Tom & Mimi Sidwell
JX Ranch, New Mexico
Excerpted from an article by Courtney White, originally published in Acres USA
In 2004, Tom and Mimi Sidwell purchased the 7,000-acre JX Ranch, south of Tucumcari, New Mexico and set about doing what they know best: earning a profit by restoring the land to health and stewarding it sustainably. As with many ranches in the arid Southwest, the JX had been hard used. The land’s health had been depleted by substandard cattle, farming, and water management. Grass cover had diminished in quantity and quality, exposing soil to the erosive effects of wind, rain, and sunlight, which also diminished the organic content of the soil significantly. Profits fell too for previous owners. Many had followed a typical business plan: stretch the land’s ecological capacity to the breaking point, then add more cattle when the economic times turned tough, and pray for rain. In the case of the JX, overgrazing caused mesquite shrubs to out-compete perennial grass plants, which increased the amount of bare soil across the ranch, which encouraged wind and water erosion, which dropped water tables as gullies grew and deepened and topsoil blew away. Water, nutrient, mineral, and energy cycles and profits unraveled across the JX Ranch.
This did not deter the Sidwells because their business model was holistic and integrated—they look at every part of their property as interconnected. Their goal was to increase the capacity of the ranch at all levels.
Tom began by dividing the entire ranch into sixteen pastures, up from the original five, using solar-powered electric fencing. After installing a water system to feed all sixteen pastures, he picked cattle that could do well in dry country, grouped them into one herd and set about carefully rotating them through the pastures, never grazing one for very long (7-10 days typically) in order to give the land plenty of recovery time to grow grass. Next, he began clearing out the juniper trees on the ranch with a bulldozer. Eventually he turned his attention to the mesquite as well, grubbing out hundreds of acres so that native grass could grow in its stead. It worked. Tom knows how to read a landscape, and what he began to see on the JX was land beginning to heal.
Tom kept going. He began to feed the cattle on patches of bare soil and on gully headcuts. Soon he was able to lengthen the period of rest between pulses of cattle grazing in each pasture from 60 days to 90 days to the current 105 days. This allowed the Sidwells to increase the overall livestock capacity of the ranch by 25% in only six years, which has had a significant positive impact on their bank account. The typical stocking rate in this part of New Mexico is one cow to 50 acres. The Sidwells have brought it down to one to 36 acres, and hope to get it down to 1 to 30 acres someday. The reason for his optimism is simple: the native grasses are coming back, even in dry years.
In 2011, JX Ranch has seen a little more than three inches of rain in twelve months (the average is ten inches). Rather than sell his cattle, however, as many ranchers in nearby Texas have done, Tom built fences—the JX now has 25 pastures, each with an average grazing period of 4 days followed by 105 days of rest. Tom reports that the ranch has “plenty of grass for the cattle even with a 28% increase in carrying capacity.
In 2009, the Sidwells converted their beef business from a conventional, feedlot-based system to an entirely grass-fed operation. The benefit: profitability. As an added-value food, grass-fed meat sells for as much as 50% more than conventional meat. The Sidwells also run a small tourism business on the JX—customers pay to stay in a pretty guest house on the property and help around the ranch.
The Sidwells can do all these things on one ranch because they have reconnected soil, water, plants, sunlight, food and profit in a way that is both healing and sustainable. They did it by returning to nature’s principles of herbivory, ecological disturbance, soil formation, microbial action, and good food. In the process, they improved the resilience of the land and their business for whatever shock or surprise the future may have in store. They made the land sing, in other words, with health and life.