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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011

Dear friends and family,

We hope that this annual dispatch from the frontier finds you well, enjoying the holidays with your loved ones, and reflecting on a well-lived 2011—what a year it's been! 
Matt Barnes, range monitoring,
The Howell Ranch
Professionally, I continued to own and operate Shining Horizons Land Management, LLC, providing ranch and rangeland management for a triple bottom line of ecological, economic, and social resilience.  I managed the Howell Ranch, a seasonal custom-grazing operation with over 400 cow-calf pairs on several thousand acres near Blue Mesa Summit in western Colorado, for a second summer.  I gave presentations about improving grazing management on the ranch at the Society for Range Management annual conference in Montana, and the Colorado Plateau conference in Arizona.  I also spent time at San Juan Ranch in Colorado, and JT Land & Cattle in New Mexico; and found time to participate in the Quivira Coalition and Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, and the International Rangeland Congress in Argentina.  I joined the Rangelands Editorial Board, and am the incoming President-Elect of the Colorado Section Society for Range Management.

I had my first solo photography exhibit at Off the Beaten Path in Steamboat Springs, and finished my third oil painting at Montrose Center for the Arts.
Moving cattle on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, San Luis Valley
(oil painting by Matt Barnes)
Jenny Stricker
Jenny worked as technician for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Kremmling—until last Monday when she accepted a position as an NRCS soil conservationist in San Luis, Colorado–a long-sought step up!  San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado, in the southeast corner of the San Luis Valley—an area rich in culture, history and natural beauty.  The job starts mid-January, so we look forward to brushing up our Spanish and diving into a whole new adventure.  Watch for our new address in January!
San Luis Valley, Colorado

It was a wonderful year for traveling and visiting. We rang in the New Year in Arkansas with Jenny’s sister and family (who also visited us in July in Steamboat Springs). In April, we visited my family near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania—including my brother and sisters, Fritz, Jennifer, and Debbie, and their families. In May, Jenny and her son Leif flew to Holland, Michigan, to visit Jenny’s aunt and uncle, Ellie and Mike Bremer. In June, Jenny and her son Ola attended the Nan Desu Kan anime convention in Denver (where Ola won a standing ovation during a video game tournament). In October, we visited my family in Amagansett, Long Island—my brothers and sisters and mom and dad, Judy and Fred.And, in November, we flew to Seattle to visit Jenny’s cousins, Rich and Paul, and aunt and uncle, Phyllis and Dic Lawson.

Barnes family visit: Jennifer, Fritz & Jamie, Bob & Debbie Parks, Jenny & Matt

Newborn nephew, H. Matthew Johnston
Courtesy Erin (Barnes) Johnston
And, of most blessed fortune, our extended family grew by one this year: Hill Matthew Johnston was born to my sister Erin and her husband Josh in October.
The celebration of birth, of renewal, in myriad forms yet one theme, at this time of year seems universal.  The slow return of Father Sun to Mother Earth has already begun, that unending play of yin and yang, emanation and dissolution, the harmony of the Uni-verse, the One Song.  May all our stars lead to the newborn promise, the one truth of many names, the unity that is beyond names.
Jenny Stricker and Matt Barnes
In beauty and harmony,
with loving-kindness and compassion for all,

Matt and Jenny

Monday, December 5, 2011

Integrating rangeland ecosystem services and ranch economics

The Colorado State University Western Center for Integrated Resource Management's 2011 Nick Petry Workshop

Colorado State University
Western Center for
Integrated Resource Management

Profitable ranches integrate land stewardship and economics. Rangeland ecosystem services, and payments for them, were the focus of the annual Nick Petry Workshop, held by the Colorado State University (CSU) Western Center for Integrated Resource Management at the National Western Complex in Denver on Dec. 2. 

The highlight was rancher Kelly Bader’s perspective on ranching for ecosystem services. The Bader Ranch in southeastern Colorado now produces more than when the family bought it in 1990, thanks to changes in grazing and fire management. Bader used existing fences to implement rotational grazing, where a single herd grazes pastures sequentially rather than having continuous access to the entire property. Each pasture has a short grazing period, and most of a growing season to recover. Thus the palatable plants are maintained in the pasture, and animals are not anywhere long enough to develop patches of degradation. Desirable tall grasses such as bluestems, and palatable cool season grasses such as wheatgrasses, have returned to what had been a pure shortgrass prairie of blue grama and buffalo grass under continuous grazing.  Large game animals and other wildlife are thriving, he said.

Bader showed a fence-line contrast where his pasture was diverse and productive, and a neighbor’s continuously grazed pasture had only a few short grasses left. A recent fire burned through much of the Bader ranch’s lush vegetation, setting back juniper encroachment into grasslands—“the best thing to happen to the land in 120 years,” according to Bader. The flames stopped at the fence because the continuously grazed pasture could not carry a fire. 
A fire burned through much of the productive vegetation of the Bader Ranch, including the rotationally grazed pasture on the left.  The continuously grazed pasture on the right did not have enough grass to carry a fire.
Photo courtesy Kelly and Randy Bader

Bader said stocking rates should fluctuate with forage production. His average stocking rates are similar to neighboring ranches, but his management is producing more ecosystem services. 

Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, with the CSU Department of Forest and Rangeland Resources, gave an engaging presentation on applying ecological site descriptions to ranch management. Ecological sites are land units with similar potential kinds and amounts of vegetation, but can exist in multiple stable states, some with more production and diversity than others. Transitions between states may be driven by climate, fire, grazing, or other management actions. For instance, sagebrush-grassland ecological sites in Colorado can degrade from a diverse state with high forage production to a dense sagebrush state with low forage production, due to drought, overstocking, or a combination thereof, based on state-and-transition models developed by Fernandez-Gimenez's former PhD student Emily Kachergis[1,2], now with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). 

Workshop participants used laptop computers to simulate different stocking rates, and in some cases spraying the sagebrush with brush-specific herbicide, and calculated their economic returns in a session with economist Jay Parsons of the CSU Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Generally moderate stocking rates yielded the highest returns, because high stocking rates tended to cause decreases in forage production and livestock performance. On sites in the degraded state, low stocking rates tended to yield higher long-term profits because they maximized the probability that the land could return to the productive state given a few years of favorable moisture, and in some cases brush treatment. 

Livestock are ecosystem engineers [3], said Justin Derner of the USDA-ARS High Plains Grasslands Research Station in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Grazing and other disturbances influence vegetation structure and composition. For instance, season-long grazing combined with prairie dogs or patch burning every several years maximized habitat for mountain plover, a bird which requires low-statured vegetation and patches of bare ground—conditions not generally considered desirable for rangeland health or large grazing animals.

Rangelands October 2011
Ecosystem services are provided at different rates depending on how land is managed, but are a classic case of market failure because users to not directly pay for them, according to Josh Goldstein of the CSU Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources. Optimal outputs of goods and services are more likely when the beneficiaries—usually the public at large—pay for them. Goldstein said there is an “umbrella” of emerging opportunities to market ecosystem services, giving the example of ranches in the Florida Everglades receiving payments from state agencies for water retention and phosphorus load reduction [4,5].

The Trigg Ranch in New Mexico received payments for rangeland soil carbon sequestration before the Chicago Climate Exchange market collapsed, as detailed in a case study [6] in the October 2011 special issue of Rangelands magazine on Rangeland Ecosystem Goods and Services, published by the Society for Range Management. The special issue also features the work of Goldstein and colleagues at CSU [4,5].

The excellent research and the computer simulation model presented at the workshop, for the sake of scientific rigor, do not yet incorporate Bader’s adaptive management with multiple-paddock grazing and flexible stocking. On the land, the ecological challenge is to address nature’s complexity with planned grazing and adaptive management; the economic challenge is to develop markets to pay land managers for those services directly.


Literature Cited

1. Kachergis, E., M.E. Rocca and M.E. Fernandez-Gimenez. 2011. Indicators of ecosystem function identify alternate states in the sagebrush steppe. Ecological Applications 21: 2781-2792.
2. Knapp, C.N., M.E. Fernandez-Gimenez, E. Kachergis, and A. Rudeen. 2011.
Evaluation and integration of local knowledge and ecological data-driven state-and-transition models. Rangeland Ecology & Management 64: 158-170.

3. Derner, J.D., W.K. Lauenroth, P. Stapp and D.J. Augustine. 2009. Livestock as ecosystem engineers for grassland bird habitat in the western Great Plains of North America. Rangeland Ecology & Management 62:111-118.
4. Goldstein, J.H., C.K. Presnall, L. Lopez-Hoffman, G.P. Nabhan, R.L. Knight, G.B. Ruyle, and T.P. Toombs.  2011.  Beef and beyond: paying for ecosystem services on western US rangelands. Rangelands 33(5):4-12.
5. T. Toombs, J.H. Goldstein, C. Hanson, N. Robinson-Maness, and T. Frankhauser.  2011.  Rangeland ecosystem services, risk management, and the ranch bottom line.  Rangelands 33(5):13-19.
6. Gosnell, H., N. Robinson-maness, and S. Charnley.  2011.  Profiting from the sale of carbon offsets: a case study of the Trigg Ranch.  Rangelands 33(5):25-29.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Connecting with fellow New Agrarians at the Quivira Coalition conference

The progressive ranching movement is part of a larger movement of new agrarianism, a forward-looking, well-connected, well-educated, migration back to the land. It is moving at the speed of the internet.  It is about healthy land, sustainable agriculture, and local food, not in the linear sense of producing products but in the more holistic sense of a way of life.  As such it stands in sharp relief against the backdrop of industrial agribusiness.  The movement's philosophical roots are diverse, but the concept of the new agrarianism has its modern roots in the writings of farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry, and among the movement's adherents in the western ranching community, in the writings of conservationist Courtney White.

In the Southwest, this movement has a home: the Quivira Coalition, a collaboration between ranchers, conservationists, agency personnel, and scientists, led by White, the Coalition's executive director.  Every year this diverse assemblage convenes in Albuquerque at the Quivira Coalition's annual conference, organized by White and la mayordoma Catherine Baca, culminating in the Radical Center Awards (in four categories for each of the aforementioned  groups forming the Coalition), and the prestigious Clarence Burch Award which recognizes the greatest collaborative successes in the West with a $20,000 honorarium to further their efforts.

I spent this week at the conference, as I do every year, manning my trade show table and being inspired by success stories of ranching and collaboration and building resilience.  This year I had opportunities to speak with kindred spirits from almost every state in the West.

Shining Horizons Land Management tradeshow poster.

The conference opened with an all-day workshop by Jim Gerrish of American GrazingLandsServices.  Jim left a successful career in academic research to ranch in Idaho with his wife Dawn, and is the author of Management-intensive Grazing, Kick the Hay Habit, and many articles in the Stockman GrassFarmer.  Most of his material was familiar to me, and essentially the same as what I’ve been writing about in recent years.  Sometimes it seems lonely when you are doing things in a new and different way, so I appreciated the validation of my ideas.  That is true for many of the progressive ranchers in the conference, as all of them are doing things differently from most of their neighbors.

Severine von Tscharner Fleming, producer of The Greenhorns film, gave an introduction to the young farmers movement and especially its culture, which is diverse, inclusive, mostly young, mostly well educated yet mostly poor, and a little hedonistic – at least with food. Severine and the Quivira Coalition's Avery Anderson are co-chairs of the National Young Farmers' Coalition advisory board

The bulk of the conference was the inspiring first-person narratives of new agrarian farmers and ranchers, including the consummate New Mexican farmer, biologist, and educator Miguel Santistevan; Bryce Andrews of the Clark Fork Coalition’s Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch; California farmer and performance artist Nikiko Masumoto of Masumoto family Farm, who recieved a standing ovation for performing a poem about farming and the new agrarian movement; New York City rooftop farmer Annie Novak; Sarahlee Lawrence of Rainshadow Organics in central Oregon, and author of River House; Lilian Hill of Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture; Tyfanny Herrera and Rochelle Vandever of the Navajo Nation’s Ojo Encino Ranchers Committee and Hasbídító youth organization (past Clarence Burch Award winners); and my friends Jeff Gossage of the Medano-Zapata Ranch in Colorado, and Ben Forsyth of Three Rivers Station in Western Australia.

New agrarian collaboration: Amy Wright (Quivira Coalition / Blue Range Ranch) and Matt Barnes (Shining Horizons Land Management) wrestle a calf roped by Jeff Gossage (Medano-Zapata Ranch) at a Blue Range Ranch branding. Photo by Elaine Patarini
Ben Forsyth showing Ben Norton his floodwater harvesting earthworks on Three Rivers Station, Western Australia.

Rangelands, April 2011
Tuesday evening I attended the Southwest Grassfed Livetock Alliance's annual meeting and dinner -- and not just for the delicious foood.  SWGLA membership has tripled thanks to the efforts of exective director Laurie Bower and president Nancy Ranney of the Ranney Ranch.  I was honored to hand out reprints of the Rangelands article on the grassfed livestock symposium that I co-organized with colleagues in the Society for Range Management for the SRM’s annual meeting in Denver, which featured Bower and some SWGLA producers.  I am proud of that for two reasons: we brought the vitality and inspiration of these cutting-edge ranchers into the SRM, and my summary article about the resurgence of grassfed livestock production in the American West is the first that I know of in the peer-reviewed literature (an earlier version was posted on Shining Horizons, December 2010).

Julie Sullivan mentoring
Zeke at San Juan Ranch.
Among those producers are George Whitten and Julie Sullivan of Blue Range Ranch, previous winners of the Burch Award, longtime mentors in the Coalition's New Agrarian apprenticeship program, and less officially my own mentors. They spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about mentoring aspiring agrarians.  After their talk, many of us participated in the New Agrarian Career Connection, where beginning farmers and ranchers met with potential employers in a speed-dating format. 

Tuesday night, two of the country's leading conservationists led a discussion with a large crowd about climate change, mitigation and adaptation, focusing on the Southwest.  Bill McKibben's efforts have included the formation of the globe-spanning, spearheading the movement to reduce the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from a current 393 ppm back to 350 ppm, which scientists consider the maximum concentration for life on Earth to have the potential to remain essentially as we've known it.  (Prior to the industrial revolution the concentration was less than 300 ppm.)  Bill DeBuys focused on mitigation and adaptation in the Southwest, which is ground zero for climate change in North America, with the future climate now expected to resemble the severe drought of the 1950s which was fatal to so many ranchers, and the mega-droughts that led to the collapse of the Ancestral Puebloan civilizations centered around Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.  (Reconstructed climate history data show that the period between the droughts of the 1950s and 1990s was actually abnormally wet.)  DeBuys, one of the region's great authors, signed my copy of his newest book, A Great Aridness.  He also recieved the Radical Center Award for Research at the conference.

Guy Glosson at a stockmanship workshop
at Blue Valley Ranch.
I was also pleased to see my friend Guy Glosson recieve the Radical Center Award for Ranching.  Guy is the long-time manager of Mesquite Grove Ranch in Texas.  The award was also for his work teaching stockmanship skills to many of the new agrarian ranchers over the years.  He learned the art of low-stress livestock handling from stockmanship guru Bud Williams and has presented this method at numerous workshops in the U.S. and Africa, including one that I organized with the Middle Park Conservation District at Blue Valley Ranch near Kremmling, Colorado.

Three Rivers Alliance
Kik Gadzia at the Republican River.
The culmination of the conference was the Clarence Burch Award, which was taken home (and to the bank) by the Three Rivers Alliance in the Republican River Watershed in the plains of eastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska, and western Kansas. The watershed has seen excessive groundwater pumping over many years, and now many farmers in Colorado are having to relingquish water rights which means that a lot of farmland is becoming perennial pastureland. Some of the farmers and ranchers in the watershed are learning about Holistic Management through the Savory Institute and Kirk Gadzia of Resource Management Services.  Kirk, one of the original members of the Quivira Coalition, is a kindred spirit, friend, and mentor as well; I wrote my first holisticgoal during his Holistic management In Practice course five years ago, and I was honored to give a talk at one of his workshops in the Republican River Watershed this past summer.

Matt Barnes at the Republican River.
Photo by Jenny Stricker

The Quivira Coalition is the leader of the sustainable ranching movement, the meeting-place of the radical center, promoting resilience in the American West and beyond.  I am proud to be part of it, and am looking forward to next year's conference on solutions for feeding the world in the context of population growth and reversing the world's most pressing problems: declining global carrying capacity due to land degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Setting new posts in old ground


Always wondered how those old-timers set so many fenceposts.
Now I’m replacing an old hard wood post that’s done its time
with a new one, milled round and freshly treated.
It takes a long time to un-root the old stump
below where the cedar post finally rotted off,
Stubborn stobs of one-time branches anchoring it to the ground.
With a great heave and expelled breath that old-timer finally lets go.

When I set my new post it fits right in the old hole.
But after tamping all the dirt back in...
I wonder that it never fills the hole completely.


It is good to have an intern, young and earnest
even if a little out of place in sneakers and sideways cap.
I wonder what will happen with those low-belted pants
and grimace every time he leans over to dig.
I thought I was young, but he must think I’m old.
I allow that he’s got try, and I think he’s getting the hang of it now.
I turn him loose to replace a rotted-off old corner post.

The post is set, sturdy enough for now at least.
But the deadman is upside down and backwards...
Like an old-timer rolling over in his grave.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Headwaters Conference

Envisioning becoming native in a time of global change

The Headwaters Project

I value work that sustains life, promotes diversity and harmony, and provides a rich variety of experiences.   That is why I work on the land, and also why I love the stories that come from the land, and the exchange of ideas about how best to live on the land.  So, last weekend I took a day off from the ranch and met Jenny in Gunnison, where we attended the Headwaters Conference, part of the Headwaters Project at Western State College.

Parker Pastures

A cyclical worldview is the basis for sustainability, said keynote speaker Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabeg [Ojibwe]), founder and executive director of Honor The Earth and the White Earth Land Recovery Project, in her opening address on indigenous sustainability.  She said that in her native language, as in many others, most nouns, including the one for stone, are animate: they have life, or spirit.  Drawing spirit lines between tribal sovereignty, food sovereignty, and food sustainability, and between cultural and biological diversity, she reminded us that we are all related.  “It is possible to have an entire worldview that has nothing to do with empire,” she said.

Bill Parker at Parker Pastures
grass-based raw-milk dairy
But the thing she said which I found most memorable was a quote from her father when she was young: “Winona, I don’t want to hear your philosophy if you can’t grow corn.” Growing corn is part of what it means to be Anishinaabeg, the northernmost corn growers in the world.  More generally, it means that you have to know how to live before you tell anyone else how to live.  If I want to work in the intellectual realm, I still have to live in the real world; even if I pursue an academic career, I will need to balance the ivory tower with actually getting my hands dirty.  Appropriately, the academic aspect of the conference was balanced out with local field tours.

Pastured poultry, Parker Pastures
On the Food Stories tour, my favorite stop was Parker Pastures, where Bill Parker is producing grass-fed beef, grass-fed raw milk, and pasture-raised eggs, all using holistic planned grazing.  Such grass-fed livestock production is the most appropriate food production model inmost of the American West, as I’ve written about previously on this blog.  The place we visited was irrigated land owned by the city of Gunnison, primarily for watershed management and open space.  Bill Parker is producing natural food while improving the water and mineral cycles, including increasing soil organic matter—soil carbon sequestration, in other words.

Jenny Stricker at Mountain Roots Food Project
(note the Shining Horizons logo wear)
We also visited three thriving gardens.  The first was run by the Mountain Roots Food Project, which is largely focused on involving young kids in growing food through its Roots & Shoots: Summer Camps in the Garden program.  The second was perhaps the best backyard garden I’ve ever seen, at the home of Jan Scheefer.  She grows most of her own food and trades for most of the rest.  After eating a lunch prepared from ingredients from the Southern Rocky Mountain bioregion here in Colorado, we visited the Western State College community garden.

The Finding Your Story workshop with Enrique Salmón (Rarámuri [Tarahumara]), assistant professor of American Indian Studies at California State University – East Bay, engaged participants in the process of finding their own stories and communicating them in a compelling way.  Enrique began by asking what if Martin Luther King had said not “I have a dream” but “I have a strategic plan.”  He encouraged participants not to launch right in to data and figures and calls-to-action, but to lead with their values, share their vision, and then after engaging their audience, conclude with a call to action. 

Compost bin, Mountain Roots Food Project
Beginning with the end in mind is one of the seven habits of highly effective people, and is also at the core of Holistic Management.  After defining the whole under management, we develop a holisticgoal beginning with quality of life (values and vision), followed by forms of production (action) necessary to achieve that quality of life.  We then describe the future resource base, including land, people, and community, required to sustain the forms of production and ultimately the quality of life, thus completing the cycle back to the vision.

Saturday night we saw two films about ranching, sustainability, and holistic management.  Melinda Levin and Irene Klaver’s The New Frontier: Sustainable Ranching in the American West told the stories of Jim Howell here in Colorado, Sid Goodloe in New Mexico, and Betsy Ross in Texas.  It was really gratifying to see the Howell Ranch on the big screen.  It was all shot before I started managing this place for Jim, so I am not in the film, but that is just as well because Jim is the one who has been restoring this land for about a dozen years before I came along.  It was also great to see Sid and Betsy, who I know from the Quivira Coalition and the Holistic Management community, getting their fifteen minutes of fame.  The second film, Jack Lucido’s Sustainability in Ranching, is a work-in-progress documenting several ranchers in the Gunnison Basin (including Bill Parker), who are also using holistic planned grazing to both produce meat and restore their land.  The films, and the visit to Parker Pastures, told a story that, while familiar to me, remains somewhat paradigm-challenging for many of my friends in the environmental movement.  But I think a few of them may have had a realization, even a paradigm shift, thanks to the powerful stories shared at the Headwaters Conference.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Struck by thunder

Premonition and synchronicity

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been having what might have been a premonition.    Out on the range by myself I have a lot of time to think, and a lot of fence to fix, so much that I can’t always get it done before the afternoon storms of this summer monsoon.  One thought repeatedly produced by the constant banter of my subconscious has been: what would it be like to be struck by lightning?  If not fatal, would it be enlightening?  Spiritual awakening has been described as like being struck by lightning, but it has also been said to be an interminable process.  Enlightenment hasn’t come to me yet, through prayers for it or through meditation, so I had wondered if getting struck by lightning might actually bring a sort of enlightenment with it.  Apparently not.

Lately I’ve been reading about synchronicity in James Redfield’s The Celestine Vision.  Premonitions and strange coincidences, like thinking of an old friend and then running into them for the first time in years, are at the basis of this idea of synchronicity, important in Redfield’s philosophy and literature as well as that of the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung.  Until now I’ve been thinking that I’ve never experienced synchronicity, except for possibly a few occasions, nothing that could not be otherwise explained.  Of course, it can always be explained—like being in the right place at the wrong time.

I have also been thinking about my former supervisor and friend Mark Volt at the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  A man of the mountains, full of odd and funny sayings, mostly of uncertain origin, often of vague meaning, and usually inspiring rolled eyes.  Like “struck by thunder.” 

The first of the rain was falling.  I was standing next to a temporary electric fence of polywire, which is a kind of string with fine wire woven through it, an essential tool to manage the distribution of livestock grazing here in the high country. It wasn’t electrified; I had built it and just hooked it up to a more permanent electric fence of high-tensile wire.  I don’t think I was touching it, but I couldn’t have been more than a few inches from it.

The boom was not much short of deafening.  For a moment, everything was black—except for a line of white, maybe slightly greenish-yellow, light where the polywire had been.  Is that what the deer in the headlights sees?  I was on the ground, half lying, half sitting, fully stunned.  I have been shocked by electric fence before, and this was many orders of magnitude beyond that.  Struck by thunder, indeed. I saw the thin, charred remains of the polywire on the ground next to me.  My legs and feet hurt, but I couldn’t move them for the first ten seconds or so.  Then I could crawl.  After maybe thirty seconds I could stand on shaky legs and intensely tingling feet.  I willed myself to walk.  At this point I figured I was probably going to be alright. I got on the four-wheeler and rode it back down to the road.

 My right thigh still hurt, and for a while so did my right shoulder and upper arm.  Sitting on a log, I pulled of my right boot and sock and checked my tingling foot.  No uglier than usual.  I pulled down my pants and looked at my thigh.  There is a light red mottling there, at the height of the polywire, and extending in a line down to my lower leg.  It does not look or feel like a burn; the pain is more like muscle soreness.

Back on the four-wheeler, I raced the rain back down the mile or two to my truck.  I lost.  It came down hard, stinging my face and soaking through my light rain jacket.  Shivering and dripping , I climbed into my truck, started the engine and turned on the heat and defroster.  I drove off with the tailgate down, all manner of ranching equipment sliding out the back of the bed on the steep road.  After gathering the tools and fifty-pound salt blocks, and throwing the pry bar and spool of fence wire back in as quickly as possible, I drove into camp. 

I started a fire in my cabin and heated water for mate and hot chocolate (the spicy kind with chile powder).  I peeled off my wet shirt and jeans, pulled on dry ones.   I realized there was a ringing, or a high-pitched electric hum in my left ear. 

I sat by the fire, going over it again in my mind: the boom, the darkness, the white streak: struck by thunder.  As the shock wore off, I considered that I may not be enlightened, but my earlier wondering might have been a premonition.  If I weren’t such a skeptic, I would say this is a striking example of synchronicity.  The thought gives me chills, but of course that could just be because I’m cold.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The LeValley Ranch: rangeland management for diversity, wildlife, and livestock production

Colorado Section of the Society for Range Management tours ranch after bestowing Excellence in Rangeland Conservation Award

Lars Santana (NRCS)
Last Friday, about fifty ranchers, conservationists, and government employees gathered near Hotchkiss, Colorado, for a day-long field tour of the LeValley Ranch, hosted by the Colorado Section of the Society for Range Management and organized by Lars Santana, rangeland management specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montrose, Colorado.  The ranch won the Excellence in Rangeland Conservation Award from the CSSRM last year.  It is owned and operated by Mark and Robbie (Baird) LeValley, and Mark’s brother Hank.  Many of us know Robbie as the local Colorado State University Extension livestock and range specialist, and past president of both the CSSRM and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, but on this rare day at home—but still at work—she mostly ceded the stage to husband and full-time ranch manager Mark.  

Dave Bradford (USFS) describes
local geography and vegetation.
The ranch lies in a few geographically close but separate management units between Hotchkiss and Crawford on Scenic and Fruitland Mesas, a broad brushy plateau between the West Elk Mountains and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. 

The area is important winter habitat for deer and elk, as well as year-round habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse, a candidate subspecies for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. and Colorado species of concern.  The LeValleys’ management is designed to leave plenty of food, water, and cover for the wildlife.  All of their rangeland, both publicly and privately owned, meets the sage-grouse habitat quality guidelines in the Rangewide Conservation Plan. 
Kurt Kubik (BLM) and Mark LeValley discuss public land grazing management.

The land’s overall health and its value as wildlife habitat are accomplished primarily through planned grazing with the LeValley’s cattle in each pasture for generally one to two, and always less than three weeks, with light utilization on their Bureau of Land Management allotment and light to moderate utilization on their privately owned land.  The grazing management on the BLM land is a combination of rotational grazing and rotational rest, where one pasture is rested each year, and the remaining pastures are moved through in a series with the order varying from year to year, explained Mark LeValley and Kurt Kubik of the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office.  On their private land they use rotational grazing, again alternating the pasture in which they begin the rotation each year.  The net effect of all of this management is that the grazed plants have plenty of opportunity for recovery between grazing events.  Of course the wildlife do not follow a grazing plan, so some plants are, inevitably, grazed repeatedly.  On the whole, the land is doing quite well. 

John Murray
The private land looks perhaps slightly better than the public land, though it is difficult to say whether that is due to differences in grazing management, or the other vegetation treatments that have been applied over the years.  The LeValleys have worked with NRCS-Colorado rangeland management specialists John Murray (retired) and Lars Santana not only on prescribed grazing, but also on brush management, setting back some of the densest stands of big sagebrush, Gambel oak, and serviceberry in mosaic patterns to increase plant diversity.  “Before, when you tried to ride through here, the oak brush would rip the shirt off your back,” said Murray as we looked at the dozen or so species of grass and a few dozen species of forbs now growing in the oak savanna.

CDOW officer
We also looked at a wildlife guzzler and seeding.  The guzzler makes a wet patch where the native grass, ‘Ladak’ alfalfa (a dryland variety), and native insects flourish.  The area is fenced off from cattle, and surrounding fence posts have raptor perch deterrents, provided by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, to maximize the area’s value for sage-grouse.  Robbie LeValley said that during the steepest decline in the regional sage-grouse population, there were thousands of ravens in the area, but the raven numbers have now decreased dramatically as well.
Robbie LeValley discusses wildlife management at a grazing exclosure
surrounding a wildlife guzzler and seeding.

The LeValley Ranch is a diversified operation, incorporating hunting enterprises, including a pheasant hunting enterprise at their irrigated headquarters.  Much of the beef produced on the ranch is marketed locally through Colorado Homestead Ranches, which has a processing facility in Delta (Homestead Meats) and retail store in Paonia (Homestead Market), and is partly owned by the LeValley Ranch.  We topped off the afternoon with the LeValleys’ natural-beef hamburgers for lunch at a restaurant in Crawford.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Neighboring at a Spring Cattle Works on the Great Divide

Working with animals makes us more fully human, sustains the continuity of life

Bringing in the herd.  Photo by Jenny Stricker

Duke and George.
Photo by Jenny Stricker
On the western range, neighboring always brings together some of the most fascinating people to do some of the most engaging work.  There is something about hands-on work with animals that makes us more fully human, more fully alive.  And on the stark, uncluttered landscape of the high, dry San Luis Valley, the hard work of branding day on a ranch that raises organic grassfed beef brings clarity to the old paradoxes of living on this land and raising livestock in a way that sustains the continuity of life.

George and Julie from Blue Range Ranch, and Duke, Jeff, Carla, and their crew from the neighboring Médano-Zapata Ranch, are all pioneers in ranching, willing to try new and different things, but holding the spring works out on the range, roping and dragging the calves to the fire, is the old way—the only way to make it older is to burn wood, rather than use propane to heat the branding irons.  Working livestock this way requires people and skill, not infrastructure.  It has been done this way as long as there has been a livestock culture in North America.  The modern parts are the portable panels, the vaccines, and the vehicles we drove to get there.  This mirrors the bigger picture, as raising grassfed beef may seem progressive in the modern United States, but is really thousands of years old, the way it always was.
The modern branding fire. Photo by Jenny Stricker
Designed for a landscape where resources are scarce and unevenly distributed in both time and space, the set-up is temporary: the only infrastructure is the portable panels in a large semi-circle, out on the range, no fancy corrals.  The investment is in mobile things: horses, tack, horse trailers, and four-wheel-drive trucks to pull the horse trailers.  The panels also fit in a horse trailer.

Cowboys roping; Jeff heels a calf.  Photos by Jenny Stricker

These unique individuals are out here on a Saturday, not at home relaxing, but fully engaged in strenuous physical work, in a hot, dry, windy place, basically because they want to.  None of them are trapped in this lifestyle, doing it because they have no other choice; they could all work elsewhere and make more money.    Everyone out here seems to see this as being part of something bigger than them.  All of them are trying to find a right way to love this land—striving to earn a living from it without destroying it, maybe even improving it, and in way that makes sense on multiple levels.  We are actively creating the world that we want to live in.  For everyone here it is a thoughtful, dare I say mindful, thing: not just time to rope, brand, and cowboy up, though that is part of it—both a means to an end and an end in itself.  More than just a step towards harvesting a resource and selling a product, we are doing this because we are promoting the circle of life. 

The hosts provide a gourmet lunch on the flatbed pickup.  Photo by Jenny Stricker

There was one moment when I was holding the back legs of a calf, looking up toward Amy holding its front leg and head, Jenny and Vanessa giving vaccinations, and Grace notching the ears, and I realized that I was not only working with animals but surrounded by four stunningly beautiful, hard-working women.  And in the midst of all this heat and dust, raw muscle and sinew, singed hides and blood, these women are totally, absolutely, gracefully, feminine.  I thought: Is every other man in the world insanely jealous of me right now?  Or have they no idea that this is even potentially part of existence?

Julie later pointed out that these women actually had to transcend social norms of what it means to be a woman.  They had to power through the pink princess to realize the goddess.  As a man I may not fully understand that, but I cannot help but admire an achievement that must be much more difficult than the actual physical work of wrestling a hundred pounds of kicking calf.

The branding crew.  Photo by Elaine Pagel

As we interact with an ancient yet ever-changing landscape, these women thriving in what is traditionally thought of as men’s work, the way that harvesting a resource perpetuates it, and the way that we raise these calves to eventually be slaughtered, and in their death to continue life, all reminds me of the sages’ contention that everything contains its opposite: we embrace suffering to achieve bliss and death to be most fully alive.

Return to the hills.  Photo by Jenny Stricker