Next-gen­er­a­tion ranch­ers put Earth first

New blood putting en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns ahead of cat­tle in­dus­try

The Covington News - - Agriculture & Outdoors - By Garance Burke

CATHEYS VAL­LEY, Calif. — Seth Nitschke spent his early 20s work­ing at large feed lots be­fore he re­turned home to start a busi­ness rais­ing beef cat­tle fed on the grasses of the Sierra Ne­vada foothills.

Nitschke, 31, who herds heifers through pas­tures near Yosemite Na­tional Park, doesn’t con­sider him­self an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist, though he’s plant­ing saplings to pro­tect nearby streams and runs a light herd to let his pas­tures breathe.

Un­like some of his coun­ter­parts in tra­di­tional live­stock pro­duc­tion, he and a new crop of cat­tle­men are qui­etly work­ing to min­i­mize their in­dus­try’s eco­log­i­cal foot­print and are forg­ing un­likely al­liances with en­vi­ron­men­tal groups.

“Look at this grass. If I don’t take care of it, that’s my liveli­hood,” Nitschke said, kneel­ing as he ex­am­ined fox­tail shoots. “ We dress dif­fer­ently than the eco-folks, we prob­a­bly vote dif­fer­ently, but in the end there’s a lot of ways in which our core val­ues are re­ally close.”

Across the West, cat­tle­men and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have locked horns over graz­ing prac­tices for decades. But in­creas­ingly, ranch­ers are buy­ing into the idea that they have a role to play in pro­tect­ing open space, be it through pre­serv­ing private wild­lands or pro­mot­ing sus­tain­able graz­ing tech­niques.

Near Florida’s Lake Okee­chobee, the World Wildlife Fund has re­cruited ranch­ers to build ditches on their lands to im­prove wet­lands habi­tat for threat­ened and en­dan­gered birds like the wood stork and crested caracara.

In Wy­oming, the Au­dobon So­ci­ety is try­ing to per­suade oil and gas com­pa­nies to pay ranch­ers to main­tain sage brush ex­panses key to the sur­vival of the sage grouse.

And in Cal­i­for­nia, 75 ranch- ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and state and fed­eral agen­cies have adopted a com­mon strat­egy to en­hance the state’s range­lands while pro­tect­ing its ecosys­tems.

“ This new gen­er­a­tion of ranch­ers knows they have to work on the en­vi­ron­men­tal part of it to sur­vive,” said Neil McDougald, a rancher at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion of­fice in Madera County. “I’ll guar­an­tee you the guys driv­ing cows to­day have a bet­ter en­vi­ron­men­tal con­science than the ranch­ers who were rid­ing around hold­ing up stage­coaches.”

Still, a his­tory of bad blood be­tween those who live off the land and those who seek to pro­tect it hasn’t made coali­tion-build­ing easy.

Re­cent re­search from the United Na­tions’ Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion found that the world’s largescale live­stock op­er­a­tions are caus­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems rang­ing from land de­gra- da­tion and air and wa­ter pol­lu­tion to loss of bio­di­ver­sity.

In last two cen­turies, for­ag­ing has con­trib­uted to the ero­sion of arid West­ern range­lands and wa­ter­shed con­tam­i­na­tion, said Mel Ge­orge, a range ecol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment has hit back with law­suits seek­ing to ban cat­tle­men from run­ning their herds on pub­lic lands.

Last year, 37.5 mil­lion calves were born to U.S. beef pro­duc­ers — the small­est herd since 1951 — a de­cline the Na­tional Cat­tle­men’s Beef As­so­ci­a­tion at­tributes par­tially to land loss.

Re­search and gov­ern­ment pro­grams high­light­ing how graz­ing can ben­e­fit the en­vi­ron­ment have helped make part­ners out of live­stock pro­duc­ers and their ad­ver­saries, Ge­orge said.

The USDA’s Grass­lands Re­serve Pro­gram, which works to pre­serve range­land through con­ser­va­tion ease­ments and rental agree­ments, has kept 712,000 acres na­tion­wide from be­ing de­vel­oped.

The Cal­i­for­nia Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy and other groups are lob­by­ing to get more money for the pro­gram in­cluded in the 2008 Farm Bill, said Matt Byrne, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s vice pres­i­dent.

Other pro­grams re­im­burse ranch­ers when they build fences to keep cows away from sen­si­tive pas­ture­lands or erect wa­ter tanks so cows don’t foul up creeks, said Sara Sch­midt, the Nat­u­ral Re­sources Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice’s as­sis­tant chief for the West.

Such ef­forts also serve as a mar­ket­ing tool with ecofriendly cus­tomers who seek out Nitschke’s grass-fed filet mignons, he said.

Kelly Mul­ville, a con­sul­tant to cat­tle own­ers in Colorado and New Mex­ico, says en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship can work in tan­dem with the profit mo­tive: if ranch­ers pro­tect their grass, they can feed more live­stock.

“We may end up us­ing the same tools that are de­stroy­ing our en­vi­ron­ment to re­pair it,” Mul­ville said. “Still, it’s go­ing to take a lot more than beef to save the world.”

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