El Sueño Ranch is a 10,000-acre ranch located north of Clines Corner, New Mexico. It is owned by Albert Lowry and managed by Chuck Kuchta. Albert purchased the ranch in 2014 and Chuck began managing it in 2016. When they took over the land they noted it had been used heavily, particularly near the roads and water points, and production was lower because the land was still recovering. They have invested extensively in improving the fencing and water to move from three paddocks to 16. The water development has enabled them to push the water five to six miles from the well so they can better utilize the forage across the landscape and provide adequate recovery for plants that had once been overgrazed because of the continuous graze that occurs with larger paddocks. That infrastructure has also helped El Sueño to be a low-labor ranch contributing to the quality of life desired by both Albert and Chuck.
Ranching in Balance
Albert was born and has lived in Laredo, Texas for most of his life. He studied at Texas A&M University, receiving a degree in Animal Science and continuing studies for a Masters in Ag Economics. He has primarily been a banker for over 35 years in Laredo. However, Albert’s true passion is ranching. He began his own ranching in earnest by leasing land at the age of 25. He was an early believer in solar and has continued the use of electric fencing and water pumping.
Chuck Kuchta is a native New Mexico rancher who has a strong passion for the land. In 2004 Chuck officially became involved and completed the HMI Ranch and Range Manager Training Program. He has managed several ranches in southeastern and northern New Mexico and is a successful fly fishing guide in Santa Fe which he does part-time when he is not managing El Sueño (having only two hours a day in the summer to check on cattle when he’s a full-time fly fishing guide).
Because of their outside interests, it was important to Albert and Chuck to develop infrastructure and engage in enterprises that keep the operation of the ranch simple so they are able to engage in other professional pursuits part-time. The ranch is currently stocked with 150 pairs that are a contract grazing lease only during the growing season (mid-April to mid-September). They are aiming for 50 acres to the pair for their stocking rate, leaving half the forage for wildlife and drought reserve.
In order to create a low-labor production system and improve wildlife habitat, Albert invested in 18 miles of solar powered electric cross fencing – creating 16 pastures along topo and vegetative variances, and laid 12 miles of buried water lines, incorporating the seven central water lots and additional troughs, all supplied by solar powered pumps and wells, with the consulting assistance of HMI Certified Educator Kirk Gadzia. This water distribution means that cattle do not need to travel more than ½ a mile to water regardless of where they are on the ranch.
While they had some tough, dry years in 2017 and 2018 (approximately 13 inches of rain), they adjusted their stocking rate to the forage that was available. But with new infrastructure in and a better means to control the animals Albert noticed a big drop in grasshoppers from hoof action and range conditions appeared to respond well to having been grazed. In 2019 the cool-season grasses did well due to good winter moisture.
Infrastructure Investment Pays Dividends
Albert and Chuck developed seven water lots to improve distribution of water. These water lots also include the power for the three-strand electric fences that were built with the bottom wire at 22 inches to accommodate pronghorn antelope to go under as well as a top height of 44 inches to accommodate elk going over. In addition, Albert has determined that the next investment will be to have wildlife drinkers outside the water lots for the antelope as they do not like coming into the cattle panel area that surrounds the water lots.
Having good water distribution helps Chuck if he needs to doctor cattle as he can wait for them at the nearest watering point rather than having to drive the cattle to pens or rope individual cattle. They also make sure that they have gates every half mile on any long stretches of fencing to make it even easier to move cattle as needed. Each water lots serves three to four pastures and has a trap gate that can be used to contain the herd if necessary.
In general, the cattle are easy to move and can move themselves from one paddock to the next when given access to the water lot and leaving open certain gates. Even within each pasture there are three to five water troughs which can be used to control grazing distribution by filling or closing off water to them. The goal is to flash graze sections of the pasture by moving the water into different troughs even though paddock sizes range from 320 to 1,800 acres. They usually stay two to three days in a paddock with the longest time being 10 days. In order to train the cattle to the electric fence at the beginning of each season, they put salt and mineral cubes by the fence which brings the animals to the fence where they can get acquainted with the fence and learn to respect it.
Grazing planning is a critical component to effective grazing implementation. Chuck notes that it’s an ongoing process of learning about the ranch and how it responds to various management practices and the different weather patterns that each year brings. That’s why they use the HMI Grazing Plan Chart to record outcomes of grazing decisions such as noting where locoweed shows up in the spring so they can avoid it in their grazing
Kirk noted that ranching is a complex business with multiple goals. At El Sueño the key values are enjoying the peace and quiet of the ranch and not having stress by pushing numbers rather than focusing on ways of improving land health and productivity while also paying attention to animal performance as that is what pays the bills, including all infrastructure development.
To that end, recovery is more important than complete forage utilization. They know that overgrazing leads to lower production and less soil cover, less root mass, less drought resistance, less seed production and more soil compaction so they work toward their “take half” rule and giving adequate recovery to desired species. Chuck says, “I think that our efforts have resulted in more grass, more diversity, more wildlife (including pronghorn and elk), and more birds.”
All water points have mulch around the drinkers to protect the soil. The water pipe is buried three feet deep so there are no concerns about freezing. The fence chargers are also located at the water lots and they have three eight-feet ground rods set 10 feet apart for a good ground on all fences. They also have a fence meter that can turn the fence on and off from any place on the line so they don’t have to go back to the charger to turn it off when they find a fence down. They keep the fences live year round to keep the wildlife used to it.
The two wells that serve the seven water lots can pump 2,500 gallons of water/day and they have 10,000 gallons in a storage in case they need the reserve. The water is pumped to the holding tank then to a buried pressure tank which is pressurized at 85 psi to move the water (through two-inch pipe) the five to six miles it may need to go to distribute the water across the ranch.
Grazing for Diversity & Productivity
Ongoing education is a critical piece in any profession and both Albert and Chuck say they’ve learned a lot from attending various education events as well as working with Kirk Gadzia as their consultant. Chuck also went through HMI’s Ranch &Range Manager Training Program. “I found it a really helpful program,” says Chuck. “I learned so much and have been able to use it all the operations I’ve worked at.”
He has also learned a lot from participating in the annual monitoring they do on the eight monitoring points spread throughout the ranch. Kirk leads them through a technique called “The Bullseye Method” which helps them assess ecosystem health. In the monitoring they have seen more plant cover on all monitoring sites after the first four years of grazing, except the 2017-2018 drought where they were actually able not to lose cover because of improved resilience of the land as well as their ability to determine appropriate stocking rate for reduced forage.
When Albert bought the ranch it was a monoculture of blue grama. Their grazing practices have resulted in increased diversity. They have seen snakeweed increase but their bare ground has decreased. They are also excited to see four-wing salt bush return to the land as it contains 12% protein. They also have galleta, sideoats grama, ring muhly, squirreltail, sand dropseed, New Mexico feathergrass, winterfat, and needle and thread grass.
Chuck and Albert continue to create healthier grasslands on the ranch that provide habitat for a diversity of flora and fauna. While they initially were concerned about the ant hills they found across the ranch, they read research that showed that the increased production around the ant hill circle more than makes up for the loss of production within the ant hill circle. Likewise, while snakeweed is not a desired species, if it covers what was once bare ground then there is greater opportunity for holding soil in place and decreasing erosion.
What is peace of mind worth to a rancher? What is a rancher’s time worth and are there other things they’d rather be doing than working 10-12 hours a day? What is the increase of ground cover and plants sequestering more carbon and water into the soil for more land resilience and production worth? What is the increase of plant and animal diversity worth to a conservationist and land steward? Albert and Chuck have done the calculations and have been able to make the cattle lease pay for operations and infrastructure investment that helps them meet those goals and set them in a position to reap greater rewards down the road as land productivity and resilience continues to improve at El Sueño Ranch.