The rain over the past few days had washed away the forest fire smoke that had obscured the mountains for much of the late summer. Leaves lazily drifted downward like gold pieces from the sky from the aspens in some of the timbered canyons. Fragrances of sweet pine and spicy sagebrush mixed with that of decomposing leaves. I was glad I had my slicker and chaps on as my mare, Ginger, brushed through pine thickets, drenching us both with the water that clung to the needles.
I was leading a tour of 17 riders, most of whom were prepared for the cool mist and rain that fell as we rode our 15 miles. It was a diverse group that included representatives from the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, the University of Idaho, the US Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the US Interior Department. One rider we had was The Nature Conservancy’s World Director of Communications (you can read his take on the day here). It was a pleasure to have all of these folks with us on the Hat Creek range.
Although this concept has been practiced for millennia, and is beginning to catch on in Europe, we know of no other beef producers who practice it today in the US (and we know many). Virtually all cattlemen who use the wild western ranges today “turn their cattle out” in the spring, largely unsupervised, and find them late in the fall. This creates several problems.
First, cattle prefer to graze the greenest, most tender forage as close to water as possible. This is a nice spot if you are a cow: cool, shaded, with good water, relatively flat ground and great grazing. This means they will spend 90% of their time in creek bottoms and springs (we call them riparian areas). This is a problem because ninety percent of other plant life and wildlife utilize these riparian areas as well, and cattle can adversely impact these areas through over grazing and trampling.
This is not what Alderspring is about.
Second, wolves eat cattle. When cattle are left alone, wolves do not give a second thought to a tasty meal of grass fed beef (who could blame them!). This automatically creates an adversarial relationship between wolves and ranchers, and killing is stopped only by killing. Ranchers will take it upon themselves to kill predating wolf packs, or call in the US government’s Animal Damage Control agents in helicopters to do it for them (yes…this really happens and is quite common).
This is also not what Alderspring is about.
With inherding, our beeves are counted every day and we ensure that we have them all. That means we have complete control of our animals 24/7, and we can very specifically direct our grazing use away from sensitive wetland habitats, and not use them at all. In addition, our beeves can completely coexist on the landscape with wolves and other predators in a non-lethal relationship. It’s because we live with our beeves all the time and direct their movements with precise and targeted stockmanship, and our human presence deters interaction with predators.
The folks on the tour were impressed. It can be hard to toot your own horn, but the stewardship of rangelands–especially those managed by the federal government–is a hotbed of controversy. My tour participants began to see that perhaps inherding provides a way out of the controversy to a more cooperative style of management with cattle as an ecological tool of restoration and recovery.
It answers a question that has nagged Caryl and I for years: is there a better, more stewardship oriented way to care for these lands held in the public trust? Could we translate the same intensive management we bring to our private home ranch in the valley to the extensive landscape of over 70,000 acres? A way that we can care for all species up there, from wolves to worms, and including the beeves we bring to visit? We believe that inherding provides the answer, and a new way of managing these wild landscapes in a way that regenerates and repairs past abuses, while providing exceptional nutrient-dense wild protein, 100% grassfed and certified organic, that benefits our human customers.
As my tour group stopped for a break in the fog that streamed in wispy ribbons across the Upper Sky Island m meadows, I brought my mare around to face them and mentioned that we had grazed there for a day back in July. After filling up on grass, the beeves had laid down in the lush comfort of the meadow on a sunny, yet cool July day, relaxing in the fragrance of the pines that surrounded the verdant break, free from any care of the world. Besides the occasional cow pie peeking through the deep autumn grass, there was not a trace we had ever been there.
I related to the group of riders that there was one semantic difference in how we viewed the ranges compared with how we used to see them. Years ago, riding for some older ranchers, I learned about “feed.” An old boy would say to me that “there was some good feed on that mountain. We had better send them cattle up there.”
For us, we call it grass, not feed, a plant with ecological values far more complex than simply cattle feed. And I’m hoping that inherding will initiate changes not only in the landscape, but the mentality of what the range is good for. We’re just barely scraping the surface of understanding ecological principles of wild rangelands, and we have so much more to learn. But I do know that we are on to something with this grassroots idea of change on the range, from feed to grass, and our husbandry can be an integral part.
But the inter-relationships are bigger than simply us and the wild landscapes we manage. An exciting part is the wild wellness we can export from these pristine rangelands…with no adverse impacts. You see, these ranges have never been exposed to extractive agriculture. Unfortunately, nearly all of today’s conventional agriculture is extractive. It is soil mining. And when the nutrient value of the soil is fully extracted and the biota dies, living soil is converted to dead and becomes a medium, a matrix for petroleum-originating soil amendments. It is on these kinds of soils that much of US grass fed beef is raised—they graze on either current or formerly cropped ground, eating planted pastures or commodity crop residues.
This inherding paradigm is a direct connection of the health of wild landscapes with the sustainable harvest of exceptional protein that benefits human health. Connecting those dots is pretty exciting for us.
Thanks for following along on the journey.
Glenn, Caryl and girls at Alderspring Ranch
Note: If you want to learn more about inherding, you can check out our successful grant application to SARE (Sustainable Research and Education) here on our “Organic Beef Matters” blog. Warning: this is a government destined document; it can be a tad dry. But it does go into more detail than I can here.