Being Without Prejudice

AS branding sunrise.JPG

Prejudice pervades every pore of our existence. Do we have prejudice concerning race, sex, social status, culture, experience, inheritance, learning and who knows what other influence? If aware and receptive to others, we may be aware of some of our prejudice but we most likely have some lurking beneath our conscious thinking. We must constantly delve into our core being and behavior, peeling back our callous layers of indifference, justification, and excuse, protecting our prejudice, if we are ever to empower decisions at the soil surface.

The Practice of Holistic Management asks us to propose actions “without prejudice.” Ideally, the process of selecting tools, proposing actions, and using the context filters or testing questions will help us mitigate our prejudice. However, in my experience, most practitioners pay simple lip service to this critical step in the Practice of Holistic Management. We need assistance from people outside our clique if we are to effectively smoke out our prejudice.

Are you a racist?

When I think of prejudice, my first thought is racism. Thirty years ago, I was confident in my opposition to affirmative action. I was eating lunch with my hired hand, Pee Wee, and a friend of ours, Leslie after we finished working some cattle. We were discussing what we wanted to be after we grew up. 

I started off with a story about wanting to be a game warden just because an older boy I went to school with wanted to be a game warden. But I never seriously thought about anything other than being a cowboy.

Leslie followed and she could never remember wanting to be anything other than a cowgirl.

Pee Wee started off, “Well, when you are an Indian, you can’t be much. You can’t be a cowboy. You can’t be President of the United States.”


Pee Wee, of the Shoshone tribe, was one hell-uv-a hand. And he was a really good guy and friend of mine. His statement really shook me and I became an advocate of affirmative action. We might talk equality but in reality, young people need someone to look up to and identify. Just as plant density and diversity leverage sunshine, minerals and water, different human perspective, life experience, and knowledge leverage our resource base.

It is not good enough to assume inclusion. We can consciously seek out the input from those that we have dropped through the cracks. After racism, my thought of prejudice goes to sexism, which demonstrates how powerful subconscious, cultural influence can be. By that, I mean that I have been surrounded by very competent women my entire life, yet my culture has assumptions about a woman's place. Go figure.

But then my prejudices become more subtle and lurk in the shadows of my psyche. One of the most detrimental-being tradition.

Traditional prejudice

William Faulkner delved into southern racism and the traditional mantra of the wealthy, white-southerners loving the individual while hating the negro race. This deeply ingrained reality became cultural. Neither tradition, culture, or “just because” can excuse or justify what we do. So how does this happen?

Maybe traditions develop because of a decision to do something that worked very well. Because it worked so well, we do it again the next year and then the next, until it becomes a habit. 

Most of us in the ranching culture are familiar with the idea of a “steer pasture,” the “fall pasture,” etc. We assume yearlings and cows need to be in separate herds and the first calf heifers need to be pampered. One of the worst bottlenecks in land management comes with the cavvy. We overgraze our horse pastures so they are handy.

A good example of this mentality was recently experienced at the Diamond Cross ranch, near Birney, Montana. We spent an afternoon working on grazing plans, starting with 2-3 hours on the preliminary big-picture discussions. One of the primary probes in our bantering came down to consolidating herds. We didn’t get far on that topic, because there were reasons based on water limitation, breed up, and seasonal work that each herd was being run the way that they were. 

As we finished the day, I asked the crew to sleep on it and see what surfaced. We’d pick it up the next day.

As Holistic Management practitioners know, fewer herds can be one of our greatest Marginal Reactions. By concentrating cattle, we concentrate labor. Actually, we leverage labor because we can see all of the animals regularly rather than some of them occasionally. We can get around some fence, without having to get it all done. One FTE can handle 750 – 1,000 Stock Units or more. Once the infrastructure gets set up we are more efficient and it takes much less labor than running many small herds over huge areas. But just like Pee Wee couldn’t imagine being President, ranchers have a hard time seeing things differently. It takes effort.

Back to the Diamond Cross. Matt and Alecia manage Hanging Woman Creek, one of the ranch’s three units. Hanging Woman Creek’s range climbs off the creek and stretches nearly 11 miles west, and that’s as the crow flies. It sprawls through rough, pine and juniper breaks over 45,000 acres. It’s steep. It’s rugged. A saddle horse works better than an ATV when popping cattle out of the brush. Matt and Alecia know this country and how cattle deal with its character.

Get ‘er done

They showed up to the second day of grazing planning, with the intention of making things work. 

“You know, we were up all night calving heifers and we thought about this,” ventured Alecia. Matt continued, “We can put all of our yearlings in one herd, if we can run the cows in the Anderson. But to do that, we need to get that old fence on the south side of the pasture repaired and split the pasture with a cross-fence so we can get the cows bred.”

Matt and Alecia demonstrated a cowboy’s greatest asset. Once we see what needs to be done, we get ‘er done. They thought through the situation and asked what they needed to merge two herds into one. They got more information. Information, facts and data can lift our mind past our prejudice.

What do we need…

In 1987, I came home from my first Holistic Management seminar and went to see my Bureau of Land Management (BLM) range conservationist, Roy Packer. 

“What do you think of Holistic Management?” I queried.

Roy never batted an eye, “Any management is better than none.”

“What do I need to run more cattle in Hall Creek?” I asked. 

We both knew the allotment had grass not being used but the riparian areas and lower slopes were getting thumped. He paused. I could tell he was thinking. The key is asking the question so you don’t get a flat “No.” If I had asked if I could run more cattle, the answer could have been no. By seeking more information and asking what I needed to run more cattle, we were without prejudice.

Roy continued, “We need to establish some permanent trend and condition transects. If we can document that the range is improving, yeah, we can run more cattle.”

We did just that. We established 5 permanent trend and condition transects and after 5 years we read them and the rangeland health had improved. We got an increase in our permit. We got another increase in 10 years and the third increase in 15 years and our stocking rate grew by 260%. All because we asked a question, “Without Prejudice.”

Values or Beliefs?

There may be times when we go down the road of gathering more information and come to a juxtaposition. For example, we might ask our banker, “What do I need to get a loan and buy the neighbor ranch?”

He might say that you need another $1 million of equity. Maybe that means getting a partner, and giving up a stake in ownership. We may not be willing to go there but our decision wasn’t due to prejudice against having a partner but a personal value of not wanting to give up ownership.

When sorting through our prejudice, it is important to clarify what we "believe" and what we "value." By remaining without prejudice, we continue gaining information, until we see a way to proceed or a value based reason not to proceed.

If we can train ourselves to ask questions about our beliefs, yes, our prejudice, our tradition, and our habit, we will gain a chance to change. If we can’t combine two herds because the cows won’t get bred, is that real or prejudice? What does herd size have to do with cows getting bred? If we can’t combine herds because we don’t have enough water is that real or prejudice? Can water be developed? Can a fence change to access a river? Prejudice blinds the obvious.

We can take inspiration from Matt and Alecia and ask, “How can we…” They did this in-spite-of a massive workload, shortage of time, and sleep deprivation. 

Being Lazy

A shortage of time falls into the scarcity mentality, another sneaky form of prejudice. Scarcity causes us to dwell on what we don’t have. A scarcity mentality can appear around the lack of money, lack of friends, and one that our ranching culture embraces- lack of time. We call this, “working hard” but it is merely a symptom of our prejudice in what’s important and how we do things. We find comfort in keeping our nose to the grindstone and getting up each morning to repeat what we did the day before. 

In my experience, we find the ultimate laziness in busyness and working hard. I once left a $250,000 calf sale check on my kitchen table for a week because I had to go find a bull, put in a fence corner and turn on an irrigation ditch. It was the late '70's inflation era and my loan kept chomping away at 21% interest as I stayed busy. I’m sure I groveled to my banker how hard I had been working, when I finally went and paid down the loan balance. 

Our ranching culture wears hardship like a badge. Once we get into the rut of being busy, our senses numb, until we only think about what we are doing. The prejudice of working hard blinds us from the “why.” If we can take a step back and check in on our holistic context, the "why" we are likely to see more clearly a path to “How” we are approaching our work. Finally, much of “what” we are doing falls away as irrelevant, or as we see it for what it is, a self-righteous busyness. So how do we get in these lazy ruts?

A thought initiates action and if the action works, it becomes behavior. Behaviors become traditions and eventually shape our culture. Sometimes our behavior and traditions get us in a rut. Being without prejudice takes work and introspection. The work involves pushing ourselves away from those who confirm or even excuse our beliefs. So how do we know when we have been surrounded by those supplanting our prejudice?

As I look back on my life, I have been prejudiced against town kids, Indians, Russians, Californians, Democrats, Environmentalists, and in later years, Republicans and season-long-graziers. When I think about my behavior and those around me, when I was in these ruts, it was pretty similar. We excluded those of difference, we chastised and ridiculed those who differed, and we defended those in our clique even when their behavior violated our values. We were lazy. 

Those Who Dare!

It came down to exclusion vs. inclusion. It resulted in a shrinking whole rather than a growing whole under management. It involved defending positions rather than our principles. 

Look around at the people in your circle. Who is coming in and who is going out? Are decisions based on the past or the future? Are leaders being defended or promoted? Are accounts growing or shrinking? Are people victims or empowered? As we shrug off immature beliefs, our inherited prejudice and owned prejudice, we begin to dare. 

When we first began practicing Holistic Planned Grazing, we went from six herds to three. As we settled in three herds went to two and I noticed a big difference in the work. We no longer dragged our ass into camp in the moonlight. We no longer needed a string of 5 or 6 horses looking like gutted snakes. We had time. Our work was more intense and more focused but we would be done in a few hours and the horses got fat. We started seeing willows sprouting along the creek bank, Basin Wildrye flourishing on the benches and Service Berry stretching up the slopes as our stocking rates increased and expenses declined. Life became more pleasant as we lingered into the evening conversing, going to our kids sporting events and having company over for an afternoon.

Being without prejudice allows us to think and consider different behavior. Our new behavior will build more diverse plant communities, more diverse social communities and a more diverse stream of income. Our changed thoughts and behaviors will build a culture grounded in our values.

Being without prejudice allows us to DARE! Being without prejudice presents possibility. Being without prejudice empowers others in our resource base. Being without prejudice empowers decisions at the soil surface.

Tony Malmberg4 Comments