AoR 6: Jack Southworth, Adaptive Stocking for Ranch Resiliency

Jack Southworth, a rancher in Eastern Oregon, discusses with Tip how he manages for ecological and economic resiliency through flexible stocking rates, changing class of cattle based on the season's feed resources, and maximizing photosynthesis rate through the high desert's short growing period. 

Transcript

[ Music ]

>> 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.

[ Music ]

My guest today on the Art of Range is Jack Southworth, a rancher in Eastern Oregon. I met Jack last year by recommendation of several range researchers who said we should consider Southworth [Inaudible] Ranch for a short film documentary series we were doing at Washington State University on ranchers managing for rangeland resiliency against climate uncertainty. Thank you, John [Inaudible] for putting us together and we also need to recognize the Society for Range Management for their support of the podcast. Anyone who is involved in range management should be a member of the SRM. Go to rangelands.org to learn how to sign up. And for those listeners who are certified professionals in range management, there are continuing education credits available for engaging with podcasts. Go to artofrange.com to learn how to claim your credits. Jack Southworth, welcome to the show.

>> It's good to be here, Tip. Thanks for coming to downtown Bear Valley.

>> I'm glad to be here. First, how did you end up being a rancher? Was this something that happened by birthright, lifestyle choice, business opportunity, maybe a get-rich-quick scheme?

>> It's certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme but by birth, my great-grandfather had a small sawmill near Canyon City. And to operate a sawmill, he had some oxen and horses he needed hay for. So he took out a homestead here in Bear Valley to cut hay on that homestead for his oxen and horses. Well, my grandfather and great-uncle thought the logging sawmill thing was not a path to pursue but they thought they could develop a ranch out here in Bear Valley. And they grew the ranch over time. After their careers here, my folks took it over. I grew up on the ranch. And from about high school on, I thought this was an interesting path to pursue. There's something about managing livestock, managing grass, managing people in a way that is good for land, livestock and people and it brings about a profit that is just a fascinating puzzle. And I think the opportunity to learn about range science, animal science, social skills was -- compelled me to return to the ranch and make a career here. And my wife and I have managed the ranch since 1978, my wife Teresa.

>> Very good. There's a line from an old Alabama song that all comes back to mind. It says, "The fruits of their labor are worth more than their pay." They keep the country turning around and I want to say that I appreciate people who generate true wealth. That's what makes a culture and economy keep moving. We're discussing ecological, economic and social resiliency or sustainability of beef cattle operations. And there's been quite a bit written and talked about, about how that's tied to matching the animal to the environment. There had been quite a few prominent spokesmen for these ideas, both in the mainstream beef industry and in academia. We visited a [inaudible] recently and he talked about Kip Ferrell who's one of the evangelists of low cost production in smaller animals. Kip is perhaps best known for pushing smaller breeding stock, both cows and bulls, and has turned quite a few large ranches toward smaller body sized animals. And that's related to a number of long-term studies that have been done looking at ranch economics and livestock economists commonly come up with the conclusion that the ranch who's the lower cost producer is the one that consistently makes money. Like it or not, but there have been others who would say, "We have, you know, we have high-power genetics in the beef industry now and we should pay for whatever inputs are necessary to be able to capitalize on those genetics and produce a superior animal." What are your thoughts on trying to match the animal to the environment and to what extent is there maybe a tradeoff between producing what the market wants and producing an animal that fits well in a semi-arid landscape?

>> You know, that's a really good question. The -- it's obvious to me that the size of our individual cows has gotten too big. You know, we used to think of an old-time Hereford cow being a 900- to a thousand-pound cow. And in range management, we still think of an animal unit month as based on a thousand-pound cow. But the average cow in the registered Angus, registered Herefords, Simmental, take your pick, they're all somewhere between 1300, 1400 pounds now. And our commercial herds are not far behind. Some of them are as equally big. So you talk about high-power genetics but that genetics has outpaced the requirements that those genetics need to perform has gone beyond what a lot of our arid range requirements can provide. So I think people like Kip Ferrell to rein that in and say, "We don't need frame score six to seven cows. We need frame score three and four cows. It's a good thing to put the brakes on that expansion in the size of the cows in our cowherd and bring it back to what our environment could support. However, it's not just about the environment. It's also about being able to market your product. And you want to have an animal that will perform well in the feedlot, end up in the size that the packers can afford to process and end up in the meat counter in individual cuts, the size of which that the customer, the retail customer wants for his or her table. And so I think it's a balancing act. Personally, I think frame score three and four cows are too small. I also think frame score six and seven are too big. But if we can get somewhere between the frame score of four-and-a-half to six, then I think we have something that does a better job of matching our environment and matching the needs of the consumer. You talked about resiliency. We need cattle that can handle adverse conditions. And you said in the introduction about how it seems like our environment, our weather, our climate, there's more variability in it. There's -- and we'll go to from a very wet year or years to a dry year or years. And so having cattle that can survive an environment that has different levels of production in it is going to be critical. And I think these smaller frame cows and I've used the term often on frame, will do that. I read something not long ago is that with modern genetics, a cow calf man can't afford to sell his cattle as weaner calves because they haven't had time to perform. And that's a little spooky because that means that the genetics we have are best suited to the feed lot, the finishing phase. And we need genetics that work well on the range. We need cows that can give birth, cycle, breed back, wean a calf on the range conditions we have without too much additional protein or energy supplementation. And if we keep going for larger and larger cows, we're going to run the risk that we're going to be increasingly adding to the cost of supplementing those cattle. You mentioned that the low cost producer is oftentimes the most profitable. And to me, well, okay, I'll give you that grudgingly but I think it's the producer that minimizes cost, at the same time, optimizing the income. And so maybe the right supplement at the right time more than pays for itself. But we need to keep a lid on the production requirements of these cattle. And so, having said that maybe a frame score of three and four is too small, it's certainly a good thing to keep the production size and requirements for a cowherd in check. So how do we do that? First of all, I think we stop replacing or selecting replacement heifers that are the biggest in the herd. Gosh, they're fun to look at, aren't they? And either weaning or coming in as yearlings, those big heifers, you think, my golly, I should reward myself on a better cowherd because they've obviously performed here. But we --this put us on a track for ever larger livestock. So instead of selecting replacement heifers for the largest end of the herd, let's scale it back a little bit and select replacement heifers that are average or just a little bit above. And that keeps our cow size in check but also rewards performance. Secondly, if we individually weigh our cows each fall at weaning and preg testing, so that we know what our cow size is and we want a cow that's somewhere around 12 to 12-and-a-half. But there's a range that works so we have 1100-pound cows and we also have 1350, 1400-pound cows. But there's a limit to what we want here. Those cows that are over 1400 pounds, we're starting to sell because they're really marketable. They are well received in the market place. There are people on irrigated pasture that want that size of cow. So getting rid of the biggest cows in our cowherd is helping us keep our cow size in check. And then thirdly, what I just mentioned, weighing the cows in the fall has been a real eye-opener for us. Everyone you talked to say, "Yeah, we run our 1200-pound cows." And they don't know.

>> Right.

>> Because they never weigh them.

>> They never weigh their cattle.

>> Yeah.

>> The average is quite [inaudible] on what they think.

>> And so by weighing our cattle, it's got our attention that our cow size has got too big too and we're pulling it back. So those are things we are doing by selecting females to keep cow size in check. But the other thing to do is when you select your sire. When you go to a bull sale, what do you buy? Same way with your replacement heifers, you buy the high performing bull. We've got to stop doing that. We've got to start buying bulls with frame score five and no more than frame score six. And to help because it's their offspring that are going to come back to the herd, and so making sure that the breeders you buy from have measured the frame score of their bulls and know the genetics behind them. Also, an important part of knowing the size of our cowherd is making sure that it fits our environment. The third thing, I could say, after females, after bulls is have a set of rules for how you're going to manage your cowherd. It's important to meet the nutrient requirements. There's lots of information now about the nutrient requirements of our cowherd in each state of gestation and lactation. So we should meet those requirements based on a size of cow but we shouldn't overdo it. And by keeping our rations in check with the size of cow we want, that'll also help eliminate cows that get too big because they get too big, they shouldn't come in as open cows or cows that did produce [inaudible] calf. So all those things together, I think, will help us keep the size of our cows or our individual cows in check. And at the same time, I think it'll help us better match our cattle to our environment. It's -- should we get smaller than that 1200-pound cows? Should we get down to a thousand or 1100? I would say that we ought to keep in mind the needs of our customers beyond the ranch. The feedlot, the packer and ultimately, the consumer. And let's make sure that we're providing the cow that performs well for the feedlot, process as well for the packer and eats well for the customer. And then, if we keep looking at those things, that'll help tell us what size we want.

>> I've seen some cattle that are half Corriente and half Angus in an environment that's extremely steep. You know, a lot of topographical variation. And they consistently do a better job of accessing the areas that are farther from water or on steeper and rougher slopes, you know, than say, a 1200-pound Angus cow. These that are half-and-half are probably a thousand to 1100 pounds each. In that group of cattle, there were also some straight Corrientes that kind of look like mountain goats. They're about 800 pounds apiece. But when those half-and-half cows are bred back to an Angus bull, they produce a really nice calf that is still functional in the feedlot and sold pretty well. You talked about, we've talked about adjusting the genetics of the cowherd in order to try to match the environment. To what extent is it possible or do you manage the relative composition of the different classes of livestock in order to match the environment?

>> And by composition of the classes, you mean?

>> Steers versus calves, mares and based on the feed resource or the variation in year to year in [inaudible].

>> Okay, so I heard two things there. One, you talked about the extreme environments that might need a smaller-sized cow to cover the country then the other thing, the classes of livestock that we have on this ranch to meet the forage production that we have here. Did I get it right?

>> Yeah.

>> So an extreme environment, the Corriente, Angus or a Longhorn with a British animal, those are excellent ways to address the needs of really severe environments. It might be low precipitation environments or it might be environments that are steep and rugged. And that's good. What I described to you before was a ranch like ours that raises its own replacements. But if I see a real rugged environment, what I might do is have these crossbred smaller cows and then buying a terminal cross bull like an Angus. And that would produce the calf that would fit the market place, the feeder, the packer, the consumer. And yet I'd have a smaller-sized cow for my environment. And the only trick would be where do I find my replacements? Do I have a separate herd that just grows replacements or am I able to find them elsewhere? But that is, I think, an excellent point that we don't have to produce our own replacements. We can buy them elsewhere that may be better fit the environment and the cattle we're producing with a terminal cross. As far as classes of livestock to meet the forage production of our ranch, we're what you call a cow-calf-yearling outfit in that we have cows that raise calves and weaning instead of selling the calves to carry them over for the weaner after they're weaned and then the next growing season. And then we sell them as long yearlings, placing them in the feedlot or selling them as bred heifers. And the nice thing about a cow-calf-yearling outfit is that yearling phase can be a shock absorber. On a year that we don't have much forage, we can either sell those yearlings in the spring, run them a shorter time in the summer, or find additional grazing for them elsewhere because yearlings are easy to haul and ship, easier than cows and calves. Yet we still have the base herd, the cow-calf herd that was well in line with the annual forage production on this range whether it be a good year or a bad year. And then we can use those yearlings then to take advantage of a really good year or decrease the yearlings in a year we don't have as much production. And then within that, we could -- additional flexibility would be, well, somebody might want to keep [inaudible] having a smaller cowherd running our yearlings and then decided whether or not to purchase additional yearlings for our summer grazing. Where we are at Bear Valley is at a relatively high latitude or altitude for Eastern Oregon at 4700 feet. And we have cooler summers. We have green grass a little longer and so on a yearling, we could put on 300, 350 pounds of gain. And that gives us some flexibility too whether or not to purchase a yearling to use on our summer grass. So those three things, the size of the cowherd, how long do you keep your own yearlings, possibly purchasing yearlings to place your own feed or the fourth one would be you could rent pasture to someone with yearlings for them to run. Those are all ways that we can deal with these fluctuations in forage production on our own base property.

>> Yeah. I interviewed Kirk Davies recently about some of the research they're doing there at the Burns Station. And most of our conversation had to do with management in the face of annual grasses. But we were also discussing the inherent variability in most western landscapes. By western, I mean everything west of the 100th meridian, right in the middle of the Great Plains. And pretty much all of this has always been characterized by high either annual variability in the timing and amount of precipitation. That's not a new thing. But maybe we're just beginning to be able to respond to that in a way that makes sense. And I'm encouraged that there at the Burns Station, they have about an average of 14 inches of annual precip. But he said that might be only, you know, one year out of 10 that they're within 10% of the 14 inches. Other years, they're either higher or lower and probably more lower than higher. But the good years still keep the average up there. So how much would you say forage production related to precipitation varies on your place?

>> So we're high enough altitude where reliable enough precipitation that we have almost entirely perennial grasses. Perennial grasses are more stable in production than annual grasses. To the south of us where Kirk's talking about, you have more annual grasses and then greater fluctuations in production. But even so, here, I think we would have a 20% to 30% variation in production. And I'd still think that it was in the range of normal.

>> Right.

>> A 20% to 30% reduction isn't a panic for us. That's something we need to deal with. And so, we would deal with that by either decreasing yearlings or running them for a shorter period of time. We might find outside grazing elsewhere we could put our yearlings on. And so those yearlings would absorb that 20% difference. If we feel like we're in a dry spell, we might cut back from the number of replacements we keep. We might start feeding hay earlier in the winter if we think that we've had less production in the year. We're getting short of fall forage. And we would make up that difference by purchasing additional hay. But mostly, we account for the differences in production by fluctuations in the number of yearlings that we sell. I think Kirk's exactly right. Wet years, dry years, there's hardly ever an average year, yeah.

>> Yeah, I mean, we're a little bit insulated from that in the [inaudible] west where we have primarily a wintertime precipitation [inaudible]. On the east side of the Rocky Mountains, they tend to be a little bit more variable even where there's years when things don't even [inaudible] up in the spring. You know, when they have a drought, it's a short enough drought. You know, we call it -- we have drought conditions every year because it doesn't rain much after April 15th in most of this part of the world. It's a little bit different environment but similar responses. The podcast is called "The Art of Range" because practicing range management is as much about learning from the environment as it is imposing management inputs on the environment. And a good ranger is adapting all the time, whether that's conscious or not. To some extent, I think it's true that a profitable ranch must be one that successfully adapts. And when I was talking with Fred Provenza, he made the case that fighting nature gets expensive. But as you mentioned before, there are some, there's a sweet spot there. The economist would say where marginal revenue equals marginal cost. That represents kind of a zone of profitability. What are some ways that you've managed your environment for say, maximum or optimum productivity separate from the cowherd but now focusing on land management practices?

>> We think of ourselves first primarily as a grass ranch. You know, we're all called cattle ranches. But we're really a grass ranch. I mean, that's what we're producing. The cattle are a way to market that resource. And so, we are thinking constantly about the long-term health and productivity of these perennial grass plants. And the first thing we want to do is reduce the amount of bare ground. And we think of bare ground as the, as a failure. And if we could have 100% ground cover, 100% of the time on all parts of the ranch, that would be success. And that's the goal. I don't think we'll ever achieve that goal but we'd like to get there with that dense stand of perennial grasses. And where I don't have a perennial grass plant, I have decaying plant litter on the ground. And so we have something that rain could hit but it's not going to move the soil. We have something on the ground that the sun can shine on but it's going to insulate that soil from increases and decreases of soil temperature. We think that by having the soil covered, we're going to have less precipitation and more plant, more soil moisture available for plant growth for a longer period of time into the spring and summer. So those are all the reasons we want to have our ground covered. And then the second thing we keep in mind is when does that plant best able to take on grazing livestock? And I realize that some people graze year-round. But for us, we think of our prime grass-growing season as being May and well into June. But still, probably not more than 60 days of really good grass growth. Albeit, plants start greening up in April. Albeit, there's slow grass growth going into July. But that May and June period is when you capture 90%, 95% of your plant growth. And so, we don't want to start grazing until the grass plants have at least three-and-a-half new green leaves from the current year's growth on the grass plant. And that way, we're getting past the time when the perennial grass plant is using its energy reserves for that first early spring growth and starting to rely on photosynthesis. Secondly, we want to when we buy that grazed plant or growing plant, we want to only use a quarter to a third of those green leaves. But we want to leave a lot of photosynthetic material behind so that plant could continue to grow in May and June and achieve its potential for the soil moisture we'd be able to store it in the ground and the capability of the plant to grow. So that means that one, we start grazing after three-and-a-half leaves. But then also, I kind of like the short grazing periods. We think of a plant year as being 365 days but the plant growth season is only 60. And so, 60 days where the plant has to grow, set seed and store energy in its root reserves. And that is the growth period where we want to be real careful how we graze. What we do after that growing period is not all that important as long as we leave quite a bit of residual behind. And so we want that short grazing period and then leave that grass plant and don't come back to it either until the following year or after the end of the growing season. And by doing that, we are maximizing the production of those plants, maximizing the residual. Why do I care about the residual? Isn't that just waste feed? And my answer is that the residual feed is what is able to become ground cover, to cover up that bare ground. And one other thing about grazing after three-and-a-half leaves and before the plant sets seed is that we can stimulate tillering. And even on these perennial grass plants, these [inaudible] grasses, we don't think of as being a rhizomatous or anything, they still send out lead tillers. And by grazing through three-and-a-half leaves and seed set, we could stimulate that tillering which also increases the density of grass plants on the ground. And so, short grazing periods, long recovery periods and getting as much material on the ground as possible. If I were you, I'd say, "Gee whiz, Jack, it just sounds like you're wasting feed. You're coddling your plants." And my answer is that we need to invest in our plants, that these grass plants are like an investment with principal and interest. And if we start leaving very little residual, by very little, I'm saying two or three inches residual behind, or we start grazing too early when it's just root reserves providing the green leaves early in the spring, we're eating principal. And I want the savings account in terms of the health of my grass plants increasing. And if I have a more vigorous plant that I'm utilizing 25% to 30% of, that 25% to 30% gets bigger and bigger and bigger over time. We aim for about six-tenths of an AUM per acre. So an AUM being a thousand pounds of forage, we're aiming for about 600 pounds of production per acre. I think if you looked at our land use, you'd say, "Well, gee whiz, Jack. It looks like you're producing a thousand." But the reality is that I want that other 400 pounds and a lot of instances, it's more than that, going back to the soil surface. And so like just taking, leaving a lot behind, taking a moderate amount, short grazing periods, long recovery periods, I have a denser stand of grasses. I have more unused grass plants decaying on the ground. I think I have better moisture retention. I think I have lower, cooler soil temperatures in the summer. And I have more vigorous plants. That, going back to what you recently talked about are more resilient.

>> Right and some that you've said before is economic resiliency is having money in the bank and yeah, with this kind of grazing management, I call it -- I think some ranchers feel like it's leaving money on the table. And I like to say it's leaving money in the bank. Just to follow up on what you're saying about grass growth, I don't think that's coddling primarily because once you're out of the growing season, as you said, all of your growth is dependent on photosynthesis. And the rate of growth is proportional to how much leaf area you've got on the plant above ground. And so, you know, if you think of those 60 days where you actually have the potential for high daily growth rates. You know, if you plot that on a graph, every day that you've got high growth rates, the area underneath all of those points is your total yield for the season. And so, your goal is something other than just keeping the plants alive. It's keeping them at a high rate of growth as much as is possible. I think that, you know, one objection that could be raised to the three-and-a-half leaf idea is that that represented -- that was one of the guidelines given, you know, in range readiness recommendations. But the idea of range readiness was that you were turning cattle out on a single piece of ground and leaving them there for the growing season. And you didn't want to come on until the plants are ready for growth. What you're talking about is avoiding grazing until the plants are big enough to have something left behind after they take, you know, one cut at it in the springtime and then removing the animals so the plants can go ahead and grow rapidly and yield a lot in order to have something to graze later.

>> Right and then with the set stock that you're just describing is that I think it's unfair to grass plants. I like to think in terms of fairness. If I was a grass plant, I'd like to be grazed once and then left alone to continue growing through the growing season. And then come back to graze me a little bit more, if you want to again but still leave that five inches of stubble behind, five to eight inches of stubble behind so that I can lay something on the ground. And the three-and-a-half leaves might have been created for set stocking rates a long time ago. But through research, it's been shown that it's not until that stage of maturity that you can get that tillering to occur. And so that tillering, that spreading of even the bunch grass plant that increases the density of grass plants and reduces our percentage of bare ground is just critical. And so to lose out on that tool because we're a little bit greedy in the spring is, I think, short-sighted. It's cashing in a bond before its end term and taking a bit of a penalty. So let's allow these plants to flourish and our -- even in the bad years when it's dry, we have a healthy plant. It's going to be more productive than a plant that was stressed or starved or severely bitten in the year or years previous to that. We're, as human beings, we can take the occasional night where we don't get much sleep. We can take the occasional day where we work for 12 or 14 hours. We can take the occasional day where we don't eat very well. But we can't do any of those things on a sustained basis and perform to our optimum. So I want grass plants that are well rested but vigorous with a lot of green forage on them, with a lot of green leaves. Now, you talked, you said it so well about you have that photosynthetic surface. We have a limited time. We want to maximize the leaves and capture that sunlight and continue growing and as the plant matures, store energy in the roots and in the crown for new growth next spring.

>> And those plants are solar panels not mushrooms.

>> Yeah.

>> Something else you said made me think of a comment that Kirk Davies made. We were talking about monitoring and what some useful indicators of rangeland health might be. And the new ecological site descriptions that NRCS lists 17 indicators of rangeland health. But a rancher is not going to measure all 17 of those. So I was asking him what are some useful metrics that somebody could reasonably measure that would be, that would be telling as to whether or not we're making progress or losing ground. And one of the things that he mentioned that's easy to measure that is an extremely useful indicator is the density of the bunch grass plants which is something a little bit different even in the basal area or the amount of ground covered by the rooted portion of the plant. But one of the reasons why density is important is because bunch grass plants or any kind of plants have a lifespan. They don't last forever. And if they're not successfully reproducing then you eventually have a decadent stand that thins out or gets replaced by perhaps less desirable plants. And one of the limiting factors to getting particularly native perennial grasses to reproduce is getting seed in contact with the soil. But if you have, if you have dense, if you have a dense stand, it's an indicator that you've got multiple age classes represented in your plant community. So you've got young plants, middle-aged plants, older plants and that there's a variety of ways to accomplish that. But one of them is that they have to be able to produce a seed head periodically. What kind of, what kind of range plants do you primarily have? Your operation goes from some lower, a little bit lower -- low for yew up into your ponderous pine and mixed conifers on the forest. What kind of range plants do you have at your lowest elevations?

>> So at our lowest elevations, we have either Idaho fescue, some bluebunch wheatgrass and quite a bit of crested wheatgrass. I might argue with you and Kirk that we need seeds. If we have healthy perennial grass plants that are tillering, we can have grasses that through the tillers, a creation of young, new plants from the tillers that become independent of the original parent plant. We could have plants that get a denser stand. I will agree with you and Kirk that density is everything. Ground cover is everything. So instead of 17 indicators, you know, we had percentage of air ground, percentage of perennial grass plants versus annual. I think we would have a pretty good sampling of the health of a rangeland. Now, there's nothing wrong with those 17 indicators. But to me, it's demonstrate an audit and balancing your checkbook. You are not going to have an accountant come in here and doing an audit on your personal finances once a month. But you sure want to know how much money you have in the bank, don't you? And so we need something we can glance at quickly to capture the health of our rangelands. And for ongoing periodic monitoring, let's use -- see if we can reduce the percentage of bare ground and increase the density of perennial grass plants. If we're doing those two things, we're having, I think, an increasingly healthy range. Having said that, do I mind shrubs in the range? No, just as long as they aren't well, taking over the range. And I'm capturing that by measuring the percentage of or frequency of perennial grass plants. Seeds, I mean, plants produce seeds for a reason but there's been a lot of research that's shown that seeds are very efficient or predictable in you don't get a seed into a seed lead into a mature grass plant every year. You can have a decade where you don't get any seedlings at all. You can have a decade where all the seedlings die of drought. So the importance of having these plants like a tiller and spread vegetatively rather than sexually is really critical to health of these rangelands. How do we get to tillering? By grazing after three-and-a-half leaves and before seed set. And that can occur, you know, we think of it immediately, grass being the all-time tillering plant of the introduced species. When we think of bluebunch and Idaho fescues not tillering but even they tiller to some extent. We can get denser stands of grass, you know, if we graze them appropriately.

>> Yeah and each of those tillers has its own root system. Some of the old range scientists called it walking out when a big plant would split up into multiple plants and kind of function independently.

>> Did they think that was a good thing?

>> Yeah.

>> Okay, because I'd, see, that sounds to me like an increasingly dense rangeland that these big perennial bunch grasses that have the hollowed out dead center, that is a spreading out and walking away, is it?

>> No, the live tillers on those is extremely small.

>> Yeah, so have these plants that can produce the live tillers and make a denser, healthier rangeland. That's good. I mean, we're thinking about our climate as getting increasing dry. They're not increasingly dry, at least increasingly variable. We need healthy plants that can handle a dry year but also conserve that moisture. We only do that through covering that bare ground. That plant cover on the ground just like a Band-Aid on a sore, it protects it. It keeps it from being abused by weather or variations in temperature. It's just like a sweater on a chilly day. It gives us comfort, enables us to better withstand the changes in temperature and weather.

>> We talked some about ecological resiliency by being careful about how we manage rangelands and managing for maximum plant health. And we've talked a bit about economic resiliency and trying to create animals and manage animals within a year in a way that doesn't cost a fortune to keep them alive or reproducing. But I think social resiliency is maybe not quite as easy to put your fingers on how to do that well. I'm thinking of some recent studies, one by UC Davis where they were asking rangers, "What do you see as the primary obstacles to ranching in general?" And by and large, and this is consistent with surveys and across the West, they would say that regulations, sometimes environmental regulations but regulations in general, are one of the main threats or the main risks to the viability of ranching, which is very much a social thing. I think some of that is the result of the legacy effects of mismanaged grazing from a hundred years ago. Those landscapes take a while to change and to recover from that. Whatever aspects of social resiliency do you think are relevant?

>> So social resiliency to me is the ability to handle stress. And that stress could be in the form of increased regulation. It could be in the form of people on, of other users on public lands wanting to use the same grazing area that you do albeit for different functions. Social stress can be the fact that maybe a higher, better use has come along for a piece of land that you're renting or public lands. So how do we, how do we deal with this fact that there's we're somewhere around eight billion people in this planet and the wide open West is no longer wide nor open? We need to find ways to graze that is compatible with other users. And people have, society has said that they want wolves back in the landscape. Society has said they want anadromous fish in their streams. Society has said they want areas of seclusion for people to recreate in, whether it be camping or hiking or hunting or bird watching. And so, how do we provide all those uses and yet continue to have ranches that can thrive and prosper? My answer is that we need to be cognizant of those other users. We need to be respectful of them. There's a segment of the livestock industry that feels that we could just go back to 1966 and manage the way that their grandparents did, everything would be hunky dory. Well, it's not going to happen. The world's a different place. And a few weeks ago, I was at a seminar where members of the Oregon Cattle Association were talking about how they manage around wolves. And I was so impressed. I mean, who would want wolves on their grazing land? No one. I mean, even if you don't have predation, apparently, the reaction of the livestock to the presence of wolves causes severe reductions in conception rates, in weight gain. It's a real stress. But these ranchers were learning enough to know that they could manage around wolves by being very selective in which wolves were, if they had to be, harvested, exterminated -- which ones do and not to eliminate the whole pack. They were very good at learning about how to work around wolves the way that wolves were at certain areas, at certain times of the year and maybe they could find a way to manage so their cattle weren't in those areas when the wolves were. And I just came away with that impressed because in the early '60s, calf scours became an issue. And I can remember traveling around with my dad and he worked for the Department of Agriculture. We'd go to a ranch. There'd just be piles of dead calves. And the ranchers were, "What are we going to do?" And there had to be a silver bullet that would, they can vaccinate or treat scours and everything would be fine. And you know, vaccines were developed and antibacterial drugs were developed and ways to treat sick calves with electrolytes was developed. But the main thing that people learned about scours was that it was a management problem. You needed clean ground to calve on.

>> Actually, Black once said that there's nothing that comes out of the end of a balling gun or a hypodermic needle that can compensate for [inaudible] animal husbandry.

>> And that's proof.

>> It was.

>> And we need to be able to manage around these problems. And how do we manage around a problem like wolves or people or leaving high stubble heights along recurring areas so that we have recurring areas that are more fish friendly? Well, it's through education. It's through listening respectfully. And it's communicating well. And so, if these regulations that sometimes seem onerous, seem inappropriate, seem unfair, we can't respond by yelling or throwing a tantrum or saying that they're just wrong. We need to understand first why the people proposed those standards and rules and then we can, with respect, propose alternatives. And maybe, if we listen well and talk respectfully, we can come up with win-win solutions that work for both of us. We're involved with a brand of beef coop called Country Natural Beef. And years ago, we became antibiotic-free. And all of us were terrified of that. I mean, that's a real [inaudible] tool when the animal gets sick to be able to give it antibiotics. Well, we weren't saying, "Don't treat." We're just saying, "If you treat an animal, mark the ear tag or notch the ear so that we know and then those won't go into the branded beef program." But what it forced us to do was to become a better job of managing our cattle. It ended up that going antibiotic-free wasn't a cost. It was a benefit because we had healthier animals. We learned to wean in a low-stress manner. We learned to better meet the nutrient requirements for our livestock. We learned to move our cattle in a low-stress manner. So all those things made us better producers and not any more expensive producers and yet we did a better job of providing the kind of meat that our customers wanted. And so that is an example of a win-win solution. How do we -- so I think we can use the same thing with increasing the number of users in public lands, increasing regulation in public lands, increasing regulation from state environmental agencies. We can learn from this and as long as not too much comes down upon us at once, I think we can learn to adapt to change and improve our operations. But you, in order to handle that stress, you need to have some confidence in yourself, in your ability to communicate, your ability to listen to others and understand where they're coming from. And that is a skill that all of us need to get better at in order to deal with these changes that are occurring. You know, we talk about climate change but social change is right up there with the things that we have to deal with.

>> And one of the things that has been discussed in range management recently is that things that -- you operate, principles operate at different spatial scales. And you know, if we do research on plots of the size of this table, you cannot necessarily extrapolate that to a hundred thousand acres and expect it to hold up. I think social resiliency operates a little bit that way as well. Some of the things that you're describing make a big difference at the societal level. But they also work at the nearest spatial scale socially which is within, you know, within a family or within a ranch operation, a group of employees.

>> Yeah.

>> There are a number of ranches where there's no one to pass the ranch on to because the kids associate working cows with a tremendously stressful social environment and they don't want to have anything to do with it. The quality of life is low enough that it's not worth it for them in a business where you know, historically, the rate of return on investment has been 3% to 5%. You know, most ranches could liquidate what they've got in line in cattle and boom, the stock market and make more money than they are ranching. But that doesn't put food on the table.

>> And there is a joy from finding ways to do this in a way that is ecologically possible, economically possible and socially possible. You know, I'm smiling as I think about this, because our social skills, all of us could be improved upon. I mean, if my wife was listening, she'd say, "Listen with respect, listen to it all," in terms of me and it's something that we all have to work on. And just like what you were saying about extrapolating from a plot to the size of this dining room table to a hundred thousand acres, we need to communicate well with our spouses. We need to communicate well with our employees. We need to communicate well with our community. We need to communicate well with our agencies. It keeps, it keeps growing and trying to do all that well is a huge challenge but an even greater opportunity.

>> Yeah, speaking of agencies, one final question. You received an award from the U.S. Forest Service a few years ago. What was that award and why was it granted to Southworth Desert Ranch?

>> We were honored with an honor from the Forest Service as the Innovative Permittee of the Year. And we received that award not because of anything that I did alone but myself and Teresa and Ed Newton who works for us and Lucas Moore who works for us. All have a passion for managing public lands well. We understand that we don't own those public lands. We don't even think that we have a right to those public lands. We feel honored that we have a permit out there that enables us to graze for a term of 10 years at a time between renewals. And so, we're going to do everything we can to graze in a way that achieves the standards that the Forest Service wants us to. And the neat thing about Ed and Lucas is they're as good off the horse as they are on it. They like running cattle in the Forest Service in summertime because they get to be out there on horseback and they're moving cattle around off of repairing areas and up to higher elevation areas, achieving good distribution, achieving good utilization. But they're equally good on foot or four-wheeler putting up and taking down the electric fence. And one of the most useful tools we found is areas of concern, areas like repairing areas where cattle seem to bed a lot or use a lot, springs that we want to protect, electric fences are an amazing thing for protecting on a short-term basis the areas that we want to keep livestock out of. We also have areas that we've built permanent fencing around certain repairing areas. And we don't exclude, we don't call them exclusions, exclosures because we're not trying to exclude livestock from anything. But we are trying to control our livestock very carefully. And so that mix of permanent pasture, permanent enclosures, not exclosures -- enclosures and plus electric fencing has enabled Ed and Lucas to do an incredible job of managing livestock and achieving the standards they want in the Forest Service. I think the award was to them as much as anything for saying, "Hey, good job on achieving the increasingly tough standards to achieve on the grazing lands of the U.S. Forest Service. So we're really thankful for it and really proud of it.

>> Well, I congratulate you and for those who came in the middle, our guest today was Jack Southworth. Jack, thank you for your time.

>> You bet. It's been a pleasure, Tip. And thank you for taking on this podcast and I look forward to hearing from other participants in this podcast. I think we're all going to learn something.

>> Thank you.

>> Thank you for listening to "The Art of Range" podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for "Art of Range." If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to show@artofrange.com. For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at artofrange.com. Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission -- empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at artofrange.com. This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

[ Music ]

Mentioned Resources

We want your input

Future funding for the podcast will depend on listener feedback. Please take 1-2 minutes to respond to a 6-question survey after each episode.

Give Feedback

Taking suggestions

Have a question for us to answer on air, or a topic suggestion for a future episode? Email show@artofrange.com