Nancy Ranney & Melvin Johnson
Excerpted from “The Interplay of Range Management, Grassfed Beef, Wind, and Biomass”, originally published in “In Practice”.
The Ranney Ranch was created when George and Nancy Ranney bought two adjoining ranches near Corona in 1968. By 1983 when current manager, Melvin Johnson came aboard, the ranch had an established Angus/black baldy cow-calf operation concentrating on production weights, pushing high stocking rates and practicing continuous grazing on 19 pastures.
In 2002 the ranch passed to the next generation and new management practices were introduced. The first step was to implement a planned grazing program where pastures are grazed at most twice a year for short timeframes.
In 2003, under the guidance of Kirk Gadzia, Resource Management Services, the ranch developed growing and dormant season grazing plans, bringing the 19 herds of cattle first into two herds and then into one. This has worked. Feed costs are down by 60%, even during recent drought years. No longer do they need so many bulls, a huge investment, since the cows are all in one herd; they are now down to 6 bulls, from 28 in 2002.
Fuel costs of checking on one herd are lower. Mostly, they need only open gates to move the herd and in the fall, they can gather the herd in a morning, when three or four weeks were previously needed.
The most astounding improvement is in the health of the rangeland. Where once the ranch had a blue grama monoculture, now the ranch sees the benefits of a biologically diverse plant community. The grazing season is extended with many cool season grasses not present previously; legumes and even recently a sedge have been documented. Within three years, they saw an increase in organic matter in the soils and counted over 45 species of native perennial grasses. This is good, both for cows and wildlife and for the retention of water on the range.
Analyses in 2008 demonstrated that silt & clay soils from pastures under planned grazing exhibited 25% higher levels of soil carbon than pastures with traditional set stocking practices, thus making soils able to hold millions of additional gallons of water.
At the same time that the ranch implemented planned grazing, they increased efforts to manage rainfall on the land. They learned the importance of runoff management, proper road construction and “water harvesting techniques” and how the “rolling dip” spreads water back onto the landscape. (In 2013, 14 miles of rolling dips were installed; a conservative estimate is that this retains a minimum of 10 million gallons of water on the land that otherwise would have been channelized by roads and gullies off the ranch.)
The ranch sold its first grassfed animals in the fall of 2003 to a few satisfied customers. The word was out about potential health and environmental benefits. The Ranney family were intrigued by the idea of growing a healthy product and marketing directly to consumers, and opted to market calves right off their mothers at weaning and sidestep the challenge of finishing. Initially they sold to family and friends; now most customers find them via the website or by word of mouth. Over 75% of their customers are local to New Mexico, and they process their beef at Fort Sumner Processing, a small family-run processor in Fort Sumner, NM and are approved by the American Grassfed Association (AGA) and Animal Welfare Approved (AWA).
The picture was starting to come together. The reduced feed, fuel and labor costs of the new grazing program worked together with the premium from direct-marketing grassfed calves on the hoof. (Net profit per calf has averaged 70% over sale barn calves.) The ranch has started to reduce its external inputs, become part of a local economy, and relied more on the native resources of the ranch itself. In addition, the family has participated in local alternative energy and biomass exploration.
Of course, all has not been rosy. Severe drought since 1999 has forced the ranch to keep its herd numbers down and the time and energy required of a direct marketing program still challenge the sustainability of such an operation.
More recently, it is clear that planned grazing has allowed the ranch to weather the past three years of extreme drought with greater resilience than many surrounding ranches and that with one season of good precipitation in 2013, ranch rangelands made a remarkable recovery, producing the best stands of grass and the heaviest calves in their recent history.
The Ranney Ranch takes hope in the fact that they are working with native resources and that the lowest technological fixes are the ones that are giving them the fastest and best return. They continue to look for ways to live in partnership with the land.