A Return to the Beginning: Practicing Holistic Ranch Management to Improve Soil and Forage Quality
Published on Thu, 01/06/2022 - 10:35am
A Return to the Beginning: Practicing Holistic Ranch Management to Improve Soil and Forage Quality.
By Ariana Bigham, Datamars.
Heading out to the expansive pastures of the Birdwell and Clark ranch, the winter forage is taller and thicker than most areas in mid-December. On an unusually warm winter day, cattle are grazing happily, belly-deep in prairie grass that will last until the spring. This north Texas ranch has been hit with all of the usual challenges – drought, extreme weather events, fluctuating cattle markets – but it has remained productive and profitable. To protect the future of their beautiful ranch, Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark made a choice 18 years ago to put the health of the soil and forage first, and have been practicing holistic, regenerative grazing ever since.
History of the Birdwell and Clark Ranch
Although sustainability seems to be a recent buzz word in the industry, many producers have focused on sustainable practices for decades. As one of Allan Savory’s first pupils, Emry Birdwell has been practicing holistic management since the 1980s. Positioned just 13 miles from the Texas/Oklahoma border, the ranch was previously a large set-stock grazing operation focused on cattle management. When Birdwell and his wife, Deborah Clark, bought the ranch in 2004, the 14,000 acres came equipped with tall, productive prairie grasses. Birdwell wanted longer recovery periods for the forage, shifting the focus from cattle management to grass management.
To support this shift in focus, the first priority was establishing infrastructure. Rather than letting the existing pastures hinder the process, Birdwell planned smaller paddocks around the water sources. Birdwell and Clark built more than 150 miles of semi-permanent, single strand electric fence, powered by Speedrite energizers. The ranch grew from 12 to 150 paddocks. To further subdivide these, Birdwell and Clark used Speedrite poliwire and piped water to portable sources from two large storage tanks in central locations. Annually, the herd now moves through nearly 350 paddocks total.
“I’ve been using Speedrite electric fencing since the beginning. The chargers have always been high quality, and they have always responded to any problem I’ve had,” said Birdwell.
Intensive Rotational Grazing
With a primary focus on grass management, the top objectives are recovery periods and nutrient deposition/retention. As a stocker operation, Birdwell and Clark run a total herd of around 5,000 calves per year. These calves rotate through paddocks ranging from 45 to 145 acres and are moved 4 to 6 times per day during the fast growing season. This intensive rotational grazing has several benefits: first, the heavy foot traffic tramples forage more effectively, creating better ground coverage. This coverage shades any bare soil and prevents evaporation. It also creates a barrier for the nutrients being put back into the soil. The dense cattle population means a higher concentration of nutrients deposited into the soil via urine and manure. Finally, since the herd moves through the land slowly and methodically, the grass has more time to recover. On average, each paddock rests for at least 50 days before being grazed again.
When they first bought the ranch, Birdwell and Clark were buying around 2,000 calves each year. Today, that number has grown to 8,000 head, because of the increased carrying capacity of the ranch. They graze around 2,000 head on wheat, and in May, they send another 2,000 head to the Flint Hills of Kansas. Finally, they run a base herd of 5,000 head that stay on the ranch until they are sold.
Annually, Birdwell and Clark begin buying cattle in September. The goal is to assemble the big herd by October to graze winter and spring forage. After years of buying, Birdwell and Clark now have trusted suppliers whose animal health protocols compliment theirs. The calves are processed, tagged with Z Tags, and immediately turned out onto water and feed, and to be trained on hot wire fence. Two weeks later, Birdwell and Clark follow up with any additional animal health products needed, using only what is necessary to keep the cattle healthy and productive. This system reduces stress for the animals, a major priority of the ranch.
After grazing the large herd for around 10 months, Birdwell and Clark begin selling cattle in mid-July. As the forage protein starts to decline, selling calves in the summer months allows for a good rest period for the entire ranch, as well as the equipment and the employees.
Benefits of Holistic Management
The entire management system at the ranch is focused on stress-free management that uses the calves as a tool to improve soil health and forage quality.
“The goal is to improve the ranch so there is a symbiotic relationship between the cattle and the ecosystem,” explained Clark. Over the years, the pair have been able to grow more grass and run greater concentrations of cattle, resulting in lower overhead and higher productivity overall.
“It starts with improving the soil. If you improve the soil, you improve the grass. If you improve the grass, you improve profits,” said Clark. “What motivates me is knowing that what we’re doing is improving the land every day.”
“When we moved here, we had about 25 percent bare soil. We’re down to around 5 percent today. We’ve also increased the diversity of the forage,” said Clark. “Our ultimate goal is to create a ranch that will last.”
One of Birdwell’s common sayings is “If Quanah Parker came back, I hope he would say this looks like it did before.”
“Another thing that is important to us is to be an example to the next generation,” added Birdwell. “Our parents made a difference, and we would like to do the same.”
Creating a lasting legacy is clearly a priority for Birdwell and Clark, and their regenerative grazing practices are putting them on the path to do so.
Alternative Revenue Streams
In the spirit of holistic management, Birdwell and Clark have considered alternate revenue streams for the good of the ranch as a whole. Just this year, they began buying program cattle to participate in source verified supply chains. This is in line with the ranch’s values of producing low-input cattle without added hormones. These calves will bring a premium when sold, and Birdwell and Clark are optimistic about the potential of this opportunity moving forward.
Another initiative for the ranch is to continue participating in a soil carbon market opportunity with Grassroots Carbon. This company comes out and takes vegetation and soil samples, and the ranch will be paid annually based on the amount of atmospheric carbon captured and stored in the grassland soil.
“This is certainly going to help with our ranch mortgage and could eventually help with the operation fund,” said Clark. “I think it’s important to incentivize existing producers to practice in a more managed way. Whether it’s getting paid for sequestering carbon in soil or capturing water, producers haven’t gotten their share.”
Grassroots Carbon aims to make it easier for landowners to get paid for the atmospheric carbon they capture and store in their healthy grassland soils. The measured and independently verified soil carbon increase will be sold as carbon credits to companies, such as Marathon Oil and Shopify to reduce their carbon footprint. There are no out-of-pocket costs to participate, and the program ensures you stay in control of how you manage your land, as long as you manage for soil health.
Henk Mooiweer, CEO of Grassroots Carbon, explained the process: “We aim to make it simple and transparent for landowners to participate. Participation is as simple as 1-2-3.”
The first step is to contact Grassroots Carbon, whereafter they will evaluate your property with you to determine if it is eligible to participate at this point in time. If the property is eligible, Grassroots Carbon will schedule soil sampling on your property. The third step is to manage your ranch for soil and vegetation health, and you will be paid annually. For more information, visit www.buildgrassroots.com.
Advice for Interested Producers
If a producer is interested in exploring regenerative grazing practices, Clark’s primary advice is to attend a school. She recommended the Savory Institute, Holistic Management International, Ranching for Profit, and Understanding Ag.
“You have to first understand your goals as an operation, then you have to choose your priority. You can’t do it all at once, so pick one or two priorities, and start there first,” advised Clark.
The second piece of advice was to visit other producers or at least have a dialogue with people that have done it before.
“We made every mistake in the book,” said Clark with a laugh. “We like to share our resources and what we have learned with other producers, so we can all reap the benefits, including the planet.”
As we continue to grow globally, American ranchers will increasingly be pressed to produce more with less. To meet the challenge, the industry will need to continue to adjust their management practices to prioritize the health of their ranch ecosystems just as they have always prioritized the health of their cattle. Pioneers like Birdwell and Clark plan to continue to mentor operations curious about trying something different. For now, they will tend the ranch with careful hands and hopeful hearts that the next two decades will be as profitable and productive as the last.
About Datamars Livestock
At Datamars Livestock, we champion producers like Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark and their efforts to embrace the future of smart farming. We believe in the expertise of the producer and strive to create high quality tools to support their management practices.
A business division of Datamars, Datamars Livestock is a global leader in animal identification products, farm infrastructure products, animal performance and monitoring, and animal health delivery products. Datamars Livestock includes globally recognized brands Speedrite, Z Tags, Tru-Test, Patriot, and NJ Phillips. This combination enables animal health, precision livestock management, and improved protein production. For more information, visit www.livestock.datamars.com.