In 2013 Shawn Howard was ready for a change. He had worked in the construction industry for 17 years, but when the construction company he had been working for left town, he bought a local coffee shop, Elevation, in Taos, New Mexico that was for sale. But as a man who likes to work with his hands, he also needed a bigger project—a 230–acre ranch in nearby Angel Fire, New Mexico. During the first six years of this regenerative agriculture experiment, Shawn has seen some great forage production improvement that makes him continue to explore how he can improve ecosystem function on the Lazy M Ranch.
The property had originally been sub-divided for development into 10-acre ranchettes. As luck would have it, the company who owned the development needed to sell it as part of their bankruptcy so Shawn purchased the property. He then had to vacate the subdivision to return it to agricultural land. This was an important step in protecting the land and saving it as agricultural land that could be used to grow food.
“I wanted a project that let me work with the land and I wanted a blank slate,” says Shawn. “In 2014 I started building three miles of outside 8-foot high fence to make the whole place elk-proof. Every weekend or day off I came to work on the place. My ultimate goal was to watch things grow back because this ground had been hammered by cattle, elk, and prairie dogs. I grew up in Alaska, so I only knew about open range and I needed some help. I was watching some videos online and I saw Allan Savory’s TED Talk. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I finally understood the principles of rest and stock density.”
In 2016 Shawn reached out to HMI for some help in developing a grazing strategy for the 2016 growing season (mid-May to the end of September) with a long-term focus on:
- Regenerating bare ground, with a focus on the area between the main ranch road and the perennial creek
- Bringing back the native grasses
- Increasing the productivity of the land
Shawn had already set up a lease agreement to have 35 stockers (average weight 500#) to be delivered on May 12th. They had not been handled much and had a large flight zone and would need to be trained to electric fences. Likewise, Shawn had already installed the 8-foot perimeter elk fencing to prevent wildlife overgrazing. Over half of the acreage was bare ground or severely degraded land with unpalatable forage. HMI’s Program Director, Kathy Harris, told Shawn that with proper care and time the land would come back. “I didn’t believe her,” said Shawn. “I couldn’t believe that bare ground would ever grow grass again. And it did take some time. I’ve had to learn patience working with the land. It’s like with the cover crop. I was told by Greencover Seed not to expect much in the first year after you plant. But, by the third year there is an explosion of growth.”
Prior to the installation of the 8-foot elk proof fencing, 100-150 elk continuously grazed much of the property, resulting in large patches of bare ground, and an environment conducive to prairie dogs. This was on top of the historic use of the ranch for 200 yearlings during the growing season.
Given Shawn’s commitment to regenerate his land, and a willingness to put time and resources (such as hay, fencing and watering supplies), the grazing strategies discussed included:
- Hay needs for the herd, leaving some residue, at an average of 10 bales (60# bales) a day for about 60-70 days for a total of 36,000-42,000 pounds (a total of 60,000 pounds were purchased and fed during a three week period)
- To provide intense animal impact on an approximately 33-acre area of mostly bare ground, the appropriate paddock size is about 60′ x 300′ per day, moved daily. While Shawn varied the dimensions as needed, he did move daily and kept to this approximate amount of space. This extra time allowed for more recovery and growth time for the grasses long the perennial creek.
- Grazing across the creek in small strips in an upstream manner to provide the cleanest water for the calves and get some animal impact on streambed cutting. This resulted in the stream banks having more of a slope and less of a steep cut with more opportunity for new grasses to take hold and mature.
- Graze areas of grass with the goal of ”take half, leave half”. In this way, Shawn looked to make sure he wasn’t seeing a lot of bare ground and that there was good forage residual.
Shawn used permanent electric fencing to create four main pastures from which he could develop smaller pastures with temporary fencing with a single hotwire fence with step in posts. He then made daily moves to increase forage utilization and herd effect while allowing for full recovery of the property for a full year before the area was grazed again. Efforts were made to protect the stream given the severe cuts already evidenced from heavy runoff cutting through the soil.
Shawn continued to learn as much as he could over the next couple years as he continued the same cattle lease. “Over the last four years I’ve read 20 books about regenerative agriculture,” says Shawn. “What I got clear about is how you’ve got to hold onto the soil and it will sequester the carbon and help with water retention in the soil. I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions about ranching so I was an open book.”
In May 2019 Shawn felt the grass needed more time, so he changed his grazing lease for the cattle to come in September for two months. “That way I could really let the roots grow more.” Says Shawn. “I’m the one that moves the cattle every day and hauls water since I haven’t gotten the water system in yet. When I get a well put in, I’ll be able to have more water for the animals. Right now we are limited.”
Shawn had been hauling 500 gallons of water a day for the 35 steers that he had been running. He has a temporary electric fence set up which he can do while the water is filling in the water truck. It took a total of 40 minutes a day to move everything, but with a new water system he has recently put in this amount should go down to 20 minutes/day.
Also, in November 2018 he drilled in a cover crop mix with triticale and another one with cereal rye, legumes, and brassicas. He wanted to jump start the soil biology and add more biomass along with the weeds that the cattle have learned to eat as they had originally not had as much grass to eat.
While elk had been a challenge in the past with as many as 500 overgrazing the ranch, with the elk-proof fence that has not been an issue. However, prairie dogs continue to denude the area, even heavily grazing the cover crop in certain areas. Shawn is excited to see the coyotes coming back (perhaps one prairie dog deterrent). He notes that he used to shoot them but now understands they are an important part of the ecosystem.
Shawn is committed to experimenting with other techniques and learning what works and what doesn’t in this arid environment. He’s pleased that the grasses have come back and is eager to reduce bare ground and create a landscape that would be used to grow local food and for others to learn about regenerative practices.