Brandon Dalton, BR and Horsecreek Ranches, Newell, South Dakota and Management Consultant
My initial interest in Holistic Management stemmed from my training as a biologist, seeking ways to attain true sustainability on western rangelands. My father-in-law was managing a 30,000 acre ranch using Holistic Management Planned Grazing, and achieving eye-opening results in terms of land health and wildlife, all while substantially increasing stocking rates and improving the financial picture of that ranch. My passion for conservation coincided with this concrete example of HM in action, and I knew that I needed to pursue this direction. After completing my M.S. from Washington State University in 2006, I worked with as many people versed in HM as possible, meeting many wonderful practitioners in the process. When the Grasslands project began in 2010 and I had the opportunity to be intimately involved, I knew it was a great fit.
There have been two major challenges this year: managing five herds on two properties, and excessive rain in late May. We are running livestock in several herds because it was not possible to find enough animals to stock the South Dakota ranches unless we worked with multiple livestock owners. Thus, we have several different classes of cattle (yearlings, cow/calf pairs, replacement heifers) each with different owners, which necessitate running them in separate herds. For simplicity sake, it is usually best to minimize the number of herds, as each herd must be moved to fresh pasture frequently whether it is a large herd or small herd. So a couple of large herds are easier to manage than several smaller ones, even if the overall number of animals is similar.
The weather has also been a challenge. We received well over twice the monthly average precipitation (7+ inches) in May, which led to flooding on our Horse Creek Ranch and disrupted the grazing schedule. We were also trying to receive cattle at Horse Creek at that time, but had multiple delays as it was too wet to get cattle trucks to the ranch; we ended up unloading cattle and trailing them five miles to get them onto the ranch. But now that the rains have past, we are reaping the benefit of all of that moisture, and growing lots of grass. So the disruptions attributed to excessive rain, which are relatively minor in the big picture, are well worth the security of knowing we have more than enough grass for all of our animals! We certainly would rather have excessive rain than little or no rain.
Every community in which I have worked (in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota) in the past few years has people that are interested in many of the concepts embraced by HM. Many of these people have not necessarily embraced HM itself, often due to lack of direct exposure (most people have heard of HM, but not necessarily had any formal introduction). However, most communities do have at least one practitioner and in some places there is a veritable HM community. Overall, there is a vast potential for HM that simply needs to be developed, as everywhere I have been I have found that most people genuinely want to improve the health of the land, have profitable and stable land-based enterprises, and have strong communities.
HM ties into the community aspect in several ways. While the decision-making framework formally addresses how an action or decision affects communities across scales (from local to international), perhaps the most important contribution is indirect. Many ranching communities have been losing population over the past few decades, due to many factors but including the reality that traditional ranching practices are not very profitable despite the high risk and long hours. Many young people simply leave for better pay and more attractive lifestyle in the cities.
HM provides a way to make land-based enterprises like ranching attractive to the people engaging in them, young and old alike. By enhancing the financial potential of ranching, it makes more sense for young people to come back to the ranch (or to get into ranching despite growing up in town). By enhancing the health of the land, people build genuine bonds with the land, and with others working under similar circumstances. HM practitioners are striving toward their ideals, which creates tremendous positive energy directed toward those in the community with whom they interact.
The Grasslands Ranchers Share Their Stories