Is environmentally sound livestock grazing more financially viable than overgrazing or just thoughtless grazing? If so, why? Dave Voth is a rancher in Nevada who helps lead the Society for Range Management's Good Grazing Makes Cent$ Program, an effort to take range science directly to those who make a living on the land. At least in rangeland settings, there are no future farmers without stewardship today, because economics are tied to ecology. Listen to Dave describe the intent of this outreach program for land managers of all types.
AoR 112: Good Grazing Makes Cent$, with Dave Voth
>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at artofrange.com. Welcome back to The Art of Range, the My guest today is Dave Soss, and we'll be talking about the Good Grazing Makes Cent$ program with the Society for Range Management. Dave is a rancher out in Nevada. He's one of those people who have to get the art of range management right in order to make a living. Dave, welcome.
>> Thanks for having me, Tim.
>> Well, I said you're a rancher, and I know you do some consulting as well, but so that listeners have some idea of who you are, can you describe a bit of what your history was to get to where what you're doing today?
>> So first of all, thanks for having me, and it's very generous of you to say that I get the art of range management right. I don't know about that, but I'm constantly learning about it. My background, my only goal in life from high school and even into college was to come muck around the big outfits in Nevada. I accomplished that and then spent quite a bit of time just cowboying around and loved that life, but I gained an interest in rangeland, and I thought just because I was good with cows, that must mean I'm pretty good with rangeland management. And the more I learned about rangeland management, I was pretty shocked to find that it's much more intricate than I had thought and just developed a real love for the landscape and how they function together. And each time I learned something new, it would just open up a new door. And lately, I don't know, the last five years, I've really developed an interest in ranch finances, and how these good grazing practices and good ranch management and stewardship can more often than not lead to more profitable results. And I guess that's where I'm at today is really focused on not just animal production and rangeland health, but without the finances behind that, you know, we talk about sustainability. If a ranch can sustain its economic development, then it's -- you know, those good practices are for naught.
>> Yeah, something you said was reminding me of a complaint that I've had that I don't know whether it's been addressed since or not. When I came to the University of Idaho's range program, I think I had either two or three animal science courses. One was a capstone beef management course. One was animal nutrition, and I can't remember what the third one was. But since then, I've wished that I had had more animal science, nutrition, agricultural economics, but you also had the same thing over in the beef program. The folks that were doing animal science, beef management, you know, some of the different majors had very, very little range management, but for most people in the west United States, if you own beef cattle, it usually involves some kind of range management, and not just irrigated pasture management. And I am distinguishing those things. I think some of the principles apply across but I think there are some pretty notable differences, and there was not a lot of -- not as much crossover as I think there ought to be. And I think this effort by the Society for Range Management, which we can talk about in a minute, to make a more direct connection between solid ecologically sound range management and the financial sustainability of a beef operation or a sheep operation is really important.
>> I can tell you my education was the same. I was hyper-focused on animal production, very little rangeland. And I know I took some economics classes, but I'm sure I wasn't paying attention and the real world is so much more holistic than that, but I see it everywhere. You know, people like to do what they're good at, and a lot of producers are very good at producing and not so much interested in the financial aspect of it, and I think rangeland ecology is kind of the same. I know it took me -- it wasn't school that told me that willows were a good thing. It was years of doing it wrong, and reaching out to folks like the folks who are part of Good Grazing Makes Cent$. I know I've done some rangeland practices that were not ecologically beneficial, but I didn't know, and I thought it was economically productive, but it was really neither. It was detrimental to the ecology, and it was really detrimental to the economics of it.
>> Yeah, and I think they're subtle. It was probably some stuff that I read from Fred Provenza years ago that made one of the initial connections for me from rangeland condition to species diversity, to animal health, and that translating into increased profitability through, you know, optimal body condition, and low pharmaceutical costs, you know, to name a couple, but it's a really intriguing area of science. I'm actually just reading through for the first time in full, Fred Provenza's book Nourishment, which is describing, you know, many of the research projects that are out there that have identified specific ways in which animals respond to the diversity of plants in the environment, and plant-secondary compounds, and balancing things so that they remain healthy. And I feel like that's something we haven't quite tapped into yet, but this connection between good range management and profitability is, I think, really important, and it's a message that still needs to get out in the world of rangeland-based livestock producers. Well, what is the what is the Good Grazing Makes Cent$ program and where'd it come from?
>> So Good Grazing Makes Cent$ is a program within the Society for Range Management, SRM for short. It's just one of many projects, that SRM does, and this one is specifically tailored to producers. In my time with SRM, which has been about 10 years of pretty active involvement, there's been a lack of producer involvement with SRM, and I don't think I'm talking out of school here or anything, but we -- but SRM as a whole does great research, does great things on ecology and rangelands, but I feel that it wasn't really reaching the on-the-ground practitioners of rangeland who need that information to stay in business and to, you know, maybe avoid litigation or just do a better job. I think grazing in itself can be beneficial, neutral or harmful, and it's -- we need to get those benefits of grazing out on the ground for everybody to see, and not just the producers. To me, the final step is making sure that the public is aware of the benefits of good grazing, but interim, getting producers access to this information so they can make better decisions that are not just, you know, to show off to your federal agency partners, but to also increase your maybe your carrying capacity or whatever it is that your ranch needs to be profitable.
>> Yes, and this is something that I've recently been saying to livestock producers, you know, when we're talking about range management in particular, and plant diversity, because I think there was, you know, there was some interest or maybe a push within the range science world, you know, 50, 75 years ago to maximize production. And even at the time, I think there was a connection between rangeland condition and production, but high rangeland condition, you know, could mean that you had a landscape that was dominated by, you know, economically important grasses. And there was some drive toward livestock distribution practices that resulted in a kind of grazing that made more of those grasses. And that's probably one of the reasons why some folks within the society and without the society felt that range management science was sort of geared toward livestock production. And so there -- my understanding, what I've been told, is that there was some -- there was a deliberate move away from livestock producers being involved in the society. And I could be wrong about this. I'm sure there's a large variety of opinions out there, and I welcome the correction, but there were some that perceived range science as being essentially a pawn science for the livestock industry. And probably the folks that were in range science at the time would say that wasn't exactly the case, but that was the perception. And so, you know, you certainly have seen what I would say today, increasing participation on the plight of livestock producers with the Society for Range Management, and I think that's an encouraging trend. And the trend, it wouldn't be a trend if that had not declined at some point in the past, but I think the connection is -- remains extremely important, not least because livestock producers are still one of the primary, you know, onsite, on the ground, managers of rangeland, public and private. And so that connection remains really important, but what I've been saying to livestock producers is that even if your only goal in pursuing good rangeland grazing was profitability, if it was just nothing but money, that would be sufficient incentive to be careful and diligent and, you know, following range science in an effort to do a good job. And like you said, the point isn't to get a plaque on your wall, you know, from your local chapter, necessarily, saying, you know, this person is doing a great job managing public land, but it matters for the financial stability of the business of raising livestock.
>> Yeah, that financial necessity, I think, is often the mother of either invention or ingenuity, and to me, you're right. If that's the only reason you're going to look into these things, that's a good enough reason, but I think most producers -- I genuinely feel that most producers want to do what's right for the landscape. And oftentimes, we just don't know. You know, it takes a long time. There's a big lag between academia and on-the-ground production, so we're [inaudible].
>> Yeah, I think there's a lag between -- I think there's also a lag between management actions and results on the land. You know, that feedback loop isn't immediate. Again, I've been reading a little bit more than I probably have time for about, you know, post-ingestive feedback loops, and how animals will gain an aversion to the thing that they ate, you know, most recently, relative to getting an upset stomach. Whether or not that was the thing that actually made them sick doesn't matter. That's what their brain remembers, and it works positively as well. If you eat something that gives you, you know, a positive result, then you gain a liking for that. But I feel like, you know, one of the challenges I think in rangeland monitoring is finding things that respond, you know, plant community attributes that respond quickly enough to changes in management that it's a reliable indicator of whether you're doing something right. But I think the flip side is that, you know, if people are grazing in a way that's not sustainable, it may take too long for that to show up, for there to be a useful feedback loop there. What do you think about that?
>> I -- first of all, it sounds like you're reading Fred Provenza. I'm right in the middle of that book, myself, and I just heard some of it. But beyond just, you know, something might take a couple of years, there are some projects that I may never see the result of. You know, it's a generational thing. And to wrap your head around that, is quite a bit. You know, if we're going down this path and we may never see the final result of this, you know, we're hoping that our best available science right now is correct, and I feel pretty confident about it, but we're sending some of these landscapes down a trajectory that we'll never see the result of, and trying to get young people involved so that this can get carried through generationally and these projects can see the ultimate result is -- it makes you feel pretty small. And there's something comforting about that to me to know that we're really in this for what's best for the landscape. You know, forget about a plaque on the wall. You know, we're going to be long gone before those results are available.
>> Right. Yeah, I love the idea of using this Good Grazing Makes Cent$ program to directly connect rangeland science to the people who have to implement that, or they're implementing something, and whatever is being done could possibly be improved or at least give people confidence in the things that they've been doing that they felt like probably were useful, positive sound management but didn't have the background to support it. I've seen that with some, you know, some old-school ranchers that couldn't talk about why what they're doing works. They just had some intuition, you know, kind of like shepherds of old that had some pretty solid ideas about what was good for the sheep, but they couldn't have told you why. And, again, Fred talks about a fair bit of that. But there's a direct connection between science and production. I think it's important that I don't think it's -- I don't think there's a conflict of interest there.
>> I really don't either. Those are two -- they're integral to each other, and some of the things we talked about in good practices, I'm kind of embarrassed to say this, but since we're recording, I guess I might as well share it with the whole world. You know, we talk about diversity in landscapes and I -- and it was -- it got to be kind of a buzzword that I was using freely without really thinking about it, so I sat down to kind of unpack why diversity is so important to me. And one of the things, I started looking at protein contents of grass, and when their peak protein was, and the diversity in species really brings -- really allows for your protein content to be available to cows for a lot longer. And right away, I could see the -- you know, you put that against the cost of protein supplementation, all of a sudden that diversity is showing a very positive economic impact here, bottom line.
>> Yeah, that's a great example. How did you become one of the faces of Good Grazing Makes Cent$, at least on the website? I know there's a handful of folks there that are obviously involved in various ways, either through direct teaching or, you know, being -- somebody who's available to take a question. And I want to ask more about what is the program? But first, how did you get involved with this?
>> Purely accidental, but we have a backbone of a team with Mary Jo Birrenkott, Erika Fitzpatrick, [inaudible] Walker, Martin Townsend. There's all these people behind the scenes doing the real legwork. One thing I'm not afraid to do is ask stupid questions, and more often than not, I'm not the only one with those questions. So often, I serve as a moderator for what we're doing, you know, some of the panel discussions we've had, and what I get out of this is all my questions answered. I never leave one of these things without good answers or good resources.
>> How we -- I think we've both said at some point that this is a project of the Society for Range Management. I actually don't know what was the genesis of the project. What was the -- how did it come about?
>> The impetus was getting more producers involved with SRM, and this seemed like the best way to get producers involved, to be able to answer their questions and give guidance when asked for, just bring what the producers need directly to them.
>> No, it's a great idea, and I've had a little bit of involvement with it just through looking up some of the stuff on the on the webpages and being involved with the society. I think it's a great idea, and I also feel like the social science has come around to recognizing that the people who manage the land and have local, contextual, you know, lived knowledge of the land is pretty critical, and that I know people like you who are -- who have to manage it well to make a living need to be talking to the people who are doing research and studying things that sometimes seem like they're pretty narrow and esoteric, and I could go on using lots of derogatory adjectives about how people often think of scientists but, you know, some of that, much of that, is useful but it's only useful if the land users and the people that are studying it are talking to each other and I guess, what do they call it now, you know, co-learning or co-research. You know, thinking through that together is a lot more productive than folks sitting in a lab thinking about it alone.
>> In fact, this morning, just listening to your episode with Jeff Goodwin on the Ecosystem Service Task Force and that that was good because of the variety, you know, the diversity and people who were involved in that. I'm a big believer in the three-legged stool, you know, ecology, economics and the social aspect. And I promise you I never got into this business because of the social aspect, but it's equally as important as the other two. If we're not collaborating with each other, it's just a waste of time.
>> I want to say it was the SRM meeting in Sacramento a number of years ago that Temple Grandin spoke at, and it was one of the better keynote talks that I've heard at a meeting, probably not surprisingly, but the thing that she was talking about was this -- was the importance of this social diversity in what we do. And I probably would have given some lip service to that, but maybe not valued it as much as I do now, and ought to, but she was describing she had just been, I think, down in California, somewhere further south, talking to some tech industry executives about some of the same stuff, and about different ways of knowing and different ways of thinking and learning, and she gave the example of the nuclear reactor meltdown over in Japan after they had the tsunami, and she said it's a classic example of not having enough people on your team to have seen the problem. You know, you have a culture that's almost defined by the tsunami and these cyclical, you know, destructive ocean surges, and yet you've got a nuclear power plant with the backup electrical systems below sea level. And she said anybody who thought, you know, sort of nonlinearly, who sees things in pictures who would have been involved with the project would have seen in their mind's eye the ocean water, you know, rushing into this room that has the backup systems to keep the reactors cool to keep it from melting down. And, you know, one, you've got, the whole thing designed by nuclear engineers, and two, you know, as she reported that the Japanese culture is fairly proud and would not, as a matter of principle, you know, ask for any outside advice or a check on their plans. And so you had a pretty narrow slice of humanity involved in planning what's a, you know, a pretty big deal, and it turned out to be a pretty large disaster. But if you had had a little bit more -- you know, it's not so much a matter of, in that case, having -- there's various kinds of diversity, and one of them is how people think. Different people think differently. And you need that kind of variety on your team as well, whatever the team is, whether it's a research team, ranch management team, or planning a program for outreach, like Good Grazing Makes Cent$.
>> Yeah, I think that's pretty key, like, right down to -- you know, I deal with a lot of people now, and I make note of, you know, this person likes a phone call, this person likes a text or an email, you know, just how people like to communicate. I think starting there is huge. And then I have to deal daily with people that are outside of my realm, and knowing what they need is huge for me. You know, I may come up with a great idea for how to graze this allotment over here but, you know, if I know that's not going to fly with the BLM, I'm just kind of wasting their time and mine. So knowing what will work in their world is key to even getting started in how I might develop some plans. Or a water development issue, you know, there's no way we'll get NEPA to do this, but we -- maybe we could go about it a different way to a CX [phonetic], and it might not be my ideal, but it'll work for all parties involved. And, you know, having that diversity is key, but then being able to maximize that diverse team's productivity is essential, too.
>> Yeah. No, I think that's -- those are good examples. The Good Grazing Makes Cent$ website, and emails, if folks have gotten promotional emails about it, it looks like some kind of a subscription. You know, it refers to members. What does it mean to be a member? And, you know, if I'm a rancher, why should I look it up and try to participate?
>> Yeah, we kick that around a lot. There is no shortage of affiliations that a producer or anybody in rangeland would want to be involved with, so we kept the fee pretty minimal. It's $75 a year, or $50 a year if you are with an affiliated NGO. I can tell you in Nevada, Nevada Cattlemen's Association is one of our affiliates, so anybody who's already a member of that gets in for $50 a year. What it gets you is the access to all this stuff, lots of YouTube videos. Everybody seems -- just kind of like we were talking about before, everybody seems to consume media differently. I know, personally, I don't like to sit down and read a white paper, and that's kind of the direction we wanted to take this thing to. Our audiences not going to sit down and read a long scientific paper, so we're really condensing some big ideas, and then showing you where to get the rest of the information. Personally, I like the Facebook group that membership gives you access to. I've used it on multiple occasions. All the information is vetted, so I'm confident that we're putting out good information to people, and I can tell you, personally, I've used it. I was really looking at delaying calving, and I could see how it would be beneficial to the rangeland, but the loss of pounds I was going to get on those calves, you know, if you figure two pounds a day, and you're going to delay by 60 days, that's, spread out over a lot of calves, a decent amount of money you're going to lose, and so I just couldn't pencil out how this good action for the rangeland was going to be better off economically, and I put that to the Facebook group. And right away, I had the answers I needed. The things I was missing, those variables I wasn't considering, experts in the field brought those up and right away I could see what I was missing, and how this this delayed calving would make sense, not just environmentally, but economically. So the Facebook is big to me. I know it's -- the video content, I think is probably up there for me also. Most of the videos are 5 to 10 minutes, and quite a bit of information compacted into there, but everything's done at a pretty low level. Our object is not to make this overwhelming. It's to highlight the main points of whatever the topic is, for example, time, timing, and intensity. We did one video on that, and it was five minutes that just gives you the bare bones of this is what time, timing and intensity is and what it can do. Done other things, fall grazing, dormant season grazing, and drought management. Then other times, we get into some pretty big panel discussions. We've done one on just the carbon market, you know, everything you need to know about the carbon market. We did that at SRM, filmed it where we had a panel of people who have gone through the process, people who are close to going through the process, experts in carbon, people who purchase those carbon credits and just laid everything out on the table. And certainly not all questions were answered on a topic like carbon, on the carbon market, but a lot of questions were answered and information on where to go next was answered, too. So there's just an abundance of resources that Good Grazing Makes Cent$ is condensing and packaging in a digestible way, and I don't think it's even our intent to unpack all of those things, but just to point people in the right direction and give them help in making those decisions.
>> Yeah, and but part of what you're saying, I think, points up one of the things that I've find, maybe most compelling or most interesting about range science is that it's, by definition, synthetic science. And so, you know, you can talk about research results, but I've been in some academic debates before where this person says, "Well, this proves x," and the other guy says, "Yeah, but, you know, here's five other studies that that proved y." And they appear to be mutually exclusive result, but, you know, you could do that all day long. So it appears that the goal of this is to, you know, pull together a synthesis of, you know, we've got 100 years of research more if you include, you know, people that knew something that didn't publish it, you know, from further back, what collectively, you know, over the years that people have been learning has been learned about this. And sometimes there's not answers. You know, you mentioned that we don't -- you got to some answers, but there's some things that don't have solid answers yet, and that's also useful to identify the things that are known unknowns. And then that probably eventually gets us to some of the unknown unknowns, and then work on learning through it together. Like carbon science is a good example where, you know, you could, if you had 10 scientists in the room, 10 NGOs and 10 ranchers, you'd end up with, you know, 75 opinions, and some of them will be right, and some of them, we don't know if they're not right yet, but the only way we figure that out is by working through it and learning through it together.
>> Yeah, and again, it takes that diverse team to really see all the different variables. I've been part of some discussions, some regenerative discussions where people were not so thrilled with the yield they would get, and they're not economists. So if you take all those, and this wasn't me doing it but, you know, sometimes your yield is shortened but your input levels are reduced two-fold, so it makes way more economic sense to do something like that. And that's personally one of the things I try and do all the time is just reduce those variables enough that I can make a good decision and see a bigger picture, and I really try hard to stay away from the way we've always done things as a crutch to make my decision.
>> Right, right, to find, you know, what can be measured that gives you some reliable indicator of what's actually happening. And on the flip side, you know, with range scientists that are sometimes dismissive of the local knowledge that ranchers have, I've had a number of ranchers, again, the ones that probably wouldn't -- they would never read a white paper, and they for sure would never read Rangelands, and then they might use REM, you know, to make paper airplanes, but they have accurate observations of what's going on in the real world that are pretty nuanced and sensitive, because they've been observing it closely for a long, long time. Like, they can see changes in the plant community that monitoring is probably not going to pick up because you'd have to be measuring for that specific thing, and it's just not there. That's assuming it would even be getting done. But I recall Kevan Gwynn, who was the NRCS range guy here in Washington state for many, many years, saying that one of the most important things that people can do is keep a record of observations. You know, we want to try to measure stuff that can be compared over time, but some of the things that are changing, you know, in the real world, in what's going on with your animals are difficult to measure, or it takes more effort to attempt to measure it in an objective way than people are going to do, but just making a brief note of something that stood out to you in a particular year and having that for access later on, has tremendous value. And I've even begun doing that in situations where I'm doing some kind of formal monitoring, but I'm observing something that I'm aware, whatever my measurement methods are for plant community attributes is not going to pick up, but I think it's probably important, I just make a note of it and keep that with, you know, whatever other so-called hard data there is for this particular location. Those things are really valuable, and I think they shouldn't be ignored.
>> Yeah, and that's one of the reasons I find photo monitoring, I don't want to say better, but at least more applicable. We did a tour a couple of weeks ago in the Winnemucca area where Brad Schultz had taken historic photos, you know, just from eople in the community and donerepeat photography on it. And, you know, those people who were taking the original pictures weren't doing any monitoring. They might have been taking a picture of, you know, a hunting party or something, but in the background, you can see what the aspen stand looked like 60 years ago and what it looks like today. I think photo monitoring with a little more intention is something we can all do pretty easily with the cameras on your phone and storage, so easy to store information now. It makes those observations you're talking about much easier to capture.
>> Now we've mostly talked about why ranchers should be participating in the Good Grazing Makes Cent$ program. Do you feel like there's a place for what I call natural resource professionals, you know, agency range gone conservation district folk?
>> Absolutely, and I didn't understand that at first. My motives for this were purely selfish. I wanted to learn more and do better, and it occurred to me on a another interview we were doing. I got asked a similar question, and I hadn't really thought about it, but academia, NRCS, you know, the agency folks, it's providing a pretty good feedback loop to them to understand what it is producers are interested in, so it does go both ways. And I don't know, maybe the brains behind the grazing make sense about that the whole time, but it occurred to me much after we started it that this feedback loop is kind of perpetuating itself now. Ranchers are asking questions. Academia can get a better handle on what it is that producers want to know, and then provide them with more information, and it just kind of feeds on itself. As you know, with rangelanders, there's rarely one solid answer. You know, the answer is always it just depends, so it's endless topics.
>> Yeah, it definitely is. And, again, I think this is one of the reasons why this is intriguing. This being rangeland science, and specifically, its application to livestock production, and because there's such a gigantic diversity of topics, I think a much bigger range of topics (pun intended) than, you know, say something like, growing corn. And because of that, I think the Society for Range Management is a largely unknown resource for ranchers. You know, producers are often involved in, you know, commodity organizations that are doing important things, politically. But even at that, I started my career in Washington State as the exec for the Washington Cattlemen's Association, and most of that was advocating for cow calf producers in various ways, but it felt like any place that there was political success, it was usually when we could point to environmental success. And because my background, in terms of education, had been rangeland ecology, that was much more satisfying to me. And, of course, it doesn't help either that cow calf producers are a difficult group to advocate for, because they don't agree on anything, and I count a very large number of ranchers as good friends of mine. But, you know, none of them would disagree that they disagree on a lot of things, which is fine, but I felt like I could be most productive in terms of helping what I think is a really important sector of agriculture by trying to help people be more environmentally sound. And at this point, you know, I definitely would say I'm a full believer in the idea that doing that well also makes economic sense, for sure. So I came to WSU in 2003, and had been working in range and livestock management since then, so I think -- and there's not a lot of other sources for this kind of information. Most of it's not coming through, you know, other producer organizations, and so just a little bit different angle. So the material in this Good Grazing Makes Cent$ program, I would agree with you is important, and it's sound, and it's also a gateway to get people to even more valuable information when they need it. And the people who have access to that information can be good advisors, and that includes both other producers and folks that are, you know, in the world of range science. Well, if somebody was interested in participating in the Good Grazing Makes Cent$ program, where would be the best place for them to go to learn about it or somebody to talk to?
>> So goodgrazing.org is the first place. You can also find it on Facebook.
>> Okay, Dave, thank you for your time, and I will let you go.
>> Thanks for having me, Tim.
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