Enrique Guerrero from eastern Chihuahua, Mexico learned about Holistic Management about 10 years ago. He grew up on the family ranch about 100 miles south of El Paso, Texas with his three brothers on the family’s 20,000-ha (50,000-acre) ranch. He helped to manage the ranch at an early age as his father had a job in the city.
Later, Enrique and his wife bought their own 2,000-ha (5,000-acre) ranch in the mountains of eastern Chihuahua where they get as much as 800 mm (32 inches) of rain but could only run 140 cows because of how degraded the land was. After learning about Holistic Management, he began practicing it on the family ranch and was excited about the results he saw and his ability to increase his carrying capacity.
Along with 500 ranchers from Chihuahua they formed a grazing association and continued to learn about regenerative grazing. One of those ranchers involved in the association was the CEO of Agnico Eagle, a gold mining company. He hired Enrique as a consultant on a mine reclamation project in Pinos Altos west of the city of Chihuahua in Mexico that resulted in Agnico Eagle winning the “Towards Sustainable Mining” (TSM Award) in 2020 from the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy, and Petroleum.
That pilot project continues to expand and Enrique has also been hired to help regenerate the 350,000-acre Longfellow Ranch in Texas as well as working with Boomitra, a carbon credit company, to identify regenerative ranches in Chihuahua that are sequestering carbon in their grasslands.
Turning the Tide
Enrique initially learned about Holistic Management in 2014. He had been involved in the ranching community for a while and many of his friends were noticing that they were losing their perennial grasses. “We have very good ranches in that part of the country,” says Enrique. “We can get more than 650 mm (26 inches) of rain. Even with good rains we realized we were losing our perennial grasses because of our conventional grazing, so our carrying capacity was less, which meant we had to start selling cows. Also, because we were capturing less rain than before, we saw our growing season shorten. We used to have 120-150 days with green grass, but then we started getting only 70-100 days with green grass so we had to start using protein sooner.
“We invited Johan Zietsman to Chihuahua to give some workshops and he went to my ranch. I had 500 cows and he told me I had an amazing ranch and that I could have 2,000 cows if I did the proper grazing. He taught us how to do the ultra-high density grazing. We were so excited about what we were learning so we formed the Regenerative Ranch Management Association. We hired Johan to be our consultant, we put a lot in of electric fences so we could do non-selective grazing.
“We had a lot of problems with low body conditions and conception rates as we transitioned. The first year was terrible because we were losing body condition. Johan told us how to adapt our grazing to address these issues. We could see the soils were improving. Even with less rain we got double production, so we knew we needed to keep going. His suggestion was that during calving we shouldn’t do the high-density, but do it before the rainy season so it wouldn’t affect conception rate.
“Then we started making money. My ranch went from 500 animals to 1,500 in three to four years with poor rainfall. With less rain, we could still do this. I also went from four perennial grass species to 12 species, with some that I never saw before. After that, we started working on genetics and how to choose our own bulls from our own cows, which helped us. We had just been castrating and selling steers. Instead, we started paying attention to which animals were doing well and changing the composition of our herd. Now our own bulls are always fat and in good body condition even during challenging conditions or environments.”
Enrique started out with 20 paddocks and now has 1,000 paddocks made from permanent electric fencing. With adequate water, this infrastructure now means he can travel and consult as his wife oversees the ranch. The two cowboys they hired move the animals six times a day to achieve the 500 cows/ha (200 cows/acre) stock density he is using.
Expanding the Work
Luis Felipe Medina, the CEO of Agnico Eagle mining company, was one of those ranchers in the grazing association. He hired Enrique to be his consultant for his ranch. He had good water and 1,000 cows so he quickly saw the results of regenerative grazing on his ranch.
Then one night he called Enrique and said he wanted to do a pilot project with cattle as a mine reclamation tool. At first, Enrique thought it wouldn’t work, but then he talked to Johan about this idea. After looking at the site, he said they needed to do some bulldozing work to help create some terracing of the mine tailings as the slope was too steep for the cattle. All the material was rock and there was no topsoil so they would have to create their own soil.
So, they started with throwing seeds and 15 cm (6 inches) of corn stalks and then feed the cattle oat hay and 500 gm (17.6 oz) of protein in an area about 20 X 25 meters for one day. Next, they used only 7.5 cm (3 inches) of corn stalk. Finally, they tried using no corn stalk. All three methods worked, but the best results were with the 7.5 cm (3 inches).
Enrique used 99 open cows and one bull he had for this work and he said they did an amazing job. Despite the challenges, over 50% of the cows bred back during that time. The reclamation area now has four kinds of perennial grasses, including some native grasses and all the grasses grew well in August. They had good rainfall during the growing season with about 800 mm (32 inches). They also had snowfall in February so by May they started to have green grasses. They were aiming for 2,500 cows/ha (1,000 cows/acre) stock density. The total area treated was 30 ha (75 acres). Given the steepness of the slopes they had to alternate with cows on the slopes and then having them in flatter areas.
Normally mechanical reclamation work yields poor results and costs around $10,000/ha ($4,000/acre). With the biological treatment with cattle, it cost $6,000/ha ($2,400/acre). As the pictures show, this treatment was a huge success with a great deal of forage grown. This forage has attracted numerous wildlife including whitetail deer, wild turkey, mountain lions, numerous migratory birds, squirrels, and dung beetles. The plan is to expand the pilot to other areas of the mine. They will also go back and graze the area already treated in January after 18 months of rest. Soil analysis has shown that there has been a substantial increase in soil nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, nitrates, and manganese. Likewise, the ultra-high stock density promoted a diversity of plants—44 different species.
“This project is a great example for ranchers in the desert who think that this kind of grazing won’t work for them because they only get 200 mm (8 inches) of rain,” says Enrique. “We have shown that even with really poor soils and a little rain you can grow more grass. When people watch the Youtube video about the project they are inspired.”
Crossing the Border
With those experiences and knowledge under his belt, Enrique began working as a consultant on other ranches. His next job was at the 350,000-acre Longfellow Ranch in Texas where the owner wanted him to improve land health and get the cattle enterprise to make a profit. “They were losing money with 2,500 cows,” says Enrique. “They used to have 4,000 cows, but with the drought they had to sell some of the herd. The owner had read about Allan Savory and Holistic Management and wanted to try it. They have a lot of hunting and wildlife on the ranch and the owner realized that the land needed cattle to make better grasses and soils for the wildlife.
“I started working there in January 2022. We focused on the 100,000 acres in the central part of ranch. The last ranch manager had overgrazed that central part because he used it so much. The first thing we did was give it a long rest. Now we have a lot of perennial grasses. During that time, we put in more water lines and fences. The previous manager had the cattle everywhere with several herds.”
After they gave the land sufficient recovery, Enrique moved the cattle to the main area and they worked on increasing stock density to get the animal impact up. They had 1,000 cows per herd and used electric temporary fencing to get the density to 500 cows per hectare (200 cows/acre). They used water and protein tubs and herding to get this density as some of the pastures are 12,000 ha (30,000 acres). Now they have good cover on the ground even though they only got 300 mm (12 inches) of rain. The annual rainfall is usually 350 mm (14 inches).
“We also got good gains,” says Enrique. “We did an experiment and had a herd of 100 steers that we moved every day. They gained 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg) /day. We had another herd of 100 steers that weren’t getting daily moves. They only gained 1.5 lbs (.68 kg) /day. They just didn’t have the competition for feed that makes the difference to get animals eating and increasing their weight.”
Enrique said that the conception rate when he got there was around 50%. Now they are up to 81% with improved grazing management. Also, they were struggling as a grassfed operation because it was taking them 28-30 months for finishing. Now, with improved grazing practices they are able to finish them at 22-26 months with a finishing weight around 590 kg (1,300 lbs). Given the importance of hunting on this ranch they are also glad to hear from the hunters that they are seeing more animals, particularly a lot more elk.
Currently Enrique is managing five cowboys with two cowboys on each 1,000-head herd, and one cowboy working with a 500-head herd of young heifers. Now that they have grazed the central area, they are working on creating more infrastructure for the outer areas and moving the cattle with temporary water until they can build waterlines. Some of these areas have not had cattle on them in 5-10 years. Enrique notes that they have lost a lot of good grasses in these areas because of the lack of appropriate disturbance.
This grassfed operation has calving seasons in the spring and fall and are currently selling 40 head/month to Whole Foods. They hope to get their production up so they can sell two lots/month in 2023. To improve the finishing time, they are working on developing a low-maintenance cow with a smaller frame. Currently cows are 635-726 kg (1,400-1,600 lbs) and they want to get them down to 544 kg (1,200 lbs). To do that they want to create a composite Mashona/Angus.
They already have purchased 12 Mashona bulls and the rest of their bulls are Angus. “We are in the desert,” says Enrique. “We need to change the color of the hair to red to help with heat. We’ve seen how the red-coated animals suffer less. Last July and August we were at 110 degrees all day. We saw the black cows in the water more.”
They feed alfalfa hay from January-June for the grassfed steers. The cows just get access to a protein tub and get 200 gm (7 oz)/cow per day. Enrique is working on making a lick just to feed the rumen bacteria in the future so they can stop offering the protein tub.
More Time for Other Ventures
Enrique has found that once you have your infrastructure in place, the workload drops dramatically so you can explore other things to do with your time. After four years of getting the infrastructure into place he heard his cowboys talking amongst themselves. They were worried that he was going to fire them because there wasn’t as much work to do.
He told them not to worry that there would be other projects to improve the land health even more. But, he notes that once you start producing grass, 80% of ranch problems are solved. He wants his cowboys to look at the cows every day so he can improve his genetics and know which ones are paying for themselves. But with less time pressures, now they can go on vacation or he can take on other work to earn more income.
He also acknowledges that in Mexico labor is very cheap, which is their advantage. In the U.S. labor is expensive, so ranchers need to produce grass and do more permanent fencing to reduce labor. He has consistently seen that the return on investment for infrastructure happens after 3-4 years if there is good grazing management. However, the cows will pay for any management mistakes with reduced animal performance. If you are doing it right, you should see results on the ground immediately and still be able to maintain animal performance.
Another contract Enrique has is working with Boomitra, a carbon credit company, to help them identify ranches in Chihuahua that are doing regenerative grazing and check their management practices. Some of these ranchers began working with Boomitra in 2015 and are already getting paid for their contract of five years of carbon capture. Boomitra is using satellite imagery and proprietary technology alone to verify carbon sequestration on these ranches so there is no upfront or maintenance costs of soil sampling. So far, they have worked with 500,000 ha (1,250,000 acres) of ranches in Chihuahua. They have noted they are seeing an average of 3.75-7.5 ton/ha (1.5-3 ton/acre) of carbon sequestration on these ranches. They are paying between $20-30/ton so this is an additional source of income for these ranches.
Enrique sees lots of opportunities for regenerating ranches using planned grazing at appropriate densities for different times of the year so that you focus first on creating soil fertility. Then, you focus on the genetics and the art of grazing that will give you the profit you need to reinvest in more infrastructure to continue to improve soil health and profitability, as well as the quality of life of all those on the ranch. “Sure, it takes some money,” says Enrique. “But, would you rather spend $100,000 on fencing and water that will help you triple your carrying capacity or buy a new ranch for $1 million?” If you have to buy a new ranch because your grasses are disappearing, what is going to happen to the new ranch? You have to change your management.”