A conversation with Jack Southworth
by Peter Donovan (1995)
Jack Southworth is a personable and curious fourth-generation cattle rancher who enjoys ranching. A couple of decades younger than the average rancher, he uses words such as mindset and empower with ease. Together with his wife Teresa and three employees, he runs about 650 mother cows on a ranch near Seneca, Oregon and on the Malheur National Forest.
In 1984 Jack and Teresa took an introductory course in Holistic Resource Management from ecologist Allan Savory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During last year's drought, Jack observed that ten years ago "we would have prayed for rain, sought government assistance, and blamed the environmentalists. Holistic Resource Management has made a profound difference in our approach to and success in operating a ranch."
The Southworths are members of Oregon Country Beef, and sell much of their production through this marketing cooperative.
In June 1995 I visited Jack Southworth. The following is a transcript of part of our conversation.
What brought you to holistic management?
When Teresa and I graduated from Oregon State in 1977 this place was free of debt. By 1980 we had made some land purchases and were $1 million in debt, and it was touch-and-go as to whether we would get an operating loan.
In some agricultural magazines this fellow Savory was talking about doubling your stocking rate. Here I was a graduate from the agricultural program at Oregon State, I'd taken general ag and lots of range classes, and I didn't have a clue how to run this ranch. And I grew up on it. I just didn't have a clue how to make a decision. Should we be in yearlings, or cows and calves, should we be running a cow-calf operation, or a cow-calf-yearling operation, or should we be buying outside yearlings? I just could not get a handle on how to decide what to do.
Management wasn't part of the curriculum at Oregon State?
I'm not blaming Oregon State. I think a lot of decision making in agriculture at the time was based on marginal return. They talked about adding increased amounts of fertilizer until your increased yield didn't pay for the increased unit of fertilizer--and that's about as much economic decision making as I had from Oregon State.
I was ill-prepared, and I felt like we were going under. Even though we didn't have the couple thousand dollars to spend to go to this class, we thought it was critical that we did.
In Albuquerque, I didn't hear the part about holistic management. I didn't hear the part about the importance of making a three-part goal. All I heard was fencing and gross marginal analysis. And I could begin to make a decision about cows and calves versus yearlings, and how much a cow had to produce to pay her way here. Even though I missed the most important part, we got the tools to make some decisions. That's in 1984.
It was 1990 before we made a three-part goal. We didn't get it for a long time. Our three-part goal had a bad evolution. I had to give a speech on the three-part goal for our ranch, so I wrote one. Later Teresa and I finally talked about it, and we sat down with our main full-time employee, Ed, and his wife and talked about it. Last year there were six of us sitting around this table talking about quality of life, and that as far as I'm concerned is a huge advance.
It was a critical economic crisis that drove us to go to Albuquerque. I think there was a quality-of-life crisis too, but I didn't know enough to realize it.
My father is an alcoholic. I had the idea that all other families were OK, and ours was the only one with problems. If we could just cover the fact that we had problems, then we could be like other families. It is only in the last ten years that I realized that we all have problems, and there aren't any perfect families. I never realized that you don't have to make excuses for other people.
My dad removed himself enough from the day-to-day decision making--he moved to John Day--that it was never a problem getting going on this, but we couldn't include him. He called it "less-than-Savory" grazing, "holier-than-thou" management. He said, "I spent a lifetime tearing down these homesteaders' fences, and you're putting them all up again."
That kind of attitude is a huge negative pull on you. You don't just jump into this. You feel "I'm going to try this," but the man that I learned most of this ranching from thinks it's a big mistake, or thinks it's frivolous. That gnaws at you. I think we've overcome it, but it slows us down.
Ed, who's been with us the longest, and Teresa and I would almost meet in secret, so that my dad wouldn't realize we were sitting around the dining room table talking about how we should run a ranch.
Forming that three-part goal empowered us to pursue activities that didn't have strictly a financial return. I couldn't see it until we'd formed a three-part goal. When we formed a three-part goal that said we wanted streams lined with willows and stocked with beaver, all of a sudden we're empowered to bring that about. It was strange. I didn't think it would happen, but as soon as we did it, I knew we could make a decision that way. Not only did I believe that, but Teresa believed that, and Ed believed that, and Brad believed that. We could fence off stretches of our meadow to protect the riparian shrubs from wintertime use by livestock.
My dad used to like to come out here and putter around. We had old equipment that he was good at keeping going, and for all our problems, he was real good at saying "You're making the decisions now, if cattle are sold, if cattle are bought, who does what when." But he liked to come out here and see what's going on.
One day he's at the shop, and Ed goes out to start this riparian fence, and he asks, "What's Ed going to do?"
I said, "You don't want to know."
"Is he going to build one of those cross fences?" (We'd been making our pastures smaller.)
"No. Something else."
"What's he going to do?"
"You don't want to know."
"Well, I see he's heading out there in the meadow. You're not going to build a cross fence in the meadow, are you?"
"Well, we're going to build a fence along Silvies River to keep the cattle away from the streambank in the wintertime so that we'd have more willows."
"Oh, jeez, why did you have to tell me that? What a waste of time!"
Still, he wasn't stopping it. But he couldn't comprehend why anyone would want to do that.
How did the willows along the streambank become part of your goal?
This picture was taken in 1938. That's my dad, sitting on the milk cow's calf. In the background you can see willows the whole length of Silvies River. You look out there now, except for a few remnants at the south end, there aren't any willows out there. That's all happened in his lifetime.
In the fifties, the Soil Conservation Service drew up a plan to straighten Silvies River. We never carried it out, but that was the best possible management practice at the time--to straighten a river so that you'd have more land to hay and cultivate. But I could see that the streambanks were unstable, the river was getting wider, and I was learning a little bit about what healthy fish habitat was. And we wanted to look out at a river lined with willows, so that brought about the desire.
We also like feeding cattle in those meadows in the wintertime. We think it is a great way to cycle nutrients, to feed the hay in the same place it was grown. The only way for us to combine the two was to protect the stream. The cattle nibble at young willows and rub on old ones, and the end result is there's no willow reproduction. It's been kind of fun for us to get it started in the right direction.
In 1992, during the summer, Silvies River stopped flowing. There were pools, and long stretches without any visible water. Another old story: my dad can remember in the thirties, when it got so dry, a friend of my grandfather's was up from Corvallis. The friend asked, was Silvies River still flowing?
And my grandfather, talking about that meadow that now has no willows, said "Well, I can't tell. It just kind of trickles from one beaver dam to the next."
That man had the advantage of a lot higher water table than we have now. Even in a dry year, it would be easier for him to get a hay crop, more hay, than we have now. I kind of think that if we get willows back, and some beaver coming in behind them, we'll have a higher water table. Will we be able to hay as close to the river? No. We'll have better regrowth for late summer and fall pasture. The way I think of it, I'd a lot rather gamble--and this is kind of a gamble, because we're spending money building these fences, and we don't know if we're going to get any return--I'd a lot rather gamble on the side of increased biodiversity and higher water tables than the alternative.
How are you going about this?
There are two schools of thought to planting willows. There's the masculine school and there's the feminine school. The feminine school requires some knowledge, some planning, and some nurturing. You go out at the right time of year and get these cuttings. You take them home and you put them in a dark place, with moisture, and you wait until they form a callus and root hairs. You put them along a creek bank, and preferably mat the creek bank, and then in midsummer you come along with an empty yogurt container and give them water.
And then there's the masculine school, as taught by the Soil Conservation Service out of Aberdeen, Idaho. They say get the biggest thing you can, as early as you can, plant it as deep as you can, as often as you can.
I've done both. I'm not sure which is best.
We may not get it as hay, but we will get benefit from these willows. They're adding a diversity for birds and insects, stability to our environment. I've seen overgrazed streams without any willows, that spread the water out and let it evaporate, and I wonder what the advantage is.
What you saw in the photograph--that was a nursing home for willows. It's been going on since the turn of the century. But eventually they died and there's nothing left. There weren't any young willows coming in. The old willows stayed there for a long, long time. In fact I can remember when I was about twelve years old, and my dad bought a new used tractor, and the first thing I did is I took it out in the meadow and pulled out one of the last willows. I felt nothing but good about that, because our ranch was finally looking like the pictures I'd seen in Successful Farming and Farm Journal, where you have these nice clean vistas. Get all this crap out of here, so we can get our hay cut and baled in an efficient manner.
All our management was going to a simpler ecosystem--and when I say was I'm thinking 1950s, '60s, '70s--bigger is better, more is better yet. Now we're just kind of throwing that out. We don't use any implants in our cattle. We've stopped buying bulls. We use bulls out of our highest-producing cows that calve earliest in the season. If our weaning weights drop, if our conception rates drop--that will be soon enough to start buying bulls. But until that happens, we have an animal that fits our management, in this environment, in this place. I think that's a tremendously valuable thing--I don't care what kind of livestock you're talking about. To have cattle that basically calve unassisted in a climate that's as rugged as this, I think is a great thing.
We're a lot more into land management now than we are into getting a big kick out of having a caesarean, or putting a prolapse back into a cow, or roping a cow, milking her out so that a calf can nurse--now that all seems terrible that anyone would ever have to do that. Yet all cowboy stories are about these emergency situations that you remedy. That shouldn't be ranching at all.
If we find a cow that's prolapsed, we still fix the prolapse. We think of each cow as her own small business. As far as we're concerned, she's just gone bankrupt. We shouldn't have to touch her except for routine vaccinations. The ethos has changed.
I think HRM has made that more possible. Without that three-part goal to strive for, I think we'd be going off in a different direction. I think we'd feel that if we weren't weaning 600-pound calves, we weren't doing it right. If we weren't fertilizing our crested wheatgrass seedings, we'd be missing an opportunity.
And now, to satisfy our social needs in a healthy environment, and produce a food product, is a fascinating thing for us to do. If we didn't have that complete, rich picture to strive for, I don't think it would be any fun at all to ranch. I see people that don't, who I think are living unhappy lives. I don't want to judge other people, but they're just missing out.
Was closing the herd related to your goal?
It's hard to say. Part of our goal is to raise cattle that are born, bred, and raised here on the ranch. Constantly bringing in outside genetics that we didn't know anything about, seemed a little bit in opposition to the goal.
We were able to close the herd because we had confidence in ourselves. We grew up in an industry where we always thought the answer was outside. If you brought in an extension agent or expert with the right drug, with the right breed of cattle, all our problems would be solved. Now I believe that all the answers are right here on this ranch. We don't need that, and we don't need to spend the money on that, because it isn't going to solve our problems. I think the HRM goal-setting process, and the planning process, and our collaboration as a team here, just gave us the confidence to say, why not try it? We got a lot of peace of mind, and philosophical confidence to do it from the HRM process.
Have you made changes in your handling of your cattle?
Yeah. We used to think, that whenever we work cattle, it was a job to get done as quickly as possible to get on to more important things. Now, while we still like to be efficient or effective, we want to be as gentle on the cattle as possible. We're always trying to think, if we were a cow, what would we think about this. It's enabled us to stand back, crowd less, let the cows figure it out more, and we're not yelling and screaming as much. We seem to be standing around a little bit more, but the cows are less panicked, and we seem to be getting as much done as we ever did before.
Last winter Ed went to a Bud Williams stockmanship course in Klamath Falls. I've seen Bud's videotapes, and I think that is making a gradual and increasing impact on the way we handle our cattle. We don't have to crowd and push like we used to. With a little more thought, with a little more observance of what the cow wants to do, we can accomplish a lot more with less stress.
What major changes did you make when you came back from Albuquerque in 1984?
We were able to determine how many pounds of calf a cow had to wean in order to pay her way here, and we got rid of any cows that didn't do that. We had enough experience with buying yearlings, and how much money we could make off them, versus the cow and calf, that we could make a determination on how much a cow and calf had to produce in order to compete with the average yearling. If you wanted to pursue the economic thought enough, we should not have any cows on this place at all, this should be a summer place. That would go against our feeling of wanting to be self-reliant, of wanting to manage this outfit as much as possible.
I go to La Grande, and sit in the ring and buy yearlings, there's a lot of factors out of my control. So we like controlling things. Even though it might be less efficient, there's a feeling of comfort that in the long run we'll come out on it. We may not make as much money, but we'll have more fun doing it.
The HRM helped me figure out how much a cow had to produce to make money, it gave me a feeling of the benefits of controlling grazing. And a little more about the health of a grass plant, and how to manage for a healthy grass plant. Those are nice things to have.
But it was six years later, when we started making a three-part goal, that I think we really came up to speed, that we really started getting some benefits that will last us a long time.
Have you considered other forms of livestock?
We've at least thought about it--the amount of fencing we'd have to change for sheep. Teresa was excited about the idea, but Ed enjoyed cattle more than sheep, and all three of us have to agree before we'll change.
An example of that is that I've believed for several years that there are no magic bulls or breeds, and that we ought to close the herd. We run between 650 and 700 cows, and that ought to be a big enough genetic base, we don't have to worry about inbreeding. It took me two years to get their permission to do that. Ed's the one with the cow herd most of the time, and Teresa does the records, and if they're not gung-ho about it, it's not going to work. If they felt more comfortable with AI for another year or two, that's fine. The team decision making is taken real seriously. If someone is uncomfortable with it, let's continue the way things are.
There are a lot of genes in this herd. Since we've closed the herd it'll be fun to see if it evolves into a type or not.
We are examining what we do. We don't like being around other people. We could have people come out here and take them on camera tours of our spring bird population. We could go shoot deer and elk with a camera, horseback, and wine you and dine you here. But gosh we enjoy our seclusion so much that would be a hard thing to give up. We haven't hit anything yet that really sounds good.
Now we're managing for things, for these healthy perennial plants, for this quality of life. Before, we were managing against so many things. We managing against scours, we were managing against low weaning weights, we were managing against low cattle prices and high interest rates. And that's a different mindset. I feel like I have the freedom to bring about these desired results. It used to be I had sword in hand fending off these things that were out to get me all the time. Maybe I'm naive or something, but I don't feel like anybody's out to get me. I'm not really worried about environmentalists, and our ability to graze on public lands. If we're really screwing up out there, we shouldn't be out there--it's that simple. And if I am doing a good job of grazing public lands, I think I'll be there. If you're used to fighting against things, to turn completely around a hundred and eighty degrees and look the opposite direction is a hard thing to do.
Did you increase your stocking rate?
No. We gained an appreciation for the importance of recovery periods between grazings. We stocked more wisely, and we were able to manage for a healthier grass plant, and still maintain the gain we wanted on our cattle, and the production we wanted, and I think we had a healthier grassland.
You've put in some fencing.
Every year we put in about half a mile to a mile of fence. We're simply trying to do a better job of controlling our livestock. It used to be that we'd severely overgraze some areas in order to force the cattle to graze the higher slopes.
When I was growing up here, we didn't have any problem leaving our yearling steers a month at a time in a field during the growing season. Now we're trying to limit the period that a plant is exposed to grazing during the growing season to four to nine days. We want the grazing to occur quickly--and sometimes severely--but we want the plant to have lots of time to regrow without being rebitten.
How many families does your ranch support?
Our ranch supports three families where ten years ago it supported two. We want to be a viable part of our community, and being an operation that employs more rather than fewer people helps fulfill that.
I dislike replacing people with machines. I'd rather run more old equipment with more people. I think by doing that we do a better job of supporting our local economy. If I buy a new piece of equipment, the dollars go shooting out of here and they never come back.
Could you tell me more about what differences setting a goal has made to your management?
Before we had a three-part goal, this ranch was only concerned about profit and production of beef. The kind of landscape that produced that profit, and the well-being of the people, was a byproduct of producing that profit.
Anything that would increase a weaning weight, raise the tons of hay per acre, or grow more grass was good. Nothing else mattered.
Now we believe that not only do we have to plan for profit and production, but we have to plan for the kind of landscape we want in the future, and for the quality of life we want in the future. If we don't plan for those, and think about those, we're simply not going to obtain them. They'll slip away from us almost without our realizing.
We used to think about just one thing--staying in business for another year. Now we're as concerned with our landscape and our quality of life.
Profit is still very important. I think we're more rigorously managing for profit now than we ever did before, because we know that it is up to us to produce that profit, regardless of prices, regardless of rainfall.
I can monitor our financial statement, and I can look at our landscape and have a feeling for the health of the grasses, the creeks, and say whether we're going toward or away from our goal.
Our quality of life is the hardest thing to evaluate. Sometimes we get our noses so close to the grindstone that we forget to lift our heads and look around us. Anyone involved in agriculture forgets to do that.
What are some of the things in the quality-of-life part of your goal?
We want a feeling of satisfaction and self-worth from living and working on the ranch. We want to be able to participate in the community beyond the ranch. We want to think of this ranch as an opportunity to achieve our life goals, and not an end in itself.
How do graze your Forest permits?
Now, I think it is important to get off the deeded land early, while there's still growing condition, so that all of these grass plants can rest and restore themselves. So that means we're putting more cattle on the permits, and we staying out there a shorter period of time, but we're still giving all these plants sixty to a hundred and twenty days of rest.
Have you tried to work with the Forest Service in the decision making?
No. It seems to me that the people I work with on the Forest Service are so overwhelmed by all that they have to do right now, that the idea of talking about a three-part goal . . . I think there's a level of frustration in federal land managers that I can understand.
What I tell Forest Service people is, whatever you want is what we'll achieve. Just don't tell me what I can't do. Don't talk to me about 50 percent utilization in riparian areas, tell me about how you would like that riparian area to look like. I don't say it in that harsh a tone. But that's my thought process. That's helped. I want to be perceived as an ally by them. I want them to think of me as their best permittee. When they think of me, I want them to have a good feeling in their stomach, and not be secreting lots of adrenalin. I think they have a real hard job right now.
* * *
This is whitetop. Do we celebrate the fact that we have this increase in biodiversity, or because of the fact that this is a noxious weed, do we come here and spray it and eliminate it?
Yeah, I have a little whitetop, but you see lots of grass too. Cattle will eat whitetop, at certain times.
I have a hunch that whitetop has been here for a long time. I didn't know it was a problem until someone told me, "You have whitetop, and it's a noxious weed." Then I get all worried and concerned, thinking I'm going to lose the whole ranch to it. So I'll come out here with a backpack sprayer and knock off the whitetop. I say my decision-making has changed, but in reality I'm reacting to peer pressure, and I'm applying a band-aid rather than a solution, and that bothers me. Deep down, I don't think there are any horrible weeds. But I live in a place that has long cold winters, and a clay soil, and weed seeds don't do real well. So I'm fortunate that this is about the extent of my problem.
If I'm managing for grasses, and giving them lots of rest, and some animal impact, and cycling the manure and urine on them, I shouldn't have to worry about whitetop. But I'm still reacting to peer pressure and fear. This little plant here still bothers me, and I don't know what to make of it. It's just interesting to me that we can be scared of a plant.
We feed up here quite a bit. When I grew up, this was just a stand of sagebrush, with scattered junegrass underneath of it. Now, it's making a successional change to more of a grassland, just from the animal impact, and the addition of more nutrients. You see a lot of rabbitbrush in here now, but I think we'll just keep going through succession, past it. I think we'll see more and more of the giant wild rye that you see some patches of.
This used to be a place where six or eight saddle horses spent the summer, and no one though anything of it. There were grass plants that were constantly being rebitten, and that was something that never entered our minds as being bad.
It was several years out of college before I learned how much leaf a grass plant had to have before it was photosynthesizing. I learned that you could graze it pretty closely, and the growing point would be beneath, and with adequate rest it would recover. But if you grazed it too soon, what you're eating is root energy. What I want to eat is photosynthesis. How much leaf do you have to have before you're photosynthesizing, and how much should you leave behind? Well I think those would be pretty basic questions that anyone taking some range classes should know, and I didn't. I think now they are doing a good job of teaching that. But you read those older range management books, you don't get much about how to manage for a healthy grass plant, that I can tell. The newer ones are better.
This is another pasture we calve in. This is something we used to save for spring grazing. Now we're out here all of March. This pasture won't receive any grazing until next spring when we're calving in it. That used to look to me like a huge waste.
This isn't quite ready for grazing yet, but it's a nice stand of grass to my eye. To think that I won't be consuming it with an animal that's gaining weight, to just let this all go to waste so to speak, and let it go into dormancy and overwinter. But when I think of what we're going to save in hay next spring, because they'll be a lot of this old dormant feed out here; when I think of what we're going to save in lost calves; and how much healthier this range is now than what it used to be--I think that's a wonderful thing.
Allan Savory talks about managing for the recovery of plants that are there, and not to plough this. But if all your plants are battered remnants, that learned a long time ago that if they stuck up a leaf it was going to be grazed, there's not too much you can do with it. The nice thing about this crested wheatgrass is that you can graze it and it will regrow. Our Idaho fescue here, if it's grazed once, it's basically done. We like crested wheatgrass, and we don't have any objections to ploughing. If there's something better to do, we go for it.
It used to be by the end of the fall, by the end of the winter, we'd want this thing grazed down to an inch stubble anyway--probably less than that. Because otherwise, we're wasting the feed. But now I think there's a tremendous amount of value in this litter between the plants.
Lee Edelman from Oregon State says that this much litter, that you see there, will make a 60-degree difference in soil temperature in August, in the middle of the day. Without any litter, soils will get up to 110, 120 degrees. With any litter at all, they're a lot cooler. We're going to have more microbial activity going on there. If that's true, we're going to have better cycling of nutrients. So we've got this whole show functioning in a better manner. If we have this litter here, we're going to have less evaporation; we're going to have moisture staying in the soil that's either available for plant growth, or ending up in a creek or water hole down below.
I think that's a really interesting thing to manage for. It doesn't have to go into a cow to have value. One thing I say now is that there is no such thing as wasted feed. There are just more or less expensive forms of litter. I like the fact that we look down here, and those are a lot of tiny young grass plants we see.
Now this is a little bit artificial. This is waste that grew in a meadow down near ranch headquarters. This much litter would not be here if we had not been out here feeding during calving. But it gives you an idea of what we're striving for.
I used to think that they had to clean up every scrap of hay. I don't mind waste as much as I used to. So we'll feed in certain places on purpose, if we see bare ground, if we see too dense a stand of shrubs.
I think it's a good thing to manage for lots of photosynthetic activity. If we didn't have the grazing and the feeding and the cattle being out here, I just think there'd be a lot less photosynthesis going on here today. A mycorrhizal crust might be great for absorbing moisture, but there isn't much going on in that type of community, is there?
What's a mycorrhizal crust?
It is a fungus that'll grow on the surface. In the desert areas, some environmentalists are saying that grazing ruins the mycorrhizal crust. My thought is, jeez, I think we can do better than a mycorrhizal crust.
Can you see the end-wheel path of the drill? If this seeding isn't getting denser and thicker, then we're doing something wrong. I can see the wheel row, but I can't see the drill rows. That's a good sign to me--that this thing is reproducing, and that we're getting a denser stand of grass.
We can manage crested wheat to be a real unpalatable plant. But if we use it intensively at all, it's some pretty neat stuff.
This whole field you see here, it got real wet before they could drill it. So they couldn't get out here. By the time it dried up, it got real hot, so the seeding didn't do very well. I managed to overgraze it for a long time, use it real early and real hard, then use it again in midsummer without much rest. So sagebrush really took over.
Right here where it's nothing but little sage plants, I ran a brushbeater over it. It used to look like that out there. If I was managing just for grass production, I should have sprayed this or ploughed it up and started over. But by brushbeating, I get a lot of litter on the ground right now. I really don't care if a sagebrush plant comes back or not, because there are a lot of sagebrush plants coming up in here, and when they get to be a foot, fifteen inches tall again, we'll brushbeat again. After this crop of sagebrush, we should be doing a good enough job of managing for grasses, that we're not going to have a lot of young sagebrush plants come in. If we brushbeat this again in another five or six years, it will be really not bad. There won't be any young ones coming up. There will be more litter, there will be healthier plants competing with the sagebrush.
My point being, I grew up managing against sagebrush. If I wanted to eradicate sagebrush, I could have devoted my life to it and never achieved it. But if I want to manage for a healthy stand of grass, then the sagebrush becomes a different problem. Maybe its organic matter is an asset, if I can just find a way to get it on the ground.
Fifteen years ago, I would have been really upset that I had all these young sagebrush plants coming in. Now it's no big deal, because I see a really healthy stand of grass here. The combination of brushbeating every half decade and feeding out here every year will make a difference. It's a neat thing for a newborn calf to be behind.
It used to be that we'd blade these roads, or hire someone to blade them so you could be trucking along in third gear. Now it's a lot more important for me to enjoy second gear, with grass plants moving into the road.
Do you burn much?
Fire can get away from you. I understand that it has a role in the evolution here. But I think people have a mindset that may not be right. They say all this forest and rangeland here evolved with fire. That may be, but just because it evolved with fire doesn't mean it requires fire. I think we can find a way to manage, with grazing and with proper logging practices, that maybe we don't need as much fire as we used to. I don't know that for sure, we think that just because it evolved it has to be here.
I thought that was an apt comment Allan Savory made: the Forest Service won't let you use more than 50 percent of the plant, but it's OK to burn and take a hundred.
How do you manage your timberlands?
In the last hundred years, whenever our family got in a financial bind, we'd go cut our best trees. If we were managing our cow herd that way, that would mean that we'd always sell our best cows, and we'd keep our cancer eyes, our bad udders, our lame ones, and our low producers. And that's exactly what we've kept in our forest for the last hundred years.
Now, thanks to the spotted owl and these environmental restrictions, our worst pine nets us money after we get it out of the woods. We're finally able to go into a stand of trees, and get out the cancer eyes and the poor doers, the old, the feeble, and the sickly, and leave the best trees behind, and it's really exciting. We're opening up the stand, we're going to be growing more grass, and we have healthy trees behind us. We've got the wheel started back in the right direction now. It's a real pleasure.
My grandfather sold yellowbelly pine for $1.50 a thousand. We sold pretty good regrowth for $150 a thousand. Now the worst tree on the ranch is worth $450 delivered to the mill. What's neat about that, is that Brad, a fellow that was working for the mill, is now working full time for us.
What's the most fun part of ranching to you?
It's a combination of really enjoying the people we work with, and seeing an improvement in the land, and the feeling that we're adding stability and diversity to the land, rather than extracting from the land.
What do your neighbors think about what you are doing?
I don't know. There's one group of people I cannot stand, and it's evangelists. So I never want to come across in an evangelical way. If you ask me a question I'd be happy to answer it.
We tend to feel differently about biodiversity than our neighbors do. For example, we think of the coyotes and the predators as a necessary part of what we're doing here. If we lose a calf to a coyote, we're not going to cull the coyote, we're going to cull the cow. Hopefully we'll give our cows the opportunity to calve at a time of year when coyotes have ground squirrels to eat. It just seems so reasonable to us to do that. They do such a tremendous job on ground squirrels, that you wonder, how many calves would you have to lose before you were getting behind?
Some people in our situation feel differently. That helps me realize that this isn't a sure thing. I mean, this feels good, managing holistically. But we may be completely wrong--but at least we are asking ourselves if we are wrong. Maybe it is a good idea to shoot coyotes. But it sure doesn't feel good to us, in our outfit. It also gives us the latitude to think that "I guess if they want to shoot coyotes, they can."
Any more thoughts on why HRM isn't more widely practiced?
The last ten years, we've been through a fairly profitable period in the cattle business. You didn't have to do a whole lot of things right to make a profit. A lot of our feeling of comfort is based on how happy our bankers are. If our bankers are happy, we're doing things right. It wasn't like the early eighties, where jeez I had to do something, and what I was doing wasn't working. Dollar calves solve a lot of ills. Now we're in another period where there's going to be a scrunch.
Why aren't more ranchers using holistic management? I think because a lot of us are multigenerational, and so we think we ought to do things the way it's been done in the past, because it worked for them.
Do you think doing things traditionally can be sort of a goal in itself?
If that's true, then you'd also want the opportunity for your children to pursue the same thing. It would be a shame if you lost the ranch by pursuing traditional practices. I see that happening. I could see it happening in our own situation.
I think ranching's easy, isn't it? We don't have to do a damn thing, and grass grows and cows eat it. We can throw a lot of smoke and mirrors and nuance and fine touches to the scenario, and get another additional response, but it's not like running a dairy, it's not like running a steel mill, it's not like making bicycles in a factory. The fact is, I can sit here this afternoon and visit with you, and our cows and calves will gain every bit as much weight as if I were out there fiddling around. That's a luxurious thing, isn't it?
Five months of wintertime, when we have to feed them hay, it's a different circumstance, but we're not doing that twenty-four hours a day, to make a factory work. It's a three- or four-hour job.
So I think it's easy, and since we're dealing with an ecosystem, any negative changes, they're so slow that we can't see them. If I'm new to the country, I accept what is here as what it's always been. If I grew up in the country, I accept the fact that I can't make it any better. That picture of my dad and the willows had a powerful impact on me, and the story about the beaver dams trickling. So if I didn't have that, I wouldn't feel the way I did. So in that case being multigenerational is a benefit. But I could see how I could say, "Boy, I'm glad I don't have to get around those willows any more, get a swather in and out of those things."
Why aren't more ranchers interested in making decisions that are socially and ecologically sound as well as economically sound? It's a little bit harder, isn't it? To think through these testing guidelines is a pain. We'd love to be able to make a snap decision.
You as a stranger to this ranch should be able to look at any part of it and see the whole ranch in it. If something looks awry to you, it probably is. Somehow the fact that I drive a '76 pickup, live in a nice house, and have crummy roads all over the ranch, it ought to feel right. If it doesn't, that is an interesting question. If you understand our three-part goal, those three things ought to all make sense. You could look at any part of it, and it would be just like the DNA off your body. If you knew that DNA chain well enough, you could say, yeah, that's why his hair is that way. I think that if we're really using this right, the outward appearance of it should look right, too. I'm not sure if it does or not. I can see more and more that our actions and our decision making, and what we do and the way we live, are so related that it really is all one. And we're not there yet.
Can you give me an example?
If I had a goal of a dense stand of perennial grasses on the ranch, and every grass plant was bitten to the ground, and there were large spaces between the plants, you'd realize that we weren't really living our goal. If you came here, and we talked about quality of life, and the opportunity to participate in the community beyond the ranch, and yet we worked seven days a week, and never got off the ranch, you'd realize that we weren't following through. Everything--how we come across as individuals, the appearance of our animals--is reflected in our goal. I think we can really feel good about ourselves, and what we're doing on the land and with our lives, if we keep that goal in mind. Whenever we lose sight of it, it seems like we become more fractured, and the picture we describe is not the picture we paint.
We love to categorize and separate and try to find the differences, but really we should try to find the themes that unite all that. In a real laid-back way, I hope that's what we're doing here--eventually this thing appears as one organism--the people, the land, the cattle, the buildings, the forest, the streams, you just see the whole thing in anything you look at. I can see that we're gradually getting there.
The reason is that this three-part goal is such a powerful tool. You can't have a three-part goal where you have a dense stand of perennial grasses, be involved with the community beyond the ranch, and a profit from livestock that are compatible with their environment, and abuse drugs. You just can't do that.
You can't have that goal and feel right about the fact that all our power comes shooting in off the grid. The fact that it takes so much power to run this house is a travesty to me. How to get ourselves weaned off that and becomes self-sufficient for power is something we're looking at. As long as we're sucking up lots of electricity from Oregon Trail Electric Coop, we're not really living the life we're striving for.
That sounds a little far-fetched. To be worried about where your power comes from, when really all we should be concerned about are these cow cops, are we going to be able to continue to graze on Forest Service ground, and how to lick calf scours. Get real--this is a cattle ranch.
Sometimes I get so far out on the philosophy of this thing, that I tend to forget about the day-to-day, but if we can get the philosophy just right, the day-to-day will just take care of itself. That's a belief.