JT Land & Cattle, Newkirk, New Mexico
“It wasn’t easy finding our ranch, but after a lengthy, determined search, a few false starts, a lucky break, and an impulsive willingness to take a chance, we came upon a good one,” say Jim and Carol Thorpe who have owned JT Land & Cattle near Newkirk, New Mexico since the spring of 1999. “It was big enough without being too big: we thought a middle-aging couple – once they knew what they were doing – should be able to handle it with occasional help from neighbors and day cowboys. It was just below the usual snow belt but not too far into the sweltering sauna-belt. It was reasonably close to markets and supply centers. It felt remote, but was just a couple miles from ‘pavement.’ In the middle of ‘nowhere,’ it was a couple hours from everywhere. It was in one of the predictably “higher rainfall” areas of New Mexico.”
Jim felt that the ranch was actually quite well looked after by the previous owners and managers, but they have found room for improvement over the years. While the ranch had been stocked relatively moderately, there had been several herds each with their own “home areas” on the ranch consisting of three or four pastures, rotated seasonally. Areas near waterpoints tended to be overused, with under use farther away. Numerous dirt tanks and diversion structures were mostly effective in capturing and utilizing storm flows off the surrounding rimrock. Woody species (juniper, mesquite, cacti) were over-abundant in many areas (a Jornada survey of the ranch Ecological Sites and States described much of it as “Shrub Invaded Grassland”).
All told, JT Land & Cattle includes approximately 8,000 acres of deeded lands, 4,000 New Mexico State Land Lease, 500 acres of private lease, with the majority of the land in Guadalupe County, and about 360 acres in San Miguel County. The average rainfall is 14.5 inches and the reported regional stocking rate is 43 acres per AU. Their 12,500 acres should nominally be able to support nearly 300 AU per year. Because of the rimrock and other unusable area, they actually plan for 11,000 acres in their grazing plan. Through their ongoing learning about improved grazing strategies the Thorpes have been able to run an average of 256 total AU (cows, yearlings, bulls, horses) per year, trending less during dry periods.
Learning the Basics
In retrospect, Jim says the first five years were a steep learning curve and they continue to learn more each year. “The Cow-calf Handbook was our ‘Bible,’” says Jim. “Our copies of Beef Production and Management Decisions (Taylor), Range Management (Holecheck), and Savory’s books on Holistic Management are well-worn, properly highlighted and plastered with bookmarks.
“I found a widespread skepticism towards ‘Holistic Management’ and other Silver Bullet systems. I’d often hear of good ranches that had been ‘ruined’ by these new practices – gone broke, and was urged to be very careful. But, even among ‘traditional’ ranchers there had long been recognition of the benefits of occasional rest for pastures and that some form of ‘rotation’ could be helpful. We concluded that even if, in fact, these conservation practices weren’t any better than conservative conventional practice, at least the ranchers were paying much closer attention to what was happening on the land under their care at both micro and macro levels; had more detailed knowledge about natural processes, had better monitoring and more “tools in the toolbox” which could only lead to better management.“ (And twenty years later, it has been reassuring to see what had once been an outlier approach has almost become conventional wisdom.)
With that perspective, Jim explored a host of resources to get the help he needed. They have had HMI Professional Certified Educator Kirk Gadzia consult with them as well as many knowledgeable local NRCS and County Extension personnel. In addition, they have pursued numerous educational opportunities through New Mexico State University (NMSU), Society for Range Management (SRM), National Grazing Lands Coalition (NGLC), National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association (NMCGA), Quivira Coalition and Holistic Management International (HMI) tours, meetings, publications, experts, and networks.
Implementing Grazing Strategies
In their exploration of best grazing strategies for them to implement, Jim found the grazing management decisions and practices that have helped them the most was increasing their cross fencing and water development to improve their grazing flexibility. Much of these improvements have been done with NRCS EQIP contracts. This improvement in infrastructure has allowed them to control their grazing and provide lengthy recovery periods for forage so they can improve the land’s productivity and resilience (they shoot for a 60-day recovery in the growing season and may extend that to 90 days in drought).
These improvements helped them move from 15 paddocks to 33 which vary in size from 20 to 1460 acres with the majority in the 300-400 acre range. This allows them to have grazing periods of 14-60 days.
Due to its particular basin and rimrock topography, the basin lowland flats and swales are often “flood irrigated” during the monsoon season, and previous managers developed an extensive network of well-designed structures to capture, store and spread storm flows. After hosting a Quivira Coalition road “water harvesting” workshop led by Bill Zeedyk, the Thorpes worked with Steve Carson (Rangeland Hands) to plan and install new structures and repair/maintain existing ones and construct one-rock dams; recently they tested some Keyline contouring on sparsely vegetated alluvial slopes.
They have also invested extensively in brush control, focusing on juniper and mesquite. First inspired after a tour of research plots at the NMSU Corona Range and Livestock Research Center, they have worked with the NRCS and NMSU specialists to treat, in the aggregate, several thousand acres with both individual plant and broader scale approaches, the goal being to begin reclaiming some degraded areas and, more importantly, prevent grassy “savannahs” from crossing over a threshold into a brush dominated state. “Rangeland trees provide valuable shade and shelter, but dense mature thickets not so much.” And from their participation in the (disappointingly) short-lived Chicago Climate Exchange Range Carbon Credit program, they learned that, in semi-arid ecosystems, well managed grasslands sequester more carbon in the soil than woody species.
Lastly, they have also learned low-stress livestock handling from trainings provided by the Quivira Coalition with training by Guy Glosson and the NCBA Beef Quality Assurance Program. Besides facilitating the practice of rotational grazing, this type of livestock handling reduces both animal and human stress.
Available forage is periodically (including at the beginning of the growing and dormant seasons) estimated for each pasture for each land type using the Holistic Management derived ADA (animal days per acre) method, which consists of pacing out, in the pasture, the amount of forage sufficient to adequately feed one AU for one day while still meeting forage residual goals. This is repeated at representative sites throughout a pasture until a total number of animal days for the pasture has been estimated (note this inventory is made for this particular point in time, assuming no further growth).
Based upon these estimates, forage is allocated among paddocks and herd moves were planned using HMI grazing charts and The Grazing Manager planning software developed by Texas A&M’s Mort Kothman (and, disappointingly, no longer available!) which tracks and models local forage growth curves, forage demand, and pasture productivity; when actual utilization is compared with that which was predicted, the productivity estimates can then be adjusted. In keeping with the principles of adaptive management however, implementation is flexible, and changes to the plan are often made based upon precipitation and current conditions, especially localized rainfall and current cattle nutritional needs (lactation, breeding, or “dry” periods).
That flexibility is crucial as you learn to read the animals and the land and find the balance between the needs of both. Training the cattle to do what you want them to do to help with land health goals is a critical component along with infrastructure development. “Training (or retraining) your cows to make frequent moves might take some time, but as long as the grass is really green on the other side of the fence they will take to it”, says Jim. “There does seem to be some definite antagonism, however, between what is nutritionally best for your cows (at least in the short run) and what is best (strategic rest) for your pastures. As cows are indeed very selective in their diets, the more they have to choose from (as when cow densities are low), the better diet they can select. When a large group of cows are concentrated in a small area, timid cows and those lower in the social hierarchy, such as a heifer with her first calf, tend to get pushed around and relegated to the less choice areas of a pasture by the boss cows (who also get more of their fair share of any supplemental feed). It’s easy to lose track of potential problem cows or overlook weak or sick calves when there are so many swirling about – it’s hard to notice who’s missing when you are not apt to notice that anyone is missing in the first place.”
After a first season of keeping the first-calf heifer pairs with the main herd to insure some pastures got a bit of rest, the heifers ended up with a disappointing 60% breed back rate. Now, during the growing/breeding seasons, they have two main groups, the main cow herd and a smaller combined first-calf heifer and replacement heifer group. During dormant and calving seasons, the main herd is usually subdivided for better monitoring of calving, but recombined at branding.
“The heifers get first go at the best pastures and are put on ‘weed patrol’ on the young tumbleweeds, kochia and pigweeds that spring up around the Headquarters traps and pastures which stay palatable and nutritious before they make seed,” says Jim. “These young cattle are moved and handled frequently which generally engenders a compliant disposition. Being in a smaller group means they have greater selectivity and their breeding and rebreeding rates are now averaging 90% on a 50-day breeding period. After selling a first set to a NMSU Corona heifer development research project, the ranch often sells both replacement quality heifer calves and bred replacement heifers to ranchers in the region.
Under Carol’s watchful eye (aided by her clipboard with extensive lists and reports generated by the CattleMax Herd Management software), the original mixed Brangus-Angus cowherd has become primarily Angus with some Hereford influence. She knows the history of her cows, and selects the replacements (and buys bulls) accordingly. Marketing is also not neglected. “To learn how our calves performed once they left the ranch, we participated in the NMSU Ranch to Rail Program and retained ownership a couple years in the Bradley Natural Beef Program,” says Jim. “We joined the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance (SWGLA), attended Country Natural Beef recruitment meetings, and direct marketed a few open heifers (after 45 days of corn supplement – we like the flavor!), but overall have decided that the uncertain risks of retained ownership, coupled with the additional skill sets and time commitments required for successful direct marketing, were enough to keep us content with focusing on producing good calves. After selling these a number of times on the video auction (and once over the internet), for the last several years we have pooled with a larger neighbor (with compatible cattle) to deliver our calves to a well-respected branded program: Premium Natural Beef.”
Jim readily admits there are many challenges to ranching in New Mexico. There is a great deal of variable precipitation in time and space throughout the ranch that makes planning difficult. That is why he prefers to plan conservatively and have that forage reserve. He also acknowledges (after nearly twenty years of inevitable wear and tear) that there is a limited availability of knowledgeable and skilled labor for ranches and feels lucky to have a family that can come help from time to time. He has also found water delivery to a larger herd during hot summers to be a challenge and has had to invest in increased water infrastructure to address these needs. Again working with NRCS, the older, aging water distribution system has been steadily upgraded, expanded or replaced with additional pipelines, drinkers and well upgrades (including solar), building both redundancy and reliability into the system. Some old rusty steel tubs have been “restored” with a new fiberglass “skin,” and new storage tanks have a dome top to counter evaporation.
“There is a tension in optimizing what is ‘best’ for the land and what is best for the cattle,” says Jim. For example, higher stock densities for too long can negatively impact animal performance and the land. You have to know when to move the animals to get the most benefit for the land and the animal. Ultimately, you must keep experimenting and learning to gain the experience and know what the right decision is for you and your ranch.
As part of the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program, they have been collecting cowpie samples for analysis of crude protein and carbohydrate levels by Texas A&M’s Grazing Animal Nutrition Lab. Over time Jim was able to create a nutritional profile of their pastures through the seasons, information that helps him fine tune his grazing plans as well as the winter season and drought protein and mineral supplementation strategies. Improvements in their nutritional management have contributed to improved weaning weights (for steers from 500 to-600#), rebreeding rates (95%), and a tighter calving season (70% in 21 days, 90% in 60 days).
Key indicator species, such as side oats gramma, plains bristlegrass, vine mesquite, western wheat and winterfat have increased, while less common species like Canada wild rye and White Tridens now appear with greater frequency. “Our ‘riparian’ swales are thickening with fluffy grass seed heads,” says Jim. “We’re seeing more young plants, more seed heads, less bare ground for the tarantulas to prowl across and the dung beetles to roll around on. Willows are starting to edge out salt cedars at the north water gap. Grasshopper eating wild turkeys are gobbling in the horse pasture, migrating ducks linger on the stock ponds, and we have a Red Tail nesting near the house.” He adds, wiuth a hint of humor, “We even host an unofficial ‘Vulture Sanctuary’ in our cottonwoods – they arrive every April Fools’ Day, and depart after shipping in the fall.”
Grazing Into the Future
When asked why he is interested in improving land health, Jim says: “We like the idea of being responsible for taking care of a little piece of our planet. We also love to learn. We love learning the art of land management while leveraging the science of range and ranch management to create a profitable business. We practice ‘applied ecology’ and are motivated by seeing the continuous improvement in the land and the cattle.”
In an effort to gain more information and be able to share that information with other producers, Jim and his family have participated in research studies and pilot projects including: TAMU Forage Risk Assessment Monitoring Project, NRCS Drought Decision Calculator, the Chicago Climate Exchange Rangeland Carbon Credit Program (they qualified just as the program was discontinued), and the Open Range Consulting NM Ranch Monitoring Project. (Jim hopes this will someday have a “Phase II,” which will pilot how the remote sensing tools can be applied to on the ground management). They are twice recipients of the Guadalupe SWCD “Conservation Rancher of the Year,” “Excellence in Range Management” from NM SRM, and co-recipients, with the San Juan Ranch, of the Quivira Coalition Clarence Burch Award.
The Thorpes are very clear that they are not the type to “push the stocking envelope” to the max. They, like many ranchers in New Mexico, have had to cut their numbers on several occasions because of drought. For that reason, when they get some good wet years they are content to build a forage reserve and practice strategic culling of the cow herd when it’s hot and dry.
“Being a part of the ongoing conversations on conservation, the future of agriculture, climate change, the merits of various grazing strategies, and the community of dedicated practitioners has been stimulating and rewarding,” says Jim. “After nearly twenty years we feel that, whenever that time finally comes, we actually will be leaving this piece of the planet in a better place than when we came to it.”
Thanks to the Thornburg Foundation for their support of the development of this case study.
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