Don't Fence Me In


I dropped the ball. At the Living with Wildlife conference in Lewistown, MT we were discussing, "Marketing your Livestock for Sustainability," and I fumbled, big time. I made the mistake that many rookie Holistic Managers make. I hear the word "marketing" and I immediately think about glitz, glamour, and increasing gross income. We talked about branding, products, and niche marketing of grass-finished beef.

A strawberry blonde, a taller and younger Robert Redford look-alike, brought us back to reality. "You guys are really depressing. You are all losing money producing grass-finished beef. Why are you doing this?"

Another cowboy went after the American Prairie Reserve's practice of only grazing lightly with their bison, commenting. "Most of us have a land payment or lease to make. We can't have a stocking rate of one-half our ranch's capacity!"

These two comments reminded me that when asked how we market our livestock for sustainability, we should remember that we are adding value to sunlight. As we harvest forage to grow beef, lamb, bison or venison, we are also building an ecosystem and a community. Marketing for sustainability means balancing the growth of our livestock, the growth of our community, and the growth of our soil.

More than anything else, a Gross Profit Analysis (GPA) will tear down the walls of our perception. A GPA can better direct the flow of imagination, money, and animals, to empower decisions at the soil surface.

Perspective —

3 P's: Purpose, Product, Profit

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When we do our financial plan we assess the ranch’s financial Weak Link, from there we assess the Financial Weak Link of each enterprise. Know your weak link - resource conversion, product conversion, or marketing. Once we are aware of our Financial Weak Link we can dive into assessing the Gross Profit of each enterprise.

The American Prairie Reserve has been purchasing land with the idea of getting three million acres operating in one whole and functional landscape. The properties they own are stocked lightly with bison, so they have a Product Weak Link. As Holistic Managers know, this translates directly to plants oxidizing and losing Carbon into the atmosphere.

Assuming the APR has a purpose of sequestering Carbon and managing for a functional ecosystem, they will need more animals on the land to recycle the oxidizing plant material. But we'll get back to this.

As we delve into our individual enterprise, a GPA becomes essential in marketing for sustainability. At it's most simple, basic level, we want to know which enterprise will make the most money, with the same inputs. In this case, grass, water, and labor. We can use these same inputs to grow lambs, bred heifers, summer stocker cattle, bison, or many other enterprises. A GPA asks us to keep things relevant by only including the variable costs of each enterprise. This distilled number informs us which enterprise will return the most to our overhead expenses.

Let's look beyond the basic GPA so we can root out the confirmation bias that protects our passion from scrutiny. Let's look deeper into what we want from each enterprise beyond a return to overheads. Clearly specify the three "P's" at the top of your worksheet. For example, a cow-calf enterprise might state:

Purpose- "Influence the ecosystem function, while providing a return to overheads."

Product- "This cow-herd will produce a 520-pound calf, with the cows bred 92% and a body condition score of 5½ by October 31."

Profit- "The 520-pound calves will average $1.45 / pound The open cows will bring $0.60 / pound. The grass will cost $0.90 / Stock Day (SD)."

For example, if we are running in steep Missouri Breaks country, we probably don't want to run our beloved Simmental cows, weighing 1,600 pounds.  If we are going to effectively influence the ecosystem function, we need to disturb every square foot of the range to stimulate decomposition and create germination sites. We too often see ourselves as a single species, or single-breed rancher, no matter the environment or markets we face. By stating our purpose, we can root out our bias and passion.

Next, think about the core of the product we want to produce. We don't want to love our cows to death, overfeed them, and end up with a 600-pound calf and a 98% bred cow herd if it takes an extra ton of hay and $.85 per SD to add that 80 pounds and 6% bred. Clearly define your product to keep your expenses in perspective.

Every enterprise will have a sweet spot. Knowing the enterprise's purpose and clearly knowing our product allows us to ease into that sweet spot, where we can market our livestock for profit. When comparing enterprises, it might look something like this:

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Let’s do the numbers

Don't get bogged down in these numbers because everyone's whole will be different. Just remember the numbers need to be relative to the different enterprises on your ranch.

Referring to the table above, the Cow-Calf enterprise assumes feeding the cow 1½ tons hay, which adds to the Pasture / SD cost. Some might only need ½ ton, reducing this cost. Pasturing yearlings provides the baseline, as in no added inputs. The Bison scenario assumes you are only taking one-half of the available pasture, which APR suggests they do, which raises the price per SD. Without inputs, the gross return assumes each bison cow raises a calf every other year, as is the case in the wild. The grass-finished beef program assumes a 24-month-old slaughter, with costs the same as the cow-calf until the last 120 days. The finishing stage plans to take the top 1/3 of the grass, therefore costing $2.70 per SD.

In this example, Bison returns the most to overheads. Does that mean we want to stock our entire ranch with Bison? If we want to market our livestock for sustainability, probably not. What does nature look like?


On the Move!

Richard Manning's book, Grassland, set in the Rocky Mountain West and Northern Great Plains, had a key point. Grasslands are about movement. Holistic Planned Grazing mimics nature and plans for movement. The movement consists of high impact, followed by long periods of rest for plant recovery. All grasslands in the world evolved with large, migrating herds of grazing animals. We forget these were herds of different species, utilizing different plants, different space, and a different time.

 As land ownership came about and fences erected ownership boundaries, and cross-fences sorted animal class, the movement locked up. Movement stopped and overgrazing of plants increased as rest periods decreased. Low stock densities caused overgrazing of plants right beside overrested plants. Species disappeared, bare ground spread, and soil died.

"Too many of the animals are in prison, too many of the plants are on welfare, and too many of the microbes are dead."

Peter Donovan

 As we started Holistic Planned Grazing in the foothills of the Wind River Range on Wyoming's sagebrush steppe, the movement began. As we developed our knowledge and skill, we were moving animals every 10 days, or less. Bunch grasses became more prevalent and bare ground declined. As we got into the rhythm of movement, we noticed the animals on the landscape began to roll along.

After 10 years of our practice, we were running one herd of 1,200 cow-calf pairs and another herd of 1,000 yearlings. The elk and mule deer would move ahead of the livestock. The sage grouse would follow along behind, on the grazed riparian areas where their sight to raptors was opened. Coyotes followed behind like a stock dog working back and forth catching the mice disturbed by the herd. Antelope would string out the temporary electric fence for a day or two once we formed a new paddock, but didn't bother it once they learned where it was. As the herd moved through they watched, like sentinels on the ridge tops, sprinting out of sight until curiosity brought them back to peek down once again. The whitetail scampered ahead for a bit and then looped around to where we had been. There was movement. Grazers, browsers, nibblers, diggers, pickers, biters, fliers, scavengers, all filling a niche in the biome.

Being Nimble with your Cash

In the GPA above, Grass Finished Beef are using @15% of the resource base. That's a pretty narrow slice. The high octane needed to lay down internal marbling on grass can't be met on most western native grass ranches, without skimming the best. So take a slice. Bison take a slice, maybe 40% of the resource, but as the cowboy pointed out, they are understocked on the APR. Maybe weaned cows could follow and recycle some of that standing carbon? What about sheep or goats?

A diversity of species will more efficiently harvest and market sunlight on our biome. Bison eat grass. Elk and cattle eat grass and forbs. Sheep eat forbs and brush. Goats and antelope eat brush. Bison were never on the range alone. Their paths crossed mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, antelope, the Sioux, and Crow.

We can add nimbleness to our management with a GPA that directs the flow of money, livestock, and imagination. Supply and demand, foreign trade, and input costs change markets. A Gross Profit Analysis can buy, sell, and change product to avoid getting run over by these shifts. A GPA can direct the flow of the type of animal impact needed to massage ecosystems. A GPA can direct the flow of animals to grow and add value to sunlight energy.

Just as Holistic Planned Grazing helps us get our head around complexity by taking one step at a time, a GPA needs to focus on one question at a time. In this way, we will build diversity and complexity for more resilience.

Walls and Fences

The American Prairie Reserve and Wild Sky Beef are adding diversity and complexity to the Northern Great Plains. They are looking to free up the movement of animals, increase plant diversity, and be more tolerant of predators. They have the means to incentivize their neighbor ranchers toward this end.

Photo by David Nicola

Photo by David Nicola

The purpose of this enterprise is to kick-start movement on the range. The product includes modified fences allowing for the flow of wildlife and tolerance of diverse grazers and predators. Native prairies are preserved, sage grouse and prairie dogs have a place, and prairie streams are restored under these working relationships. The profit for APR comes with releasing the flow of life on a large landscape. A few local ranchers are getting paid to participate in this endeavor.

Lance Johnson, from Lewistown, Montana leases a ranch from the APR and gets $0.05 / pound of beef he sells for some of these incentives. He describes working with APR as focusing on areas to "soften" the boundary. To me "soften" means ebb and flow, movement. Without movement, our grasslands will not improve. In that context, I see a bright future for those of us encouraging movement at the soil surface.

Lance and the APR’s efforts align with the core of Holistic Planned Grazing — mimic nature, initiate movement, generate flow. Too often walls and fences are built to keep lives in, or out, lock things up and stop the flow. Today's Holistic Management practitioners and other regenerative agriculturalists use a fence to generate and influence the flow of life. Interaction between those with different life experiences can be powerful. This is happening where people are seeking out diversity. The worst thing we can do is stop the flow of animals, imagination, and capital.

The Bison of 777 Ranch, South Dakota. Mimi Hillenbrand has been using fences to influence the flow of bison and building ecological health for 27 years.

The Bison of 777 Ranch, South Dakota. Mimi Hillenbrand has been using fences to influence the flow of bison and building ecological health for 27 years.

The pendulum of nature can be excessive and vicious. Feeding life's creativity with engaged cowboys and cowgirls, can fine-tune the balance. A more aware consciousness has been growing on the grasslands of the world. Holistic Planned Grazing and a Gross Profit Analysis can guide that consciousness in balancing economies, ecosystems, and communities.

Convergent Evolution

This thinking has been unfolding for nearly a century. A consciousness spreading through natural resource entrepreneurs’ psyche aligns with nature and flow. Many players scattered across our planet have lead this consciousness. Most of them did not know one another, (think Allan Savory, Masanobu Fukuoka, Bill Mollison, Rachel Carson, Ray Hunt, Bud Williams, Temple Grandin, to name a few) but they were all learning and teaching the same lesson in the context of their landscape, their community, and their experience. They found ways to mimic nature, release the flow, and generate movement of life's creativity.

Others continue to build on the idea of moving beyond "human creativity," and provide examples of navigating chaos theory toward resilience. A few examples of how we tear down walls and allow life to flow are Joel Salatin of Pollyface Farm, Judith Swartz, author of "Cows Save the Planet", Gabe Brown, "Dirt to Soil, and Kathy Voth’s publication, "On Pasture."

Softening Boundaries


Holistic Planned Grazing provides a way for those at the soil surface to plan and execute. This collective consciousness will influence, where the animals are, when they are there, why they are there, their behavior while they are there, how long they are there, and when they return. This powerful influence of disturbance and recovery recycles minerals, creates germination sites, gets precipitation into the soil mantle, and builds plant vigor to capture sunlight energy.

 Leveraging the flow of money, the flow of animals, and the flow of life's creativity begins by tearing down walls. Fences generating movement and flow will empower decisions at the soil surface.

Tony Malmberg3 Comments