palette of the High Plains is subtle. From the moment
the sun rises in the enormous sky until the moment it sets
in the mountains, the land is flooded with sunlight. As the
light hits it wrings out the reds and the greens, drains even
purples and oranges into submission. There is color here,
but no contrast.
The valley known as Iron Creek would be no different were
it not for the fence that runs down its center. The pasture
on either side is as muted as the rest of Wyoming; if you
saw only one of them, it would blend into the hills without
remark. But here, side-by-side, the two places are like night
Undeniably better looking is the east side, Jim Gould’s
land. It is thick with native grasses, and the field they
make is bumpy and golden. They even wave in the breeze as
if consciously trying to look idyllic.
The west side is gray. Its surface is dusty dirt checkered
with dried manure and big sage, the official plant of parched
lands. Jim tells me that in summer the cows there poke through
the barbed wire to drink from his side, for the springs on
their land have gone dry. “It’s really that bad,”
Jim calls himself an environmentalist. As caretaker of this
land, he values the individual plants, the wildlife, and even
the predators that most locals loathe. Yet if he had to choose,
he’d call himself a rancher first. His family arrived
at this spot in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in the 1870s, and they
have raised livestock on it every year since. His work is
the same as the guy's on the west side of the fence; what’s
different is how he does it.
A new way of understanding rangelands
Jim Gould practices Holistic Resource Management (HRM). (HRM
is also known simply as Holistic Management, or HM.) The first
word is meant less metaphysically than literally: cattlemen
like Jim think of their ranches not as commodity-producing
businesses but as entire ecosystems—wholes. With HRM,
cows go from being the sole focus, the raison d’etre,
to being tools that serve a larger system. The land does the
inverse: it goes from being merely a place to grow cattle
to an end in itself. HRM practitioners often call themselves
grass farmers rather than cattle ranchers, but really what
they are growing is nature.
It is a slow process. The changes begin as soon as you take
action, but before you can do anything you must understand
the concept. This takes more than reading books; it requires
learning to see the land differently. All four ranchers I
visited in Wyoming this spring told me it was several years
between when they began studying HRM and when they actually
changed their operations.
The first step is to set a goal. It starts with a vision
of how you want to live and what you want to accomplish. This
is not mere numbers, but all the things you value—a
strong family, a healthy landscape, financial independence.
(As Jim Gould put it: “Your vision is: When you wake
up in the morning, what do you want to see?”) Next you
consider what tools you have and what others you’ll
need in order to realize that vision. Finally, you imagine
what resources are necessary to maintain it into the future.
vision is: When you wake up in the morning, what do
you want to see?”
Moving forward, you check each decision against those three
criteria: Does this further the vision of what I want? Am
I using the most efficient tool? Does it detract from future
sustainability? At the same time, you are constantly monitoring
important details, to determine whether the decisions made
have moved you toward the goal or away from it.
This abstract description suggests a self-help book, and
indeed many non-ranchers use the model to guide their non-ranching
lives. But the original process was inspired by and conceived
for agriculture. African biologist Allan Savory developed
the model in the 1980s as a response to the desertification
of Zimbabwe. There, as in Wyoming, livestock grazing had left
the soil dry. The land became less hospitable to wildlife,
which declined as a result.
As Savory saw it, the problem was one of concentration. Wild
grazers stay in herds as protection from predators. But domesticated
grazers—with men guarding them and killing their predators—have
no reason to clump together. Their impact on the land is therefore
scattered and erratic. This was important because in that
dry environment, plants rely on the concentrated impact of
animal herds to help them decompose and thus return their
energy to the soil. Without that impact, the nutrient cycle
is retarded and the whole ecosystem gradually weakens.
Savory’s model for a holistic solution was this: to
return the grassland to its original state, with native grasses
and wildlife. Oddly, the most efficient tool was cattle. If
herded in patterns that mimicked the wild grazers, they would
break down the plant material correctly, and thereby stimulate
the system to regenerate itself. The cows still needed to
bear profit—that money was what made the approach possible—but
fattening cattle would no longer be the goal. Instead, Savory
focused on restoring the land, believing that as the whole
system gained strength it would better support all its inhabitants—including
Cows, grasses, and water
In the North American High Plains, water is the key to life.
Annual precipitation ranges from 8-14 inches, and in the recent
drought that has become 5-10 inches. The more water a place
retains throughout the year, the more complex an ecosystem
it can support. So for most holistic managers in Wyoming,
water runs throughout the vision of what they want to see
when they wake up in the morning.
It’s not as easy as just putting a pool in the backyard.
As in Allan Savory’s Africa, the strategy is based on
strengthening the whole ecosystem. Once again, the tool of
choice is cattle. In this case their job is to approximate
the impact of buffalo.
The High Plains evolved with buffalo herds that were massive.
It’s said that as one herd crossed a river it would
raise the water level several feet. Though modern ranchers
would be hard-pressed to replicate that, HRM practitioners
come as close as they can. They pack large groups of animals
onto small sections of land, at concentrations even 20 times
what a conventional rancher would use. They move the herds
often, even twice a week in summer.
Most ranchers argue that cows thrive when you spread them
out and leave them alone—the opposite of the HRM approach.
But here the aim is to grow a strong landscape, so the question
should be instead: when does the grass thrive?
aim is to grow a strong landscape, so the question should
be instead: when does the grass thrive?
Cattle left in a large space for a long time first eat the
choicest grasses throughout the pasture. They then return
to the same spots to eat the tender new shoots again and again,
never allowing the plants to recover. Meanwhile, the cows
don’t eat the less choice plants, which dry out and
oxidize. Their nutrients are thus lost to the atmosphere rather
than recycled into the ground. This cycle of overgrazing good
grass and undergrazing the rest diminishes the energy that
land can produce and in turn give to cattle and other organisms.
The strategy involving big herds, small spaces and frequent
moves is designed to correct that. When grouped densely, the
cattle eat not just the good grass but all the grass, then
are moved and don’t return until the grass has repaired
The numbers (cows, acres, days on and off) depend on the
land and the growing season. The tall-grass prairie of North
Dakota needs as little as 40 days of rest. On the other hand,
in the foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains,
rancher Tony Malmberg gives the land a whole year to rest.
In certain places, his cattle will be in a pasture only four
days out of 365.
It sounds as if Tony is hardly using his land, but in fact
he’s just concentrating the use. For those four days
out of the year he’ll have maybe 450 cows on 26 acres.
In such close quarters, the cattle walk not just on well-worn
paths but everywhere. As they go, their presence becomes a
tool. They trample their own manure, sending its nutrients
back into the ground. Their hooves break up dead plants, helping
them decompose. As their hoof prints collect water and plant
litter they become moist, protected areas in which seeds can
germinate. And the cows’ non-selective grazing sets
all the plants back to square one, which gives slower-growing
perennial grasses a chance to compete with annual invaders.
As the ground changes with the cows’ impact, so does
its ability to retain water. The key to keeping water is having
something there to hold a raindrop when it hits. On bare,
hard dirt, water just rolls away. But after Tony’s cows
have been tramping around, their hooves have roughened the
soil enough that it will catch rain. They have broken dead
plants into stems and twigs that lie on the ground and act
like so many little dams. And they have laid a foundation
for the future: with their manure as fertilizer and their
hoof prints as planting pots, they encourage the growth of
new plants—the best tool there is for retaining water.
The more water there is available, the more varied the plant
community will be. Think of the two halves of Iron Creek:
on the desiccated west side grow sagebrush and prickly pear,
on the well-managed east side grow prairie June Grass, needle
and thread, western wheatgrass, blue bunch grass, and many
Making a place for wildlife
As the plant community is increasingly varied, so is the
wildlife it attracts. Jim Gould’s place is like a wildlife
park, with pheasant, geese, antelope, deer, ducks, beavers,
and elk—to name a few. Like the grasses, the wildlife
is more than pretty—it is a tool. Ducks and geese control
mosquitoes. Pheasants and chukars process manure. Beavers
build dams that retain water on a grand scale. Some ranchers
believe the larger animals compete with cattle for rangeland
and attract predators, but that’s a matter of opinion.
Jim Gould, who lives amongst grizzlies and wolves, is thankful
to have deer and antelope around because they’re smaller,
easier prey than his cows.
Of course, that’s a tricky topic, even among the holistically
minded. No rancher likes losing livestock, and even many HRM
practitioners have not welcomed predators into their vision
of the whole, happy ecosystem. But others, like Jim Gould,
accept and tolerate predators, even as they try to avoid them.
When Jim has trouble with them he tries to figure out why
it happened and changes the variables accordingly. For instance,
he used to calve on a steep hill with lots of trees, perfect
mountain lion territory. When he started losing calves, he
switched to a different spot. Another favorite calving area
proved to be bear territory, but it was good summer ground
and so couldn’t be abandoned. The next year Jim tried
yearlings there, and none were killed. When he does lose animals,
he accepts it as a compromise necessary to achieving his larger
goal of a vibrant, complex ecosystem. As long as it doesn’t
break him financially (and therefore compromise the long-term
sustainability of his plan), the loss is considered smaller
than the total gain.
That’s partially because predator damages are offset
by predator benefits. For instance, when prairie dogs hit
Iron Creek, Jim brought in stacks of brush for coyotes to
hide behind and erected old telephone poles as eagle perches.
The rodents were gone in a matter of months.
“They probably just moved over to my neighbor’s,”
Jim told me with a smile, nodding to the west side of the
fence. “But you see? Even predators have a place. Everything
has a place in this life, you just have to figure out what
A process of questioning, monitoring
Someone once joked that the tagline for HRM should be “grazing
made difficult.” It requires that ranchers not only
move their cattle often, but plan, question, reevaluate, and
adjust on a daily basis. In order to do that, they must monitor
the land constantly. They collect information for today—do
the cows have sufficient water? is the grass gone earlier
than expected? And they also collect more far-reaching data—plant
variety, soil moisture content, and so on. This allows them
to chart the land’s changes and see whether the decisions
made have been the right ones.
you haven’t made any mistakes, that means you
haven’t tried anything."
Say, for example, the goal is a more complex biological community.
The harbinger of success is the presence of perennial grasses.
But simply noting that a perennial grass appears one year
is not enough. Maybe the previous year there were twice as
many. Likewise, seeing weeds or sagebrush doesn’t necessarily
mean the land is unhealthy—perhaps the previous year
the soil was so poor it couldn’t support any vegetation,
so that the weed is actually a good sign. The only way to
know is by looking year after year at the same fixed points,
charting the information, and thinking about the results.
It’s time-consuming, but it gives a much deeper understanding
of the land. It’s also a sure-fire way to know when
you’ve made a mistake.
This is perhaps the hardest part of HRM: not the act of moving
cattle often or tracking squares of soil over decades, but
being able to admit errors. A basic rule of HRM is to always
assume you’re wrong, since otherwise you wouldn’t
question your actions. Frankly, in dealing with such a big,
complicated, volatile thing as nature, you often are wrong.
Admitting that is difficult, but not admitting it prevents
the system from improving.
Raising cattle in the United States is an occupation that
requires thick skin. The business is at the mercy of weather
systems that can deal fatal blows without warning. Even in
a good year the business is financially tenuous, thanks to
rising real estate values and international competition. Most
ranchers deal with this by sticking to traditional practice—recognizing
that a mistake would require them to change, and change could
topple the whole operation like a house of cards. The thought
of approaching each day with the assumption that you’re
wrong is inconceivable—it suggests certain death.
Yet the beauty of HRM is that being open to mistakes leads
you inevitably toward a stronger version of your ranch. If
you are using the wrong tool, your questioning will tell you.
If your land is losing productivity, your monitoring will
show you. If your market is a dead end, you will see what
to change. Each time you identify a problem you move toward
replacing it with a more effective choice. And with each new
choice you make a system that’s more resilient.
“Mistakes are fine, as long as you’re willing
to learn from them,” Jim Gould told me. “But if
you haven’t made any mistakes, that means you haven’t
tried anything. And if you haven’t tried anything, well,
then you’re nowhere.”
FARMERS: Series Archive