Jim Berlier squats into a crouch, reaching down to part a clump of silky grass so he can show off some bright green shoots.
It’s just a small spot on his 10,000-acre San Pablo Ranch south of Encino, but you can see it happening all over the slightly rolling terrain, and it’s a point of pride for the cattleman who has earned national recognition as a “soil health champion.”
It’s also so much more than meets the eye.
Those sprouts are indicative of a type of ranching spreading across New Mexico, in which cattlemen are figuring out ways to preserve their grasslands and keep their soils healthy so they can continue to make a living. The movement has taken on greater importance with the drought that has kept New Mexico largely parched over the last decade, forcing ranchers to sell their herds unless they can find a way to capture the little rainwater that falls.
So for Berlier, wearing the mantle of “land steward” is a matter of economics. But, while he’ll show you his grasses and his healthy cattle herds, he also wants you to see the antelope herds and the ground-nesting birds that have returned to his landscape.
He likes taking pictures, and the animals are a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
“I love the wildlife,” he says. “As they say, what’s good for the bird is good for the herd. When you see the benefits of a healthy ecosystem, there’s no going back.”
It’s a far cry from Berlier’s great-uncle Theodore, who started the ranch in the 1930s. Theodore’s basic business plan was to stuff as many cattle on the land as possible, with no worries about overgrazing or drought.
Berlier says his uncle’s philosophy was this: “Just put them in there until their tails hang over the fence.”
Ranching is big business in New Mexico. There are at least 9,000 beef cattle operations in the state (not including feed lots), and total economic impact generated by the industry is estimated at $2 billion, according to figures from New Mexico State University.
It’s also an old industry. The state’s history of animal husbandry spans 400 years, according to NMSU.
But, like all agriculture, it’s dependent on the weather and other factors beyond anyone’s control. That’s why, following devastating droughts in the 1950s and long dry spells during the past two decades, many ranchers started looking for more effective ways to hunker down and survive.
What they’re turning to is an increasingly popular management system that calls for grouping cattle together and rotating them among a variety of pastures rather than spreading the animals across the land and letting them graze without interruption.
The basic idea behind rotational grazing – also sometimes called regenerative or holistic ranching – is that keeping cattle on the move avoids overgrazing and gives the natural grasses a chance to continually recover. That, in turn, promotes healthy grass cover and healthy soil that work together to capture even a small amount of rainfall.
While there is disagreement among scientists about how effective the method is, ranchers swear by it, and there are studies that back them up.
“Rangelands that have been degraded just don’t have the density of plants, so you have a lot more bare ground,” said Lesli Allison, a former Colorado rancher and executive director of the Santa Fe-based Western Landowners Alliance. “What happens when rain hits bare ground is that it runs off and carries with it our topsoil, and New Mexico doesn’t have topsoil to spare.
“So every time it rains, we lose the ability to hold moisture, replenish our aquifer, grow new plants. It’s not only important to the rancher that we take care of those rangelands, but the system’s capacity to retain moisture is important to the entire state of New Mexico.”
Tom Sidwell, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, is a true believer.
“I see more and more people who are doing intensive grazing, holistic management,” said Sidwell, who ranches on 7,000 acres south of Tucumcari. “What’s driving it is a desire to improve conditions on the land. When you take care of the grass, and you take care of the land, you can have a more stable number of livestock. It translates into economic benefits.”
Sidwell is considered a master of rotational grazing, practicing it in an intensive way that involves moving his 200 head of cattle among 25 distinct pastures on an average of every five days. That means each pasture is resting at least 90 percent of the year, he said.
Sidwell, who has a degree in range management, says he was influenced by Allan Savory, considered by many as the godfather of rotational grazing systems. The Zimbabwe-born rancher promotes the idea that rangeland can be kept healthy if cattle are grazed in a manner similar to the buffalo herds that once covered the American West.
Savory, who founded an institute in Colorado that bears his name and who lived part-time in the Albuquerque area until recently, believes desertification is due not to the number of cows grazed, but rather by the practice of keeping them too long in the same place or returning them to the same pasture too soon.
Berlier has fewer pastures, so he rotates less often than Sidwell but follows the same principles. For example, his water system involves 15 miles of pipe that serve all his pastures, another feature of rotational grazing. That way, cattle don’t congregate near central water tanks, tromping and chomping until the grasses die off. It boosts the bottom line, he says, because he no longer has to spend “exorbitant amounts” on hay to supplement the grasses.
“Everyone else around me is feeding hay, and I haven’t had to feed any hay except to my horses,” says Berlier. “With proper management, we’re able to manage a short-term drought better than the neighbors that graze more heavily.”
Although there are no statistics quantifying the trend, it appears to be “fast-growing,” said Jesse Juen, a consultant for Western Landowners Alliance and former Bureau of Land Management state director for New Mexico.
“I think there is a growing trend in producers who are interested in production techniques that are helping promote land, water and soil health,” he said. “They are seeing themselves as not only producers of food but as stewards of the land.”
Berlier agrees, and says it’s increasingly becoming a matter of necessity.
“Sustainability is the key now,” said Berlier, president of the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts. “Fifty years ago – especially 100 years ago – these settlers came in and wiped out the grass, and then they’d move to the next frontier. But we’re out of frontiers, so we have to become sustainable where we’re at. And I think this is the way to do it.”
But does it work?
Allison of Western Landowners Alliance said there are differing opinions on the effectiveness of rotational grazing on the environment.
There seems to be, she says, “a lot of anecdotal evidence and less empirical scientific evidence about the benefits of this kind of grazing management.”
However, the results of a study released earlier this year “contributes significantly” to data showing benefits, Allison said. The study, sponsored by Allison’s group and the Thornburg Foundation, was done by Open Range Consulting, which used remote sensing technology to compare ground cover under different ranch management methods.
It looked at four New Mexico ranches, including Sidwell’s, and came up with a surprising finding: Not only did holistically managed ranches have 13 percent less bare ground than conventionally managed operations, those ranches also had less bare ground than pastures that had been rested for three or more years. Sidwell said on his ranch alone, the amount of bare ground has decreased by at least 27 percent.
The holistic ranches also beat out conventional ones on riparian vegetation, with an average of 19 percent more streamside growth, according to the study.
Still, the study’s authors cautioned, other factors that can’t be measured are likely just as important, such as the experience and skills of individual ranchers.
The authors summed it up this way: The findings “are … consistent with the hypothesis that shortening the grazing and lengthening the recovery periods may lead to improved upland and riparian cover values.”
Allison said, “The jury is still out for some scientists about whether this kind of intenstive rotational grazing is advantageous both economically and ecologically, but more and more of the new studies – and certainly all the anecdotal evidence we hear from ranchers – seems to indicate that absolutely it is a better system than the traditional, continually grazed pastures.”
For Berlier, it’s an easy call.
“It’s obvious when you see a place like mine in a drought situation like we’re in now,” he said. “I still have a lot of grass and my cows are still fat.”