Over 20 people from Colorado and New Mexico enjoyed a sunny fall day at HMI’s Open Gate farm tour near Cortez, Colorado. Attendees gleaned insights as they learned about the long-term and short-term benefits of Holistic Management in small scale livestock operations. Arriola Sunshine Farm has been practicing Holistic Management for over 20 years whereas Cedar Mesa Ranch just started implementing Holistic Management in 2017.
The day began at Arriola Sunshine Farm owned by Cindy Dvergsten, an HMI Certified Educator, and Mike Rich, a retired NRCS conservationist. Cindy provided an overview of Holistic Management and Mike provided an overview of the farm and how they have managed their land to increase soil health and productivity. They have had several enterprises over the years including a market garden, laying hens and beef, but now are focused on conserving Navajo-Churro Sheep, an endangered breed. Their focus is on quality breeding stock, grass finished lamb and raw wool for specialty markets. As they toured, participants learned about how Cindy and Mike use holistic grazing planning and decision making to reduce labor and increase productivity.
Using primarily the tools of grazing and animal impact they have steadily increased health and productivity in their irrigated pastures over the past 25 years. The land has not been plowed for over 40 years. Soil organic matter increased from 1.7% in the mid-1990’s and now is 4-6%. Recent Haney soil analysis on their best paddocks indicate very high respiration rate and overall soil health with a nutrient value of $173 per acre. In comparison, on recently acquired pastures with less than 5 years of Holistic Management the soil health was average and total nutrient value was $82 per acre. Carrying capacity has increased from 13 to 45 sheep days per acre on five acres with a 6-month growing season. Production has increased from less than 2 tons to as high as 4.5 tons per acre.
Today they use 10 major pasture divisions and implement temporary electric fence to subdivide based on needs of the grass plants, animals and available labor. They graze 3-5 days per move and allow 45-60 days recovery. Cindy explained how planned grazing favors a diverse pasture that has two major grasses, two types of legumes and a several forbs. “Weeds are not a problem when you turn them into meat worth $14.00 a pound,” she said.
Manure is spread each fall. Hay is fed in the winter on the pasture to enhance animal impact. Mike demonstrated how he clips and weighs to determine available forage in each paddock and to monitor utilization. He leaves adequate residue to feed soil life and protect soil. One participant shared “I am really excited about the increase in soil organic matter. I am keeping in mind that soil testing is important for monitoring and reporting, right from the start of any grazing plan or soil management project.”
This year the farm experienced a D4 – Exceptional Drought receiving less than half of the average rainfall. Irrigation water was cut off 7 weeks early and the farm still has ample forage to graze the full season and into winter. Realizing early in the year the implications of severe drought, they stock piled hay while prices were still low. Unlike many who are destocking, Mike and Cindy feel confident about their ability to make it through the winter and at least half of next season without destocking should the drought continue.
Challenges at this point for Mike and Cindy are around labor. To make handling sheep more feasible, decisions to invest in a turn table for hoof trimming and a shearing stand passed their decision testing. Previously they hauled manure out to the field by hand. Now with increased stock numbers and less physical stamina they invested in a four-wheeler and manure spreader. Walkways and facilities are planned for efficiency. They also invested in additional handset pipe which significantly reduced irrigation labor. They made their pens predator proof, so they can leave their sheep penned for short breaks away from the farm. Cindy noted that “getting away” at times is necessary for their quality of life.
Lunch time provided participants with an opportunity to network. One participant shared “I was impressed with the minimal infrastructure required for the scale of the operation. I am also very impressed at the minimal import of feed in your setup and what that aspect of grazing does to the finance and sustainability part of a business.”
In the afternoon, the group toured Cedar Mesa Ranch operated by Kendra and Andrew Schafer. Both have degrees in agriculture and have seen first-hand conventional agriculture practices in action. Kendra’s family has run sheep and cattle in the Mancos Valley for generations, although she has never been actively involved in the family ranch (it is run mostly by her uncles). Andrew is a first-generation farmer/rancher. They share a passion for healthy land, healthy animals, and healthy people. The couple was introduced to Holistic Management in a 2017 course taught by Cindy in Mancos, CO. Since taking the course they have furthered their self-taught education on sustainable farming practices and staying as in tune to nature as possible. Andrew and Kendra raise Navajo-Churro sheep, Angus cattle, and pasture raised laying hens. Genetics is important to them, they select for animals that do well in the arid Southwest climate, animals that adapt well to their environment, and thrive well on their own with little human interference. They market their grass-fed and finished meats directly to consumers as well as sell meat and wool products at local farmers markets.
The afternoon tour took place on 120 acres of leased ground that has been under Andrew’s management for 8 years. In previous years, the land was used for conventional hay production. Andrew grew tiresome of making so many trips across the field to make hay. He knew there had to be a better way of feeding livestock. After some research they decided they were ready to ‘kick the hay habit’ and focus on grazing livestock year-round. In the spring of 2018 they liquidated all the hay equipment. In the winter months, they will still feed hay but for the past few years have been working towards reducing the number of days they feed hay. The end goal is to stockpile enough feed to allow the livestock to graze year-round and not depend on machinery to do the harvesting.
In the growing season, they move animals daily using electric net for the sheep and single poly wire for the cattle. Both shared with the group, “We have seen such amazing results, even in just the first full season of using Holistic Management. When you use a combination of high animal impact- hoof action, droppings, and urine, in a short duration, 24 hours or less, with a good recovery period, the regrowth is astounding.” Another added benefit to daily moves is getting -animals on fresh grass every day. This allows animals to have a fresh buffet of greens every day. When animals are left in a pasture for an extended amount of time, they will eat their favorites first, and be left with the least nutritious and filling plants at the end. They added, “Being in the meat business, it is very important to us to have our animals eating the most diverse and nutritious grass throughout the entire growing season.”Daily moves also help with parasite control. Andrew gets asked a lot what they do to manage weeds. His answer is always the same, “We try not to look at a weed as a weed, it is a gift from nature, generally germinating in a place nothing else will grow”. They let the plant initiate soil life, then try to plant something else there to outcompete it. Kendra noted “We also use the tool of animal impact to disrupt the lifecycle of the plant rather than spraying chemicals or plowing. We know all these plants add to the overall diversity of plant offerings for the animals, and in many cases, it is volunteer green feed that comes up on its own.”
Kendra said, “Holistic Management has really helped us in our business decisions, both in the field and in the office, and we look forward to the years to come.”
Special thank you to the Ballentine Family Fund for making this event possible!
Thank you to our hosts, collaborators and outreach partners:
Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition –a joint chapter of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and National Young Farmers Coalition
Four Corners Ag Entrepreneurs – Holistic Management Group