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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Ranching in the rough New Mexico desert is a delicate balance.
“It only takes a year or two to wreck a ranch in this desert environment, and it can take generations to get it back,” said Mike Mechenbier, who owns Four Daughters Land and Cattle Company, south of Los Lunas.
Western Landowners Alliance recently hosted a tour of Four Daughters as part of its summer Stewardship in Action series.
WLA executive director and former rancher Lesli Allison said the tours allow ranchers to show they care about the environment and are practicing sustainable agriculture profitably.
“Ranchers and landowners speak from a place of experience,” Allison said. “They know the land and look at the world in a different way. If anyone can fix the environment, it’s going to be them.”
Mechenbier’s ranch is 250,000 acres in Valencia County. He is on The Land Report magazine list of America’s 100 largest landowners.
The long-time rancher said agriculture in the region is family-oriented, but not always sustainable or economical.
“Sometimes people just do things because ‘that’s the way my dad did it and that’s the way his dad did it,’ ” Mechenbier said. “We repeat the same process without thinking.”
He wants to change that, so over the past three decades Mechenbier has implemented ranching practices that help the environment and make economic sense. Mechenbier uses a regenerative grazing program for his Angus and Hereford cows with soil and watershed restoration in mind.
Holistic Management International educator Jeff Goebel said that in New Mexico’s dry environment, livestock grazing actually helps stimulate the carbon cycle and create healthier soil. The trick is to prevent overgrazing, which can devastate soil nutrients and harm a water source.
“You shouldn’t have an animal in one place for too long,” Goebel said. “You need to give the plants and soil time to recover.”
Mechenbier’s vast ranch provides that luxury. He grazes his cows in one pasture for a short time, then moves them to another pasture to restore the plants and soil before cows graze there again.
Instead of installing more fencing, the Four Daughters ranch crew use solar-powered water pumps and supplemental feed to get cattle to move before a pasture is overgrazed.
Dan Bloedel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service of New Mexico said healthy soil is key to a healthy ranch. Bloedel demonstrated how different soils retain or lose water. Plant cover is essential to providing nutrients for livestock and keeping water in the soil.
“Ranchers have always known that it’s all about the soil,” Bloedel said. “Soil ties it all together.”
Sustaining diverse plant and soil life requires careful grazing, said Lou Bender, an associate professor at New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Bender also works with Mechenbier as a wildlife and habitat biologist for the ranch.
“Often a knee-jerk reaction is to remove grazing, but that will not improve the health of the ranch,” Bender said. “You don’t want a static landscape. A lot of people look at ranches like this and say, ‘how does anything live here?’ But this ranch has recovered and is actually very healthy.”
Four Daughters ranch manager Mike Chavez said he is “blown away” by how far the ranch has come in 30 years. He said the cows are healthy and productive, and the grazing program makes the most of the ranch’s limited water and plant life.
“Our thinking has really changed,” Chavez said. “Technology has turned things upside down. You pay attention to what your cows need, and you also look at the market. You’ve got to be flexible.”
Ranchers like Mechenbier often lament that there is a gap between rural and urban knowledge of conservation issues in agriculture.
“The public is growing more aware of what kind of food they want to put in their mouths but most of the time are not aware of what it actually takes to produce that,” said Western Landowners Alliance advisor Jesse Juen.
Mechenbier, who named the ranch after his daughters, said he pays attention to the health of his ranch’s soil, livestock, wildlife and water because he wants to leave a legacy for his children and grandchildren. Alison agreed that most landowners and conservationists want the same.
“My dream is for agriculture and conservation to come closer in New Mexico,” Alison said. “I see people working together to do great things on this land.”