Utah's Deseret Ranch increases environmental quality and profit

In 1978 Gregg Simonds went to work for the Deseret Ranch in Utah. Communication and the land were in poor shape, and the ranch was losing money. For Simonds, these were all aspects of the same whole. During his time there he improved morale, communication, the water cycle, biodiversity, and productivity of the land, and turned the annual deficit into a substantial surplus.

At the WSU/Kellogg first statewide meeting at Yakima in January 1997, Simonds spoke about his experiences, from which the following excerpts have been taken.

Hoofprints help land capture more water

Here we have the proverbial hoofprint. Why is that important? If the most limiting factor on us being productive and biodiverse is water, if you're going to add any one thing to the soil as an amendment in the West, it would be water.

This hoofprint is important because it traps and protects. Whether it might be cold or hot, or blowing wind, Mother Nature mitigates it and allows life to happen. That nurturing is what allows productivity. The first place you have to mitigate for life to happen is on the soil surface. That hoofprint--that variation in aspect--does a lot.

Number one, the soil is broken. Number two, what's accumulating on the ground is seeds. It's a good microclimate for moisture--the most limiting thing we have out there. The biggest magic on the range is to turn a seed into a seedling. This hoofprint becomes a nest for that to happen. The effect of animals out there making these holes is important. When you get this plant growing here, changing this bare area, water tends to go in the ground instead of over the ground. It's an incredibly powerful thing that happens.

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. In the West, when can you make the biggest holes? In the spring. We used to have this concept of range-ready. "You can't go out because the range isn't ready, you don't have five leaves."

We do not lack seeds out on the range. We lack seed sites, that nurture water. We used to feed the elk out on the winter range. When the frost was coming out of the ground, I got on my four-wheeler and buzzed the hell out of them. They'd stomp these incredible holes all over. They're so much more athletic and graceful than cattle.

Mulching the soil to help it capture more water

When cattle are stomping around, one of the things is that they make these holes. The other thing is they get dead material on the ground. When that stuff is laying on the ground, where you have more plant cover, it tends to help get the water in the ground.

Who creates the droughts? We do. If you don't have a water plan so you can control your grazing, so you can control your animal impact and your rest periods, you're cutting your own throat. A rule of thumb on the western range is, every inch of water is worth 100 pounds of beef. But the water has got to be in the ground.

I was so thankful on the Deseret that we did not have wet years until the early 1980s, to give us enough time to get ground cover. When you lose your soil, what happens? It doesn't matter if you get a lot more rain--it's not going to be near as effective to productivity. That soil represents the nutrient bank that deals with variation.

When I was so excited at Deseret in 1979 and 1980, I looked down at my moistest spots, which were down in my drainages and dry washes, where nutrients accumulated, especially water, was I getting seedlings going? Then I said, the grazing is working.

Managing grazing and timing

One of the greatest tragedies that we have out on the western range is not understanding time and timing. I don't worry about how long I'm resting, as much as I worry about, am I getting the material on the ground, am I having some hoof action?

One thing I can't afford is enough fences to stop overgrazing. Even with herding I've found that I can't get it short enough economically with herders. With sheep I can. With cattle I haven't been able to do that yet.

The elk are as bad as cows--they tend to bite more of the plant when the plant needs rest. You bring in fishermen, you charge $100 a day, and they move the elk out of there so you can get time and timing.

When you don't have water running through your range, what happens to wildlife? What happens to your ability to water your cattle? What happens to the protein source through your ranch? It goes down. We haven't had animal impact, herds, time and timing, to get this ground cover, to get this water cycle functioning.

Becoming a low-cost producer

The biggest hedge against price risk that we face in agriculture and commodity business is to be a low-cost producer. The other thing neat about it is when you are a low-cost producer, you tend to be very environmentally sensitive because the only way to get costs down while maintaining production is to be very sensitive to the things that come free. Sunshine and water from the sky, which drive production, come free. That becomes a premium to know about that. The other thing that happens is that you get better, and your self-esteem goes up.

When you're selling wildlife, you don't have these price fluctuations. I can tell you what the price of our elk are next year. In low cattle-price years, the wildlife returns about 60 percent of the net. In the high cattle-price years, they'll return about 20 to 30 percent of the net.

Smaller cattle reduce costs

You know who has the second biggest cattle in the United States by region? The Northwest. Because we have cheap BLM and Forest Service grazing fees, and we feed hay. Because we think that overgrazing has something to do with numbers instead of time and timing.

We have an abundance of feed at a very cheap price and so we can afford to have big animals. We should have the second smallest cows in the nation, second to the southeast I would guess.

One of the worst things we do as ranchers, is what do we select for a replacement? We pick large, heavy milking animals. You won't get the production out of these cattle until you give them more hay, better sprinkler systems, better Ivomec.

Growth is not the issue. It's having babies without feeding hay. These are the animals who will be taking care of the land. They're not going to be the ones down in the riparian area. They can be out there and they can use your whole ranch.

The cows will tell you if you're calving during the right season by how many come into the first heat. Then you're fixed to the land. Those animals become a reflection of the land. And then when you have drier or wetter than normal years, you're not on this production and fertility roller-coaster. Those big animals, the wheels come off of them. Then whenever the mineral salesman shows up, "boy, what can I do? Give me another magic bullet. One more shot of something to make this thing work."

We're following cattle through the feedlot, all the way to taste panels in some cases. We're trying to get cattle that don't need to be in the corn hotel for a long time. The same animals that can work on the land can work for the customer, and you can be softer on all natural resources all the way through.

You've got to make the animals fit the land first, so they produce value all the way through, from biodiversity to water quality to a profit back to you. Then you can fit them to the customer.

Motivation and success

In order to learn, there has to be a reason for wanting to know it. If you're going to give somebody a responsibility for something, they have to have both the means and motivation.

When I became the manager of the Utah ranch, the new rule the owner had was, "Don't come to me for any money. Get rid of land, cattle, people, equipment, whatever it takes." It's November, we've sold the calves--how am I going to keep 23 people on my payroll? There's nothing like necessity to get you motivated. Once you get motivated, you'll get the means, you'll get the knowledge. And if you do make that change, and you know it, you measure it, what happens to self-esteem? And if your crew has self-esteem, what happens to your team? What happens to the possibilities, what happens to that leverage point?

The luxury that we had was that there was more people than just me on this ranch. I could go learn something, bring back something. Most guys, it's them and their wife--who's going to feed the 400 head of cows, how are you really going to go learn? They're at the margin for both time and money. It's really hard. How are you going to stop feeding hay--most guys' number one cost--how are you going to stop that? You don't need to do it. How are you going to learn that?

Let's say you are a rancher. Your kid comes home, says he heard Gregg Simonds say that you don't need to feed hay. Who in his right mind would take that level of risk without knowledge? Without the integral steps--how do you make a water plan, how do you control your grazing, how do you treat the cattle so that you don't have to feed hay?

Preserving ranching in the West

I want to work now to preserve ranching in the West, to preserve the open spaces and that culture, and to try and bring the environmental and ranching community together. A lot of the values the environmental community wants, ranchers can produce.

As agriculturalists, we must realize that we're serving people. It's not a self-serving deal. You're trying to help customers, while at the same time take care of the resources that you're producing on. The thing that we don't tend to do very well is that we don't measure what we are doing so that we know where we're at, so that we can identify key issues to work on. If you don't do that, then you spend a bunch of time not doing the right things, and time is so limited.

You've got to identify what the single biggest issue is, and you work on that one. Don't ever have more than three.

Most people really do know what their goals are, what brings value to them. What they don't tend to know is where they are at relative to that goal. It's a hard thing to get at.

What is the cost per pound of beef production? It's very easy to have a high production if your cost per pound is high. The optimum is when your cost goes down.

In the case of the Utah ranch we were up to 90 cents a pound. We got it down to 54 cents a pound. If you don't know what your cost is, how do you know whether you have the right breeding date, the right kind of bulls, or the right pasture, or the right weaning date? If you're not monitoring something, do you really know whether you're doing the right thing?

Building trust and self-esteem

Joe Longhurst says, "Two heads are better than one, even if one is a knucklehead."

The people thing is so big. If you understand how to build trust and self-esteem, a lot of the knowledge will just come. It's intrinsic in us--we know what nature is about, because we are nature. We lose it in our daily working, but we really do know what nature is all about.

What we need to know is how to make the best out of ourselves and each other. That seems to be difficult. When you can, it's amazing how fast it can grow and multiply, toward a certain light that you've all agreed upon.

Patterns of Choice 1998