In June 2023 George Whitten and Julie Sullivan hosted a 2-day HMI workshop at their remarkable San Juan Ranch in Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Along with their former apprentices, now partners in business, Sam and Noelle, the team shared their story of discovering Holistic Management’s unique insights into working with nature. George explained how the history of water access has shaped the community, the landscape and the current water use practices. George is someone who has lived his life in tune with the land. He explained how Holistic Management made perfect sense to him. Land management in such an arid, water but also saline rich place makes for unusual opportunities and constraints. Their animal’s genetics and adaptation means that they flourish where other livestock struggle. The plants their animals graze are mostly native and also adapted to the general environment.. The dry environment means that their methods of putting up hay is able to retain the quality of the forage throughout the winter in a low cost, low risk way that would not be possible in a more moist, humid environment. So George and Julie are combining what others would interpret as extreme challenges, and using those traits; dry alpine, arid, irrigated, saline, low yielding forage, and turning those attributes into a profitable operation.
Their business success has come from trial and error. But it has also come from observation and interpretation of how nature functions. Holistic Management helped George discover and perfect his unique operation’s approach. Their story is a combination of grit, ingenuity, adaptability and a deep connection and commitment to their community.
George passionately articulates the challenges, and injustices of water law, water rights and how these laws have both disempowered and left some owners without water or land. He explained his active mental exercise of choosing to engage with community and local government as an agent of positive, collaborative energy.
One of George’s powerful insights is his observation that engineered efficiency and resilience are often mutually exclusive. His observation started with the realisation that efficient water use seldom, if ever, leads to resilient aquifers. On the contrary, efficiency of water use accelerates aquifer depletion when that efficiency is used to irrigate more acres or the “extra” water is used for another purpose . This theme resurfaced throughout the workshop. George explained how their Holistic Goal’s requirement of leaving the future aquifer resource intact into perpetuity precludes efficient water use through center pivot or drip irrigation. Because flood irrigation is not efficient, it is able to return a significant portion of the water flowing back to the aquifer as recharge. With more efficient water use, the mosaic of plant and wetland communities would not be possible. Using the same amount of water more efficiently could increase the area under irrigation, but it could also lead to increased salination, and less water would make its way back to the aquifer for recharge.
The San Juan Ranch teams’ production strategy stands out because of their use of stored hay in stacked piles that cure and retain its feed quality in the winter. It is the ranch’s high elevation and dry environment that allows them to successfully cure hay in this low-cost way. By cutting hay, then dumping it in low, mini stacks to cure.
All summer, the cows graze BLM allotments, returning to the ranch in winter to use the flood irrigated meadows that have been inexpensively hayed. They allocate the stored forage to the cows by strip grazing using electric fencing. By observing then utilizing the unique features of their high altitude environment, San Juan Ranch runs a super effective, low cost hay model that enables them to provide high quality forage to the cow herd at low cost, with minimal effort. They keep the mineral cycle very rapid. There model is labour efficient, and a high return on time, while keeping the forage accessible, low waste and at high quality all while increasing plant diversity and building soil at the same time.
Wayne Knight, HMI Certified Educator and Executive Director, used stories from his ranching days in South Africa to explain the importance of managing for what we want, instead of approaching problem solving from a perspective of symptom treatment. He used the Financial Weak-Link decision testing question to show how investing where the chain of production is weakest strengthens overall business strength and channels investments to where they will have the best/biggest impact.
Forage assessment in terms of Animal Days per Acre (ADA), using the STAC method to estimate available forage were explained and practiced as a group out in the field. Wayne went through a case study of determining “whole property available forage”, then walked participants through the process of determining forage yield relative to animal requirements over a prudent time allocation. Destocking plans relative to a conservative arrival of new growth in the growing season were discussed. The case study showed how to match available forage to herd needs, thus illuminating the risk and stress of a mismatch and the high costs of hay feeding if the rancher still had too many animals at the end of the growing season.
George reminded workshop attendees of the importance of cycling nutrients through animals and the value of high quality hay produced inexpensively. His method of using high-country BLM pasture over the summer and returning dry-cows to the ranch to overwinter on stored hay to well adapted cattle means that his operation is profitable and sustainable well into the future.
Julie and George are connected to the regenerative ag community through their hosting and mentorship of interns in their operation. This deep commitment to the land and community means they are empowering and nurturing the next generation of land stewards. The group engaged in open and vulnerable discussions woven throughout the day about their perspectives and experiences of bringing younger generations into the ranching fold, particularly where the owner/operators’ children have not been involved in the business. Win-win scenarios and sufficient security for all parties, as the younger generation gain skills, accept risk and make mistakes/learn in an ever-adapting environment where discussed. Julie shared their commitment to learning and practicing the communication skills necessary to create realistic expectations for all parties involved while using the Holistic Goal to help guide these conversations.
It was an inspirational 2-days with a group of 24 attendees from Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas.
Thanks to all who enthusiastically participated in the discussions and information sharing. We look forward to continuing to learn and work together into the future.
|Knowledge, behavior and confidence increase:
|% of participants who increased:
|Overall satisfaction with workshop
|The importance of ecosystem function health as it relates to the importance of grazing animals
|How to be intentional about using the Holistic Management framework to achieve continuous improvement
|Did you expand your network by meeting new people or learning about resources available?
|The value of Holistic Management as a tool for management that embraces complexity
|Would you recommend this workshop to others?
Special thanks to our funders Martha Records & Richard Rainaldi for making this workshop possible! And a huge thank you to Julie Sullivan & George Whitten and the entire San Juan Ranch team for sharing their space, knowledge and experience with us!
Scholarship funding support comes from the L&L Nippert Charitable Foundation.