like my former home state of Colorado. I remember many times during my years of hunting and fishing in Colorado, walking through landscapes strewn with cow pie where the grass had almost disappeared. Mugwort and cactus could barely gain a foothold, as the places I walked were bare. For most of the past three decades, I have thought that our public lands and private ranches were nothing more than feed lands for overexploited cows. That’s until I met Nancy Ranney in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was during the annual conference of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association that I heard Nancy speak at a 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 South West. Nancy knew there was a new and better way to manage her family’s 18,000 acre ranch and implemented herd rotation and regenerative soil management practices to bring back native grasses. The ranch’s pasture was a monoculture of blue grass 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 precarious.
The plan was to keep the cows moving, instead of letting them graze in place for days, and to start restoring native grasses. The ranch’s ecosystem was in ruins and birds, along with other species, were disappearing at an alarming rate. The health of the soil was affected, and Nancy knew that it was vital to the quality of the herd to restore the soil to good health. 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 running the ranch and she said, “The key was to keep the herd moving through the landscape, never to graze enough. long in one place to damage the plants and now leave the seeds dormant. in the soil – viable for over 100 years in the southwest – to grow. Once the native grasses began to return, so did most of the life forms that depend on the ecosystem.
Before the arrival of European settlers some 400 years ago, the high prairie was awash with life. There were buffaloes, prairie dogs, badgers, cougars, snakes, moles, hawks and the plains songstress, the lark. All of these species lived in harmony and the land thrived during this period of healthy prairies. When the ranchers arrived there was some of the most magnificent pasture areas a cattle rancher could desire.
These abundant grasslands have become one of the best breeding countries in the world. After centuries of grazing, much of the land was exhausted.
Through more than 150 years of great ranches, ranchers have worked the land through good and bad years in this western paradise. When the drought of the 90s hit, it was clear that something had to change. Some species were extinct, and many others were just a shadow of their old numbers. But pastoralists, like farmers, are unwilling to adopt 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 the buffalo once did. Cattle can aerate the soil with their hooves, just as buffaloes did for centuries before the arrival of white humans. Cows also provide fertilization from the many pies they leave in their wake. Native perennials are stimulated when livestock bite them only once during their movement, instead of letting them graze in one place for hours.
In an article by Time magazine, writer Judith D. Schwartz points out that maybe cows could save our prairies. Instead of completely abandoning cattle ranching, the pastures appear to benefit from proper husbandry techniques such as the regeneration plans used by Ranney Ranch.
When Nancy took over running the Ranney Ranch, the longtime ranch manager thought she would fail and they would revert to her methods. Nancy did not fail and continued to document the restoration of over 50 types of native grasses 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 the drought, aerial photos showed Ranney Ranch developing a thriving prairie in the high desert of New Mexico. Nancy’s herd has shown health benefits similar to those of the land with the new techniques in place.
Today the ranch and the herd are doing well. As part of eco-friendly practices, Ranney Ranch sells most of the beef it raises to local consumers. Nancy knew that less than two percent of New Mexico beef stayed in the state. By shipping shorter distances, they reduced carbon emissions.
By encouraging regenerative agricultural practices, farms like Ranney Ranch can bring back healthy ecosystems that benefit everyone on Earth. As part of the land restoration, Ranney Ranch has been selected by the Audubon Society to be part of their conservation breeding program. Audubon and its conservation ranching program are seeking 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 prairies of the West are vital for the birds which are an essential part of the ecosystem.
When consumers buy Audubon Certified Beef, they can rest assured that the producer they are supporting is helping the planet. Ranney Ranch is also AGA (American Grassfed Association) and AWA (Animal Welfare Approved) certified. There is plenty of research showing 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 farming has other carbon reduction benefits. Even though most of us live too far away to buy affordable Ranney Ranch beef, look for other ranchers using similar techniques where you live. We can all play a part in restoring the health of the planet by purchasing our food.
Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years, and after being educated in the US Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants with both kind and maniacal chefs. Kurt is entering his seventh year of organic container and raised bed gardening in his garden. For this and other published stories, check out his travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all from Kurt NEWS FROM MOTHER EARTH posts here.
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