Long live the Cow
Thomas Kuhn defined a paradigm shift as the tipping point when an old scientific framework breaks under the weight of too many contradictions. The Savory Institute, a global network of ranchers, ecologists, and soil scientists, is aiming for nothing short of this when it comes to land management. Together they are boldly making the nutritional, environmental, and ethical case for better meat.
Conventional wisdom blames traditional ranching for everything from climate change and drought, to pollution and food scarcity, but Savory’s holistic approach to pastoral farming has demonstrated that ranching can regenerate soil, conserve water, and produce healthy grass-fed products.
If cows aren’t the bad guys, that’s a big strike against the old paradigm.
Come and See for Yourself
The Jefferson Center for Holistic Management is the West Coast hub of the Savory Institute, offering trainings, accreditations, and educational tours for land managers and curious onlookers alike.
On arriving at their ranch in the Surprise Valley in Modoc County, California, it looked like a terrible day for a tour. Storm clouds were drenching nearby Upper Lake Alkali, which is usually just a dry lake bed. This year, however, Springs Ranch saw rain every day in the second half of May. The land was lush, but soon after parking it was pouring down again.
Outside a rustic barn, Abbey Smith, greeted guests warmly and pointed them into the makeshift auditorium, where a dozen or so ranchers sat on hay bales listening to her husband Spencer geek out about soil. He’s especially focused on the issue of water infiltration — i.e., the amount of rainfall the soil retains, before running off the land.
“I could talk about this all day,” Spencer says, as we waited for the rains to die down, which they soon did.
Leading the group outside to a flatbed truck, he explains the difference that his ranch’s grazing techniques make when it comes to enhancing soil health. The truck contains grass and soil clumps from multiple locations: Wild grass growing on the side of the county road, rye grass from his own land, and a noticeably less robust-looking stalk from a neighboring farm.
What makes the soil supporting Spencer’s grass so rich compared to his neighbor’s is found in the roots and supporting ecosystem, he says. This includes the “rhizosphere” made up of tiny bacteria and fungi that bridge the gap between the plant’s roots and the earth. These organisms facilitate the exchange of the plant’s sugars for nutrients in the soils. Thriving grasslands deposit these carbon-based sugars into the soil, the exchange which forms the basis of the paradigm shift first touted by Allan Savory as a remedy for desertification, drought, and hunger.
The Bovine Link in the Grassland Ecosystem
To the dismay of surprised environmentalists, the missing ingredient on many fallow and deteriorating grasslands turns out to be cows. Soil science is complex, so Spencer tries an analogy. Within healthy soil are trillions of microorganisms, much like a healthy person’s stomach contains a diverse microbiome. Keeping a balance requires a careful rotation of grasses and cattle. People like Spencer and Abbey must actively manage their herds — the biological machines for recycling dying lignified material at the top of the stalk back into the soil.
Even the kids help out in the operation. Near the truck, an aging Basset hound named Petunia puts up with gentle harassment from a towhead toddler. The hound’s best days are behind him, but in a few years the little girl will probably be slinging hay bales.
Spencer and Abbey are both intergenerational ranchers. They met in high school, at a rodeo competition. Spencer grew up on the land in Ft. Bidwell that they now ranch together, and when he’s not bringing the good news about Savory-style management to struggling ranchers around the world, he and his father do much of the ranch work — moving fence posts, monitoring soil, and doctoring cattle when they get sick.
Without stewards like the Smiths, it’s hard to keep the land in balance. Mother nature accomplished it through millions of years of trial and error — producing the great plains and their associated “biological masticators,” the bison. But today’s ranchers must heed not only the needs of their distinct lands, but also their regional marketplaces. After the up-close look at soil samples, our tour group was taken on a makeshift tour vehicle to the actual range. There, Spencer discussed the trade-offs between higher nitrogen levels (which feed into protein production) and higher soil carbon content.
When you want to fatten your cows up, you give them carbs. “You don’t want to put your cows on a ketogenic diet,” he notes, referencing the popular weight loss protocol that encourages dieters to eat mostly fat, some protein and little to no carbohydrates. Growing grasses with higher carb content allows Springs Ranch to fatten their cows without taking them to a large feedlot, where traditional beef producers sometimes “finish” their products with grain and high-fructose corn syrup.
One attendee of the tour comments that perhaps Spencer and his kin are not a ranchers, but rather grass farmers who use cattle as the tool to convert grass into something people find more palatable (like New York strip steak).
“I ain’t no damn farmer,” Spencer retorts, only half-jokingly. He shares, anecdotally, that those who neglect the herd in favor of a grass-farming focus have some “pretty sorry looking cows.”
Back aboard the touring vehicle, it’s hard to tell whose kids are whose. They are covered in dirt, happily clustered together on the floor of the trailer bed. The way these kids seem so at home on the muddy trails of Springs Ranch is just one of the surprises to be found in the Surprise valley.
The Smith’s have several kids, and if the procreative tendencies of ranching families like theirs are any indication, the cowboy (and cowgirl) are far from endangered species.
At the end of the day, even as old paradigms die away, the cow is still king.