The James Ranch is widely recognized as an operation providing delicious, nutritious food to residents and visitors through their ranch shop and restaurant north of Durango, Colorado. The ranch produces 100% grass-fed and finished beef, raw milk and artisan cheese, whey-fed pork, and an abundance of vegetables and flowers, while providing a market for 50 local farmers and ranchers produce.
Set in the fertile glacial Hermosa Valley along the Animas River, the James Ranch irrigates and manages the lush pastures and bountiful gardens using Holistic Management.
Dave James kicked off the two-day workshop, held August 16-17, 2022, providing the group of 25 attendees with the history of this iconic operation and how he and his wife Kay, were inspired to keep the property as a working farm after attending a Holistic Management event with Allan Savory.
Julie (James) Ott joined her father in talking through various aspects of the business journey, and how the clarity and purpose provided by their joint Holistic Goal has motivated, guided and informed many of the family’s collective work from humble beginnings to the thriving, inclusive and collaborative operation that it is today.
“Maintaining a Holistic Goal is so important. We revisit it annually to make sure everyone is still in agreement and revise if necessary. That Goal has kept this family on track and supported us to achieve the many enterprises you see here today,” said Ott.
Jenn (James) Wheeling joined her father and sister in providing background on how the overarching ranch management team and business structures support the separate enterprises operated by the various family members. The structure is a key to ensuring the creativity for each individual to express their ideas, while ensuring the mission guides the whole of the team.
Family members from three generations talked animatedly about synergy and autonomy within each business unit. Each enterprise is operated by a separate family with autonomy to run their enterprise or enterprises as they see fit, but within the rules and framework laid out by the landholding entity on and around which they all operate.
Joe Wheeling, who along with his wife Jenn runs the beef operation, outlined how the family conducts effective quarterly meetings that further their day-to-day efforts. Joe has a 20-year corporate background, which helps him understand the challenges of meetings and working together. Joe explained how the family strategically utilizes team events to enhance cooperation and offered use of the Delegated Meeting process as a positive alternative for families or teams who work together. Joe explained that the Holistic Goal provided the motivation and the direction, while the meeting structure and shared and rotated meeting responsibility engender the supportive and empathetic contributions and participation from the entire family, both those involved directly in the business and those who are not. The aim is to create autonomous enterprises that complement all other enterprises. Rules and planning ensure that enterprises can stand alone, succeed and fail without negatively impacting the land holding and viability of the other enterprises.
Joe explained how the Ranch entity had not allowed debt and that it had taken significant family discussion and planning to shift to investing in the Ranch Store and Restaurant. This step has transformed not just the James Ranch businesses, but also had a significant role in supporting the regenerative farmers and farm-to-table restaurants in the region.
Gunther Ott, the fourth generation of the James family involved on the ranch, explained the monitoring of insect, bird, amphibian, mammals and reptiles on the property. He showed enthusiasm and passion for discovering, monitoring and recording the diversity of life that is growing on the property as the management and awareness of diversity increases. Gunther also explained how this increase in diversity has led to the disappearance of swarms of mosquitos, and how the introduction of a Canadian thistle fungus has reduced their thistle problems. He also highlighted how bird life is thriving and game numbers are increasing.
With this excellent prelude to the Holistic Grazing workshop, Wayne Knight, HMI’s Executive Director, Certified Educator and rancher went into the grazing workshop.
A key component of reducing risk is measuring available forage and balancing animal numbers relative to an anticipated rainfall cycle. Wayne introduced methods for assessing available forage and determining if stock numbers match the available feed to the time, and how the accuracy of these estimated can be monitored as the plan is in action using a Holistic Planned grazing chart. Differences between targeted animal performance and forage utilization and grazing moves must be changed according to variables such as prevailing growing conditions, animal actual performance, shortfalls or excesses in anticipated growth rate and forage quality, unforeseen events or activities such as disease, poisonous plants, and family issues.
David Lunde discussed how he uses PastureMap and Brix measurements to assess grazing quality and forage availability relative to the plan to ensure that the steers he manages are gaining at the optimum rate to meet processing and store requirements.
Day 2 started with a pasture trip where Joe introduced the consideration for fulfilling grass fed beef demand of the ranch store and restaurant through grazing management and adequate processing condition of the finishing steers. He showed how he selects and judges covering on the steers to ensure fat content, tenderness and ultimately customer satisfaction.
Joe and Jenn also showed the success the James Ranch is having as they work to rehabilitate a section of the ranch, which had previously experienced a strong flood, using a combination of diverse seeding to cover bare ground, water application and planned grazing.
The afternoon session was focused on learning how to trial the intersection of animal density, plant recovery time and depth of graze using Graeme Hand’s Safe-to-Fail Trials. This trial gives ranchers valuable information on how to determine the interaction of these variables in their own ranching conditions, at low cost and at low risk. With valuable information the land steward can expand the grazing intensity gradually without negatively influencing overall animal performance.
Lastly, the workshop introduced participants to simplified techniques to monitor the impact of management over time to ensure that desired results are being achieved. Management review and ongoing monitoring supports corrective action to ensure actual outcomes attain the desired results, this allows for implementation to shift as needed and before it becomes too expensive to undertake.
Results of the Workshop Evaluation indicated that:
- 64% of the attendees were under the age of 55
- All together the attendees manage 11,290 acres
- 100% indicated a knowledge increase in understanding how to manage the intersection of animal performance, forage availability, and ecosystem health
- 100% were satisfied with the workshop and would recommend it to others
HMI is very grateful to the James family members for hosting this event with such passion and openly sharing their challenges, solutions and philosophy. Thank you to the James Ranch team, with a special nod to Dave, Julie, Jenn, Joe, Gunther, and David for helping with presentations and to Cynthia and Robert for the fantastic meals!
The next time you are in the Western US, we highly recommend a stop at the James Ranch, 33846 US Hwy 550, Durango, CO 81301.. The excellent food and hospitality of the James Ranch and Grill are not to be missed.
We also want to thank Martha Records and Rich Rainaldi for funding this learning opportunity, Certified Educator Cindy Dvergsten for sharing your holistic journey, and, finally, thank you to the participants whose participation and enthusiasm created an exceptional event.