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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Low-Input Grassfed Livestock Production for Ecological, Economic, and Social Resilience

Society for Range Management

“When you’re taking a product from the land… all of the energy that we make use of comes from the sun,” rancher Dennis Moroney reminded the audience at the Sustainable Rangelands Through Low-Input Grassfed Production symposium during the 2010 annual meeting of the Society for Range Management (SRM).

The ecological resilience, economic viability, and social sustainability of grazing lands and the livestock industry may be maximized through grassfed livestock production, which relies on biological diversity and ecological complexity with minimal external inputs.  Grassfed livestock production keeps land in permanent vegetation, rather than annual crops harvested, trucked, and fed to animals in confinement. Potential benefits of shifting land use from cropland and feedlots to perennial pasture include reductions in soil erosion, pesticide and fertilizer use; and increases in biological diversity, soil fertility and soil carbon sequestration[1].

Relative to grain-fed beef, in terms of meat and protein production, grassfed beef is more energy-efficient, and was previously shown (1981) to be more cost-efficient[2]. The fossil fuel consumption of grassfed meat production may be only half that of grain-finished meat production [3], and Americans could still exceed their recommended daily allowance of animal protein without grain-finished meats [4]. And, demand for alternative livestock products, such as grassfed, local, organic, and humanely raised, has risen in recent years; for instance, organic meat sales increased from negligible in 1997 to over $600 million in 2008 [5]; and according to a recent national survey of chefs, locally sourced meats and sustainability are the first and third ranked top food trends in 2011 [6].

The Society for Range Management and the American Grassfed Association (AGA) held the symposium on low-input grassfed livestock production at Working Landscapes: Providing for the Future, the 63rd SRM annual meeting, on 11 February 2010 in Denver, Colorado. The producer-oriented session involved five presentations by ranchers producing grassfed meat or genetics primarily on native rangelands of the western U.S., and one presentation by dairy-farming veterinarians, all of which can be considered case studies of the experiences and observations of the authors; as well as one scientific study, an overview of grazing management, and presentations by the American Grassfed Association and the Southwest Grassfed Livestock AllianceVideos of the presentations are available on the SRM website.

The Virtues of Grassfed Products for Consumers
Meg Cattell and Arden Nelson
Windsor Dairy, Windsor, Colorado

“Windsor Dairy is about family friendly farming and incorporating beauty into our lives,” said Meg Cattell. She and husband Arden Nelson produce raw milk and raw milk cheese – Grade A, certified organic, pasture fed, from American Devon and milking Shorthorn cattle. The cheese is produced with no chilling, pumping, or heating, and is sold within 100 miles of Windsor, Colorado.

Appropriately, Windsor Dairy is converting old feedlots to pasture. They use mob grazing, irrigation, and a pasture seed mix to restore degraded land. This involves no tillage but occasional drilling, and some mowing. “If we’re not careful, we’ll reinvent the prairie,” Cattell said.

Cattell and Nelson are both veterinarians, and Windsor Dairy’s livestock management promotes animal welfare: they have found that with planned rotational grazing and freedom of motion, the cattle are relatively free of disease. Windsor Dairy’s organic herd has a clinical mastitis rate below 1%, and a total death/cull rate of only 7%, well below U.S. averages, according to Cattell. Grain feeding, in contrast, increases rumen acidity, leading to acidosis (a common metabolic disorder of grain-fed cattle) [7], and increasing concentrations of pathogens such as acid-resistant Escherichia coli [8].

“We are reinventing real food,” Cattell said. Windsor’s milk is 4.5% fat and 3.8% protein, which is higher than whole milk from confined dairy cattle (3.3% fat and 3.2% protein) [9]. Grassfed is usually leaner than grain-fed meat, and although the total saturated fatty acid content may be similar, the grassfed beef fatty acid profile may be more nutritious [10].

Cattell asserted that the largest health problem in the western world may be omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, which is related to chronic inflammatory and neurological diseases. Cattell said that the desired omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is <3:1, but the average western diet is about 15:1. She said that conventional beef is about 20:1; grassfed beef, 5:1; and wild game, 3:1. Published data vary, but show that grassfed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids, and a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, on a g/g fat basis.[10]  Polyunsaturated, including omega-3, fatty acid concentration in meat decreases with days on grain feed [11].

Grassfed raw meat and milk may have several times as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as grain-fed products [12]. A fatty acid found only in ruminant meat and dairy products, CLA has anti-inflammatory[13] and anti-cancer[14] properties in mice, but has not yet been conclusively shown to be significant to human health [15].

In addition to human nutrition, grassfed production addresses natural resources conservation issues, including soil and water conservation, organic matter (carbon) sequestration, wildlife and plant diversity. For example, Windsor Dairy’s manure is low in phosphorus, unlike the manure of grain-fed cattle. Dung beetles recycle it into the soil. “There is a closed loop of nutrient cycling on the farm,” said Cattell—as nearly a complete whole as a farm can be.

Ranching in Sync with Nature
Dale Lasater
Lasater Grasslands Beef, Matheson, Colorado

Ranching in sync with nature on the prairie—stewardship of the land, forage, livestock, and wildlife—is “akin to heaven,” according to Dale Lasater.

A cell center on the Lasater Ranch.  Courtesy Dale Lasater
The Lasater Ranch, on the plains of eastern Colorado, has focused on two of the central concepts of planned grazing, animal impact and long recovery periods, since learning about Holistic Management from Allan Savory in the early 1980s [16]. The range has greatly improved; now only the cell centers are degraded, with some western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii [Rydb.] A. Löve) coming into them. There are 11-15 paddocks adjacent to each cell center. The highest grass diversity in the paddocks tends to be closest to the cell centers. Cattle are moved by opening gates. Recovery periods are about 80 days during slow growth, which is most of the year.

Remnants of tall and mid-grasses, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia Scribn.), sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii Hack.), and green needlegrass (Nassella viridula [Trin.] Barkworth) are returning to the shortgrass prairie. By grazing a cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.)-infested pasture early in the spring, they allowed perennial grass to return. The ranch has thriving wildlife populations: pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), mule and now white-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus and O. virginianus), wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), many raptors, and at least 80 species of birds in one riparian area. They do not allow hunting of coyotes (Canis latrans), and their cattle are capable of defending themselves against them. They have even reintroduced black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus).

Dale Lasater with his Beefmaster cattle. Courtesy Dale Lasater

Livestock should be tested in the environment they are going to produce in, allowing culling by natural selection [17]. Tom Lasater developed the Beefmaster breed, a three-way cross between Hereford, Shorthorn, and Brahman cattle, during the Great Depression; the herd has been closed since 1937. The Lasaters stopped using insecticides in the 1960s, and their cattle now have few flies or lice, at least partly due to planned grazing.

The Lasater Ranch in February, during the SRM pre-conference tour.  Dan Nosal
Many years ago Tom Lasater changed the calving season from February-March to August, which was a great improvement, but in order to be more in sync with the annual forage cycle, the ranch is now shifting the calving season back to June.

Lasater Grasslands Beef is now sold on the internet and in Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers stores in Colorado.

Multiple-Species Grassfed Production
Richard Parry
Fox Fire Farms, Ignacio, Colorado

The benefits of multiple-species grazing include improved diversity and utilization distribution, resulting in increased production and higher profit per acre, and reduced risk, said Richard Parry, a fourth-generation sheep rancher now also raising cattle, goats, chickens, and pigs at Fox Fire Farms in Ignacio, Colorado. Parry learned the principles of holistic planned grazing from Allan Savory and Stan Parsons in the 1980s [16].

It is possible to increase total forage utilization significantly with sheep and cattle compared to cattle alone, due to a greater diversity of plant species being grazed; thus a higher stocking rate can be sustained under multiple-species grazing [18,19]. Sheep select forbs, including many weeds, and will forage near cow dung. For instance, in Montana, sheep grazing for several years significantly reduced leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula L.) abundance [20]. Goats prefer browse, and so have even less dietary overlap with cattle than do sheep [21]. Pastured poultry eat mostly insects and seeds, but do graze some grass and forbs [22,23].

Multiple-species grazing mitigates risk by diversifying income and allows for multiple marketing opportunities each year. Producers considering different species of livestock should determine their centerpiece enterprise based on their competitive advantage and the species with the highest gross margin. Too many operations use cattle as the centerpiece: many lack a competitive advantage and would yield a higher gross margin from other species. The net income should be at least half of the gross. Stacked or ancillary enterprises should feed off of surplus inputs and labor from the centerpiece.

Multiple-species grazing can be done with leader-follower, flerd, or complementary grazing.

Sheep and cattle  in leader-follower grazing.  Courtesy Richard Parry
In leader-follower grazing, the animals with the highest nutrient requirements graze a paddock ahead of animals with lower requirements, in a single grazing period. For instance, with sheep and cattle, stocker cattle should lead, followed by sheep, then cow-calf pairs, with dry cows last.

Sheep and cattle in a flerd.  Courtesy Richard Parry

A flerd means a flock of sheep bonded to a herd of cattle, usually in pen confinement for 14-30 days. The flerd will then stay together, but the cattle will not necessarily protect the sheep or goats from predators, so guardian animals are still recommended.

In complementary grazing, the flock and herd are kept separate and graze in an alternating rotation from one grazing period to the next. One species conditions the paddock for the next, like in leader-follower grazing, but with a recovery period in between.

Many ruminant parasites have about a three-week life cycle, so parasite loads can be greatly reduced by any form of rotational or planned grazing that involves short graze periods followed by a month or longer non-grazing interval. Multiple-species grazing with sheep or goats plus cattle can further reduce parasite loads, especially in complementary grazing, because sheep and goats are dead-end hosts for cattle parasites, and vice-versa. However, sheep and goats do share many parasites, and should be kept separate from each other, especially in organic operations. Animals identified as carriers should be culled.

Benefits of Low-Input Ranching
Kit Pharo
Pharo Cattle Co., Cheyenne Wells, Colorado

“Agriculture that is not profitable and enjoyable will never be sustainable,” Kit Pharo of Pharo Cattle Co. in eastern Colorado is fond of saying. Profitable ranches make the most efficient use of their forage resources. While the average producer breaks even over the course of the cattle price cycle, the low-input producer can make a profit most years if not every year.

Over the last four decades, input costs have risen five times faster than cattle prices. The beef industry is at a tipping point: what has worked so well for the past 40 years probably will not work for the next 40 years. While most industries accept and implement change within about two years, the livestock industry seems to take about two decades to accept and implement proven concepts. The problem is that the generation currently working the land is often living in their parents’ paradigm. The producers who dare to quit the herd-mentality way of thinking are the ones who are leading the change, rather than being led by it. Following the crowd is seldom the best way to manage a business because it forfeits any possible competitive advantage.

Pharo asserted that to increase their profit potential, ranchers should produce a differentiated product rather than an undifferentiated commodity (e.g., grassfed beef vs. feeder calves). This is not easy: it requires planning, managing, and marketing. A producer needs to believe in their product in order to market it.

Pharo identified three keys to increasing efficiency and profit in the livestock business, which can be summed up as ranching in sync with nature.

Matt Barnes, Kit Paro, Harvey Sprock, and Joel Brown observing
planned (Pharo Cattle Co., left side of fence) and continuous grazing. 
Dan Nosal
The first key is planned rotational grazing, although only a small minority of ranches is actually applying it. Planned rotational grazing can improve range and pasture health, and thus increase livestock production [24]. Pharo said that he has increased cattle production by 50% since 1994 with planned grazing. It can also help reduce or eliminate supplemental feeding: Pharo now only feeds hay when the snow is too deep and crusted for cattle to dig through.

The second key is matching the livestock production cycle to the forage cycle [25]. In most of North America, this means calving in May and June, as elk and deer do. Pharo said that this can reduce feed and labor costs by 70%. Most producers could eliminate all winter feeding except in emergencies. Pharo’s experience, working with many cattle ranchers across the United States, is that calving in May and June, the vast majority of calves will be born without calving problems and in the first 30 days of the calving season. Individual weaning weights will be lower than with winter/spring calving. However, with reduced death losses, a producer can usually wean more total pounds, which are worth more per pound because of the price slide.

A 2250-lb bull with a frame score of 4.5
(52 in tall at the hip), a biological type
bred to sire grassfed cattle.
Courtesy Kit Pharo
The third key is matching livestock size and type to the forage resources. “I want a cow that can support the ranch, instead of being supported by the ranch,” Pharo said. “Require cattle to live within their means.” Livestock need to fit their environment, ecologically and economically, rather than having their environment artificially changed to fit them. By culling every animal that does not fit, inputs will be minimized. For instance, Pharo’s inputs have been essentially reduced to vaccinating calves at weaning, and a 50/50 mixture of salt and mineral; he does not vaccinate cows, or use insecticides or wormers. Fertility is more important than growth, and biological type is more important than breed. Pharo’s optimum cow is a 2 to 4 frame cow that weighs 1,000 to 1,200 pounds; bulls of the same frame score are larger. Smaller cows wean a higher proportion of their body weight, while eating less.

Ranchers, especially grassfed livestock producers, are in the business of converting free solar energy into a high-quality food product. Properly done, the livestock will do nearly all the work. Keeping it simple (low-input) is the way to keep it profitable—and enjoyable.

Organic Grass-Finished Beef on a Forage Chain from Conception to Consumer
George Whitten, Jr. and Julie Sullivan
San Juan Ranch / Blue Range Ranch, Saguache, Colorado

George Whitten was raised in the pastoral sheep camps of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where the flocks and herds were controlled by drought, snow, the flu, and before Whitten’s time, conflicts with American Indians. Whitten has spent his lifetime figuring out how to live in the ecosystem, and meeting Allan Savory helped him discover how to do this [26]. “Allan taught me a whole new way to look at the world,” Whitten says. “The answer is literally beneath our feet.”

Shortly after Julie Sullivan came to San Juan Ranch, she told Whitten that she could not ranch if it meant sending animals to feedlots, and he agreed. They now produce organic grassfed beef, finished on a forage chain and direct-marketed to consumers. “Unfortunately, the term ‘organic’ has been marketed into meaninglessness,” Sullivan said, “but we try to be true to the real meaning of the word. One of the dictionary definitions of ‘organic’ is the fundamental constitution of a thing, and grassfed is the inherent, inborn, constitutional reality of a cow.”

Pastoralism was, and is, a way of life with promise for the future. While grassfed livestock production is relatively low-input, pastoralists have always invested in a high-maintenance relationship with their land and livestock.

Partnership: Julie Sullivan and Zeke,
 San Juan Ranch.  Matt Barnes
Some inputs are high: time, love, and deep thinking directed by values. According to Sullivan, “our ranch is a high maintenance ranch because it demands our time and love, and like our marriage, it reflects the quality and quantity of time spent together. Agriculture lost part of its soul when we started calling it ‘management’ rather than stewardship, husbandry or partnership. Think about the word ‘manage’; You might try to manage your partners, but you’ll rarely be successful,” Sullivan said as she and Whitten exchanged knowing smiles.

They see their ranch as a partnership between the land and the animals, from soil microbes to cattle to dung beetles to people, including not only the agrarian ranchers but also their interns, customers, and colleagues in organizations such as Holistic Management International and the Quivira Coalition. All these partners are equals, and each brings a new opportunity.

Piled hay on the San Juan Ranch requires less energy input
than baled hay, and is rationed out over the winter along
with meadow aftermath as complementary forage to
native range. 
Matt Barnes
Whitten and Sullivan will not do anything for a cow that she can do for herself. They feed hay in the winter, but they do not bale it. They cut and swath it, and then rake it into piles about the size of a small square bale, so that it does not blow away in the fierce spring winds. The piles are rationed out over the winter by strip grazing with electric fence, so that the nutrients are recycled back into the ground right there, rather than transported and concentrated [27].

During the severe drought of 2003, they took their cows to New Mexico for a re-vegetation project at Kirtland Air Force Base. The land had been heavily disturbed by military operations and was returned to the state with an agreement to restore it to something like its natural condition. It had been seeded and mulched, but only sparse rows of fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens [Pursh] Nutt.) and a few annuals had become established in a matrix of bare ground, much of it exposed caliche. Whitten and Sullivan fed their cows hay at a stock density of 300 animal units per acre, moving the herd with electric fence every day. The distance between perennial plants decreased dramatically in the first year [28].

George Whitten uses his herd of organic grassfed cattle to
manage vegetation on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge
with rotational grazing and low-stress livestock handling. 
Matt Barnes
The Baca National Wildlife Refuge, an old Spanish Land Grant in the San Luis Valley, needed to continue agriculture while managing for ground-nesting birds and controlling invasive weeds without chemicals. Local customers see Whitten and Sullivan’s cattle grazing on the refuge before they buy their beef at the farmers’ market, and some of those customers have gone out on the San Juan Ranch BLM allotment to pull black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger L.) by hand. To Whitten and Sullivan, this exemplifies their belief that ranching is a partnership of many players engaged in mutual and reciprocal support.

They sell about 100 finished animals per year. The market is much bigger, so they are working on a cooperative with other ranchers who can meet their criteria. An animal can finish in 18-24 months and grade high select to low choice. They do an ultrasound test to predict a tenderness score, and only those animals that pass will be marketed as grass-finished.

Whitten and Sullivan define success as harmony with others: a life and a ranch that is humane, with secure finances, and that helps create a socially just world. They said that wholesome food is for everyone, not just a niche market for ‘food yuppies’.

The Low-Carbon Foodprint of Local Grassfed Livestock Production in a Semiarid Environment
Dennis Moroney
Sky Island Brand / 47 Ranch, McNeal, Arizona

Dennis and Deb Moroney and their family are “becoming native” on the 47 Ranch in southeastern Arizona, a double challenge of restoration and production. The arid and semiarid Southwestern landscape has been degraded, like much of the American West, with the most severe damage done a century ago by well meaning people who did not understand their environment [29]. Still, the cowboy/vaquero culture is the closest thing to combining Euro-American and indigenous fabrics of living, and where it is merged with an ecological understanding of the land, the emergent lifeway may be considered the most appropriate, and native, to the region.

Commodity livestock income could not make the payment on the ranch, even in a year of ideal climatic conditions. Desperation is the mother of creativity, and the traditional cow-calf paradigm was clearly not sustainable for the 47 Ranch, so Moroney started looking for pre-fossil fuel era models to reduce its carbon footprint. Carbon sequestration means increasing the organic matter in the soil, our most important capital. Moroney said this requires planned grazing as well as finishing animals on range or pasture to reduce the total carbon foodprint relative to finishing on harvested and transported feeds.

The ranch consists of approximately 50% mountains and 50% desert grassland. The ranch uses planned rotational grazing with 24 paddocks. The overall pattern is reverse transhumance, because the cool-season grass in the mountains grows in the winter, while the warm-season grass in the lower country grows in the summer monsoon. In the spring, cattle eat the mesquite (Prosopis spp.) beans on the desert grassland.

“Genetics is our link to a more sustainable past,” said Moroney. He selects animals for calm disposition, as well as the ability to adapt to the changing conditions, biodiversity, and poisonous plants of, and ability to finish on, the ranch’s native rangeland.
Goats on the 47 Ranch.  Matt Barnes

“I haven’t seen 10 calves born in the last 20 years,” Moroney said. Some of them die, which is natural culling as well as nutrient cycling. Predators are partners: they control the rabbits and rodents. To prevent losses to predators, the sheep and goat herds are penned every night during lambing and kidding.

The Moroneys saw endangered species as a form of wealth, even though—and partly because—their presence reduced the ranch’s market value. There is now a conservation easement on 1,000 acres that had several listed species. The ranch sold the development rights to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and used the money to pay off the mortgage. The ranch retains the agricultural rights, and its only debt is an operating loan. Southeastern Arizona is under increasing development pressure, and part of the ranch’s goal is for all but a small portion to be under easement.

Renewable energy.  Matt Barnes
Renewable energy is part of reducing the carbon foodprint. The 47 Ranch already has 20,000 watts of solar panels to run the headquarters and pump water. They are net metering with their local power company, and investigating opportunities for wind power generation.

Sky Island Brand grassfed beef, lamb, and goat meat are directly marketed to consumers in southern Arizona. Currently this includes selling at farmers’ markets; the ranch is also starting a buyers’ club.

The quintessential meal of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, tacos al carbón, made of grassfed beef, sheep, or goat, with wild-harvested chiltepines (Capsicum annuum L. var. glabriusculum [Dunal] Heiser and Pickersgill) on a Sonora wheat tortilla, can be called tacos sin carbon for its low carbon footprint. Moroney and his colleagues in the Sabores Sin Fronteras (Flavors Without Borders) Foodways Alliance are pursuing grant funding for a taco truck which would not only sell this and other low-footprint local foods, but would also use digital screens to educate consumers about ranching and managing land to sequester carbon [30].

Desert-Adapted Cattle: Harvesting the Past for the Future
Ed Fredrickson*, Alfredo Gonzáles*, Gerardo Bezanilla**, and José Ríos**
*USDA Agricultural Research Service - Jornada Experimental Range, Las Cruces, New Mexico
**Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Chihuahua, México

The more you learn, the less you know—and developing beef cattle production systems adaptable to changing socioeconomic and climatic conditions in the arid and semiarid lands of the southwestern United States is challenging everything we were taught. This project was designed to identify the physiological and behavioral traits of desert-adapted beef cattle, in order to eliminate supplemental feeds, use less water, reduce the carbon footprint of beef production, and increase profitability to the producer.

Chihuahuan desert grassland,
Jornada Experimental Range, New Mexico.
Matt Barnes
During 1915, the average weight of a beef cow on the Jornada Experimental Range in southern New Mexico was 735 lbs, with Hereford bulls being introduced during the 1910s, to breed the Spanish criollo cattle or “Chihuahuas” that occupied the desert southwest during the prior 300 years. Cow size gradually increased through the 1960s followed by a much larger increase in body weight with the introduction of continental breeds in the 1970s. Now the typical cow of the southwestern U.S. may be 1200 to1400 lbs and often requires a steady diet of supplemental feeds during all but exceptional years.

Believed to be adapted to the arid and semiarid Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, they were probably brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors around 900 A.D. Arriving in the Americas in 1493 with Columbus’s second voyage, these cattle were introduced to México in 1521, and about 7,000 were trailed to New Mexico by Oñate in 1598 [31].

Using genetic testing they found two pure populations, free of Zebu influence, in northern México: one in the Sierra Tarahumara of Chihuahua, and the other in San Ignacio, a 3-inch precipitation zone in Baja California Sur. The Chihuahuan criollos weigh about 800 lbs at mature size, and the San Ignacio criollos, called Chinampo cattle, are even smaller at 600 lbs.

When compared to British breeds, both criollo and black baldy (Angus x Hereford ) cattle visited water daily, but spent less time per day loafing near water (30 minutes vs. 3 hours). Criollo cattle travelled further from water, traveled faster, and used a larger area with more diverse vegetation types (e.g., tobosa grass and mesquite thickets) than British breeds [32,33]. Fredrickson said they also exhibited higher heat tolerance, and reached puberty earlier; and that others describe greater calving ease, and a shorter postpartum interval.

Currently these animals are too small for today’s commodity market at 800 lbs mature weight, but there is substantial regional interest in desert-adapted, or heritage beef for grass-fed markets. In one test they sold 3,000 lbs of criollo beef in two weeks in a locally-owned grocery. The meat is dark red, possibly because it has more red than white muscle fibers—which should make it more nutritious [34]. Fredrickson said several people have observed that criollo cattle also partition energy differently than other breeds, putting more energy into internal and intramuscular fat and less into backfat. Many consumers indicated that it was more flavorful than store-bought, commodity beef.

Benefits of Grazing Systems to Grassfed Production
Harvey Sprock
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service - Colorado, Greeley, Colorado

Harvey Sprock.  Matt Barnes

Grassfed livestock production is not sustainable without proper management, both in terms of stocking rate and planned grazing involving appropriate recovery periods [35,36].

With long grazing periods or insufficient non-grazing intervals, preferred species and parts of the landscape are grazed more heavily than the pasture as a whole [37,38]. For instance, on sandy sites there is often wind erosion under continuous grazing, even when “properly” stocked.

Natural grassland grazing systems generally involve migratory mammalian herbivores, such as American bison (Bos bison), with grazing in any one place being patchy and of varying intensity, but almost always of short duration and usually not occurring more than about once per year [39].
American bison, southwestern Montana.  Matt Barnes 

Plants compete for water and nutrients; in the case of grass, this is primarily through the root system which comprises approximately three-fourths of their biomass. When a grass plant is grazed severely—below its growing point—it kills off some roots to initiate new tiller growth. It takes leaves to make leaves, and any plant grazed repeatedly without adequate recovery is at a competitive disadvantage with its neighbors.

Thus, the ideal grazing period should be short enough to prevent repeat grazing of preferred species once above-ground re-growth begins. In most temperate steppe environments, this is less than 7 days during the growing season.

Even more important than a short grazing period is a non-grazing period adequate for full recovery of grazed plants, so that they are no longer at a competitive disadvantage with nearby un-grazed plants. The time required for recovery varies widely between sites and with environmental conditions on any one site [24]. Experimental data are lacking, but the experience of rangeland management specialists in Colorado is that recovery on most temperate steppe rangelands should be at least a month to a month and a half during fast growth, and at least three months during slow growth [40], or most of the growing season [24,41]. In more arid environments, during drought, or on severely degraded rangelands, recovery may require a year or more [42]. During the “dormant” season there is no effective recovery [24,38].
Planned rotational grazing (with cattle, left) and continuous grazing (with horses, right),
at similar annual stocking rates.  Shortgrass prairie, Chico Basin Ranch, Colorado.  Matt Barnes 

Grasses do not really go completely dormant, as they have overwintering tillers. Differences in palatability remain through the “dormant” season, so rationing out the stockpiled forage through planned grazing can still spread the use of the more palatable plants over the course of the season. Native grazers survive the winter without supplementation, by timing calving and early lactation to coincide with fast growth, and by putting on enough fat in the summer that they can afford to lose condition in the winter. Cattle can do this too, as long as there is stockpiled forage available.

Harvey Sprock and Matt Barnes
at a shortgrass prairie restoration site
with palatable shrubs such as saltbush.
Dan Nosal
Planned rotational grazing—moving a herd through a series of paddocks based on plant growth, use, and recovery rates—is particularly effective where there is a wide range of palatability between plant species, such as a mixture of cool- and warm-season grass. On the western Great Plains of North America, much of the landscape is dominated by low-statured, mat-forming grasses tolerant of heavy grazing, hence the name “shortgrass prairie" [43]. However, changing the grazing management to prevent repeated use of preferred species will allow those species, such as wheatgrasses and bluestems, to reestablish themselves. For example, when the Lasater Ranch started planned rotational grazing, Sprock said, “The tall grasses virtually exploded.”

Rebuilding Food System Infrastructure in the Southwest
Laurie Bower
Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, Santa Fe, New Mexico

At a Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance (SWGLA) tour on the Jornada
Experimental Range (JER), Michael Bain (SWGLA director), Ed Fredrickson
(USDA-ARS-JER and SWGLA director), and Vanessa Prileson (New Mexico
State University) discuss desert-adapted livestock management.  Matt Barnes

The Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance (SWGLA) provides support, workshops, and other resources for producers in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.

One reason for a rancher to produce grassfed products is to become a price maker rather than a price taker. Even though 97% of southwestern consumers prefer local meat, and 13% would be willing to pay a 20% premium for it, only about 1% of New Mexico beef is consumed locally, according to the New Mexico Beef Initiative Survey (unpublished). Bower said that a typical New Mexico steak may travel about 3,000 miles from pasture to plate via feedlot finishing, processing, and distribution back to New Mexico, according to Farm to Table, a non-profit organization promoting local and sustainable agriculture in New Mexico (unpublished).

The greatest barrier to economic viability of grassfed production for most small family farms and ranches (particularly in the Southwest) is the lack of available, affordable, USDA certified processing facilities. This issue has become, in turn, a priority for SWGLA, which is working to connect stakeholders who have an interest in rebuilding the food system infrastructure in the Southwest so that producers can serve the demand for fresh, healthy locally grown and processed meats [6]. Grassfed meat is not just a niche market, but one with the potential to reach 20-25% of the US Beef market, according to Allen Williams of Tallgrass Beef.

Grassfed meat and dairy products are also an ecological imperative for all the reasons mentioned previously: the use of native, or at least perennial forage, with carbon in the soil, rather than soil carbon loss through annual cropping, transportation, and bare-ground feeding; nutrients spread over pastures as fertilizer, rather than concentrated in feedlots as pollution; and both livestock and human health. Bower summarized her, and the previous ranchers’ presentations: grassfed products promote better human health, animal health, and environmental health, while preserving small-scale, family-run agriculture—thus improving food security and economic resilience for rural communities.

American Grassfed Certification: Paperwork behind the Promise
Carrie Balkcom
American Grassfed Association, Denver, Colorado

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) is a producer-run organization for the promotion and certification of grassfed ruminant production.

“Grassfed” now has a legal definition, requiring a 100% forage based diet, but animals can be temporarily confined and fed antibiotics. “Grass-finished” has no legal definition, but is normally used to indicate that animals are not only grassfed but have been grown to mature size with marbling in the meat (e.g., Whitten and Sullivan).

American Grassfed certification means that a product has met the legal definition, and that the animals have never been confined, and that they are born, raised, and processed in the U.S. Thus certification differentiates a product from foreign imports as well as confined-animal products marketed as “grassfed.” There are now two tiers of certification with different labels. [46] [Editor's note: at the time of the symposium, and in the original version of this article, there were three tiers. This section was updated in 2012.]
American Grassfed Association certification labels.  "Grassfed" animals may only be supplemented with approved non-forage feed during periods of low forage quality or inclement weather, but not to exceed 25% of their daily intake or 1% of their lifetime intake.  “Pasture Finished” animals may be fed non-forage supplements up to 20% of daily intake during the growth stage and 30% of daily intake during the finishing stage.

In addition to American Grassfed certification, AGA offers a simultaneous Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification and label at no extra cost.

Certification is performed through a reputable third-party audit, free to AGA members. The auditors are producers. The site visit usually takes one to four hours, and the entire process usually takes two to three weeks.


There is now mounting evidence that ruminants are healthier when grazing range or pasture rather than being fed harvested grains in confinement [7,8], and that these health benefits may then be passed on to the consumers of grassfed meat and dairy products [8, 10, 11, 15] (Cattell and Nelson). A forage diet and freedom from confinement are therefore the essence of the definition of “grassfed” and central to both American Grassfed and Animal Welfare Approved certifications (Balkcom).

Grassfed livestock products appear to be an expanding segment of the overall U.S. livestock industry. All six producers in the session implied that their grassfed enterprises were profitable, but most indicated that these enterprises require more skill and investment in business planning, marketing, and overall management. A producer has to believe in their product in order to sell it (Pharo), especially in direct marketing enterprises, where customers are effectively the producer’s partners (Whitten and Sullivan). The local grassfed meat industry currently has a bottleneck at the processing stage (Bower).

One of the ranchers emphasized grass-finishing their beef, i.e. raising the animals to mature weight with marbling fat, rather than selling younger animals (Whitten and Sullivan). Two of the producers were certified organic (Cattell and Nelson; Whitten and Sullivan). At least half of the producers sold their grassfed products locally (Cattell and Nelson; Whitten and Sullivan; Moroney), although at least one relied on internet sales (Lasater). One of the ranchers was in the seedstock business, selling forage-tested genetics to grassfed beef producers, rather than directly marketing grassfed meat (Pharo).

All of the speakers emphasized land stewardship. Two producers specifically spoke about using livestock as a tool for restoration projects (Cattell and Nelson; Whitten and Sullivan).

Half of the producers incorporate multiple animal species (Cattell and Nelson; Parry; Moroney). Most of the speakers emphasized the importance of having animals that are adapted to the local environment [25], whether in terms of species (Parry; Moroney), breed (Cattell and Nelson; Lasater; Moroney; Fredrickson et al.) or biological type (Pharo). Beef cattle for grassfed operations, especially on semiarid to arid rangelands, should be relatively small in overall body size (Pharo; Whitten and Sullivan; Fredrickson et al.).

All of the producers said that they used some form of rotational grazing [24], and most referred specifically to holistic planned grazing, or said that they had learned grazing management from Allan Savory [16,36] or others in Holistic Management [39] (Lasater; Parry; Whitten and Sullivan; Moroney). The basic principles of planned rotational grazing were explained by Sprock. Goals of grazing management included optimizing stocking rate, maximizing the proportion of total above-ground plant biomass harvestable as forage, and maximizing biological decomposition of plant matter in the animals’ digestive tracts, thus returning carbon to the soil rather than releasing it to the atmosphere through oxidation of standing dead material [36,39]. The producers were able to maintain livestock performance with planned rotational grazing [44,45].

All of the producers said that their grassfed operations were low-input compared to feedlot operations [2]. Most emphasized that their livestock must produce with few external inputs, including help from their owners (Lasater; Pharo; Whitten and Sullivan; Moroney; Fredrickson et al.). One presentation emphasized that while material inputs may be low, planning and management inputs are high [36] (Whitten and Sullivan).

Most of the producers were members of AGA, SWGLA, or both. One (Whitten and Sullivan) explicitly mentioned partnership with Holistic Management International. Two said that they had partnered with the Quivira Coalition, and that they are participating in the Quivira Coalition’s Conservation And Ranching Leadership and Youth (CARLY) program to train ranching apprentices (Whitten and Sullivan; Moroney). Only one of the presenters was previously a member of the SRM (Moroney).

The rancher-focused session brought producers into the SRM conference, and may have increased the perceived relevance of rangeland management and SRM to the ranchers’ operations. Sponsorship by an outside organization (AGA) made it financially viable to have ranchers as invited speakers. Several progressive and conservation-minded producers became members of the SRM as a result of this partnership and the rancher scholarships provided by the Colorado Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative.


Dan Nosal. Matt Barnes
The Working Landscapes: Providing for the Future conference was the 63rd annual meeting of the international Society for Range Management, 7-11 February 2010, in Denver, Colorado, hosted by the Colorado Section SRM.  The symposium was organized by Dan Nosal  (Multi-County Rangeland Management Specialist and Colorado Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) Coordinator, USDA-NRCS Colorado), Harvey Sprock (Area Rangeland Management Specialist, USDA-NRCS Colorado), Matt Barnes (Director, Colorado Section SRM; Certified Professional in Rangeland Management, Shining Horizons Land Management), and Carrie Balkcom (Executive Director, AGA).  The symposium was sponsored by the AGAProducers who spoke were supported by the AGA,  scholarships from the Colorado GLCI (including a year's membership in SRM), and Roy Roath.  Ben Berlinger, Kimberly Diller, Mark Mosely, Josh Saunders, and Jenny Stricker provided volunteer assistance.  Videos of the session were sponsored by USDA-NRCS Colorado Public Affairs, and are hosted on the SRM website thanks to Ann Tanaka.

A slightly condensed version of this article has been submitted for publication in Rangelands. [Editor's note: it was published in April 2011 as "Low-Input Grassfed Livestock Production in the American West: Case Studies of Ecological, Economic, and Social Resilience." Rangelands 33(2):31-40.]
An earlier version of this article was published as "Low-Input Grassfed Livestock Production and Planned Grazing for a Triple Bottom Line" in the November-December 2010 issue of Holistic Management International's In Practice 134:5-8.


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     Author is Director, Colorado Section SRM; Certified Professional in Rangeland Management; owner and ranch manager,Shining Horizons Land Management, LLC, Cimarron, CO 81220-0122 and Kremmling, CO 80459-0711, USA.

     Meg Cattell, DVM, and Arden Nelson, DVM, are owners, Windsor Dairy LLC, Windsor, CO 80550, USA.
     Dale Lasater is owner, Lasater Grasslands Beef, Matheson, CO 80830, USA.
     Richard Parry is owner, Fox Fire Farms, Ignacio, CO 81137, USA.
     Kit Pharo is owner, Pharo Cattle Company, Cheyenne Wells, CO 80810, USA.
     George Whitten, Jr. and Julie Sullivan are owners, San Juan Ranch and Blue Range Ranch, Saguache, CO 81149, USA.
     Dennis Moroney is owner, Sky Island Brand / 47 Ranch, McNeal, AZ 85617, USA; member, Sabores Sin Fronteras (Flavors Without Borders) Foodways Alliance; agriculture instructor, Cochise College; former President, Arizona Section SRM; and Vice-Chair, Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture.
     Ed Fredrickson and Alfredo Gonzáles are Research Rangeland and Animal Scientists, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Jornada Experimental Range, Las Cruces, NM 88003, USA. Gerardo Bezanilla and José Ríos are rangeland and animal scientists, Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua, Chihuahua, CHIH., México. Fredrickson is also Director, Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance.
     Harvey Sprock is Area Rangeland Management Specialist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service - Colorado, Greeley, CO, USA.
     Laurie Bower is Executive Director, Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance , Santa Fe, NM 87505, USA.
     Carrie Balkcom is Exectutive Director, American Grassfed Association, Denver, CO 80246, USA.


  1. A slightly condensed vesion of this article, "Low-input grassfed livestock production in the American West: Case studies of ecological, economic, and social resilience" has been published in Rangelands 33(2)[April 2011], p. 31-40. Published by the Society for Range Management. Available at: Reprints available from the author or the Colorado GLCI.

  2. I hope your Thanksgiving was festive and fulfilling! You were the main topic of conversation around my table that day. I passed your "Rangelands" booklet around the table. One guy who has worked in feed lots was skeptical even though he's heard me talking about the merits of managed grazing for years, and others were right on board with you and found what you're saying inspirational. Way to go Matt!

    Jeannie R. Magill
    Originator and Co-producer
    Milking the Rhino