The Rardins are father and son cowboys watching climate change threaten their way of life. They’ve given up on the old idea of “get big or get out” and joined the regenerative ranching movement. Inspired by how bison improve the land, they raise cattle to protect grasses and reduce emissions. But for many, it’s still a financial risk.

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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

 

So far this season, we’ve been hearing a lot about how problematic cows are: the U.S. government killed millions of bison to make room for them, they overgraze and pollute our landscapes, they burp, they fart, and it’s really hard to raise a lot of them humanely. At this point, all these troubles are accumulating and it really doesn’t fit the romantic image we have of cowboys. It’s starting to feel like all our favorite Western TV shows and movies are hood-winking us, like, who is this cowboy character really? 

 

One big issue is that the Hollywood version of the cowboy doesn’t give any credit to the ranchers working to reinvent themselves in the American West, the folks living and working on the land who totally recognize all these problems with cows for what they are and who are getting creative about what to do about it.  

 

Is a net zero carbon cow really possible? They don’t know, but these are women and men willing to try to adapt to a rapidly changing world, even if it means reinventing the old mystique of the cowboy. To do that, they’re studying the land management techniques of the Indigenous peoples who originally thrived in the American West and adapting it for a new era of climate change. One example? The holistic ranching movement: a new method of managing cattle that mimics the natural way bison once roamed across the arid West. 

 

Go Big or Go Home

 

It’s a blustery winter day at the foot of Sheep Mountain in the Laramie Valley of southern Wyoming. And all this wind is really mussing up the hairdos of the herd of cattle grazing under the cottonwoods. Their long, reddish fur swirls around, getting in their eyes. Their owner, Bridger Rardin, says these are definitely not your typical Herefords.

 

Scottish Highlanders are a hardier breed and can live on the high plains of the American West.

 

“We are using Scottish Highland cows crossed,” he tells me.

 

“That’s those guys, the fuzzy looking guys?”  

 

“That’s the long-horned, hairy ones. And we have been crossing them with Galloway and Black Angus bulls, to kind of fit more of a commercial side of the market that we have to play into. And I love the Scottish Highlanders, but they’re slower growing.”

 

They’re also feisty. Bridger gets them all riled up with a call and answer.

 

“Brownie! Angie! Here cows!”

 

This breed of cattle originated in the rainy, cold highlands of Scotland, and that makes them hardy enough to live year-round here in this valley at over 7,500 feet where the winters can get a little rough. Bridger runs this herd with his dad, Tom. But this land where the cattle are grazing right now doesn’t belong to them. It’s leased from landowners who aren’t interested in raising livestock themselves. They lease it to ranchers like the Rardins for the tax write off, Tom says, since agricultural land gets zoned in a better bracket than the cabin/second home bracket.

 

“Several of the properties we lease have always been in agriculture,” says Tom, “but they sent out letters and said, ‘Well, you have to show that you either bring in $1,000 or you can produce $500 to maintain your ag status.’ So we’ve been invited to bring the cows there to help them get their ag status back.”

 

It’s a symbiotic relationship since the Rardins couldn’t possibly afford to buy land these days. They say the cost of ranch land has gone up over ten percent in the last few decades.

 

“We run on all leased land,” says Bridger. “And that’s kind of the model that we’ve taken on just because land prices are too high for anyone. If they want to get into agriculture, they better have a good trust fund or a high-paying job for 20 years and a good pension.”

 

The Rardins run all their cattle on leased land because the price of property is too high to purchase their own.

The Rardins run all their cattle on leased land because the price of property is too high to purchase their own.

 

But it wasn’t so long ago that the Rardin family owned lots of land just on the other side of this mountain. Tom’s dad grew up in Laramie, moved away for a career working for the FBI but then retired back home. 

 

Bridger says, “That’s when they bought a ranch on the other side of Sheep Mountain on the front side. And he and my dad, they started a sheep operation on that ranch and ran sheep for about 25 years. And I was part of that growing up.”

 

That was until the forest service stopped giving out grazing leases for sheep in these mountains because they were spreading pneumonia to wild bighorn sheep.

 

“We were down to probably 200 head or so of sheep and it just wasn’t economically viable. My grandparents were aging,” says Bridger. “My dad had a job in town at that point, and we kind of made a family decision to sell that ranch. And the whole family then moved into town.”

 

But Tom kept a few of their cows on a friend’s property. One day, he came to Bridger and said, “Hey, son, how about let’s go into business together?” Bridger did have some savings.

 

“And I went out and bought my first 100 cows back in 2015,” Bridger remembers. “And from there, that’s when we went into business together. And we’ve just been trying to figure out how to make it work.”

 

Bridger Rardin bought his first 100 cows back in 2015 with some college money he’d saved up.

 

They dreamed big. At first.

 

Bridger says, “Initially, we were going to take the Earl Butz route, who was the Ag Secretary under President Nixon where it was ‘Go big or go home,’ and that’s what we kind of were trying to do. That meant that we needed to be 1,000 head or more, essentially, and running at a scale that could ideally pay a fair wage to two people.”

 

Earl Butz served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in both the Nixon and Ford administrations.

 

Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz transformed our farm system back in the 1970’s from a family farming system to a corporate food production system. It allowed the US to go big with agriculture on a world stage. But it also made it hard for the little guy to survive. And it’s gotten even harder in the last decade or so. That’s when the Big Four meat packers – Cargill, Tyson, JBS and National Beef – started gobbling up all the smaller slaughterhouses. It’s had big implications for small producers like the Rardins.

 

“They’ve oligopolized and monopolized and that is what is really creating a very unjust, unfair system within agriculture,” says Bridger. “In the ’70s, you know, 70 percent of a dollar, made in the cattle industry was broken up between the cow-calf producer, the grower, the backgrounder and the feedlot operator. And now that is flipped, where about 70 to 75 percent of that dollar goes to the four major companies and the other 25 percent is left between the cow-calf producer and the feedlot operator.”

 

And that disparity has only worsened with the pandemic. Cassandra Fish, a former executive with Tyson says, yes, COVID-19 did reveal cracks in the system. But she says, sadly, there’s no turning back. The only answer is to embrace the Earl Butz vision: get even bigger or get out. And that means building even more slaughterhouses, whether big or small.

 

Cassandra says, “My solution is a long term solution. And that is: add capacity, and get money, which will create more competition for cattle prices, and get more money in the value chain back down to the cattle feeder, the stocker and the rancher. And that’s my only solution, that’s really my solution. I don’t have another one. But you’re absolutely right. This is not good. It’s not a healthy, fair economic subset here, the beef industry. It is not.”

 

It’s a trickle-down solution that leaves small ranchers high and dry until the whole global industry can grow. Even Cassandra acknowledges that the system is stacked against small operations like the Rardins. 

 

That’s why Tom and Bridger say they realized they could never reach that goal of 1,000 head of cattle. And after a while, they weren’t sure they even wanted to. They agreed with folks like agrarian thinker and poet Wendell Berry, whose book The Unsettling of America was a revolt against Ag Secretary Butz’ idea of get big or get out. Berry says it’s a travesty that the history of rural America involved a mass exodus of farmers and ranchers, leaving land health in the hands of the wealthy few.

 

That they left because they couldn’t make a living is an indictment of our land policies,” Berry wrote. “The idea that you have to go somewhere else, that you have to leave a fertile country in order to make a living, is preposterous and it’s a result of the wrong idea of what we mean by making a living in the first place. To make a living is not to make a killing, it’s to have enough.”

 

Wendell Berry says, “To make a living is not to make a killing, it’s to have enough.”

 

The Rardins came to deeply agree with that and adjusted their goals. These days, they just want to make enough to be part of the solution, not the problem.

 

Bridger says, “We kind of came to this type of management, because we feel that it’s better for the environment and that it is, overall, how we’re going to maybe address aspects of climate change and try to create something that is actually a sustainable model moving forward.”

 

They started pouring over books and experimenting with a new approach to cattle management that did things very differently from the older generation of ranchers. People call it regenerative or holistic ranching. Earlier this season we heard about how bison improve the health of the land by churning and replanting the soil. This method trains cattle to replicate bison.

 

Bridger explains, “What [bison] end up doing is all that urine and manure, all of that gets trampled in and incorporated with all this other grass that doesn’t get eaten. And that actually then supplies the nutrients and spreads water out onto the land, to an extent. And then you have the where the rest period comes into play. When bison were grazing, they wouldn’t be back there for maybe a year, maybe three years, maybe five years, but that’s what allows that recovery time.”

 

But conventional ranching doesn’t offer that recovery time. Whereas holistic ranching keeps the cows moving like they would if they were living in the wild. 

 

“You know, cattle aren’t bad, sheep aren’t bad,” says Bridger. “It’s all how you manage the sheep and cattle. We want to get on there and graze as fast as possible. You want to allow for the longest period of recovery possible. We try to usually – unless we come into a pasture like this that has not been grazed for a long time –  we try to leave about 50 percent of the grass.”

 

Bridger points out at the pasture we’re standing in at the taller gray-looking grasses. Cows are like little kids: they think of these as the kale on their plate and leave them to eat last. He wants them to eat a wider variety of grasses, so they don’t choice out their favorites, eating those down until they can’t grow back. He says that’s when overgrazing happens.

 

Regenerative ranchers want cattle to eat a single bite of all the grasses, not just eat down their favorites.

 

Bridger says, “What we’re trying to entice them to do is, some of the more oxidizing grass, you can see where they really just haven’t grazed as much. They kind of choiced out the species they really liked.”

 

“Oh, interesting,” I say. “Because it’s kind of balder right here. But over there, I can see some stuff blowing in the wind.”

 

“Exactly. And we’re trying to, like this time of year we’re using protein licks to kind of supplement some protein so they can go out and digest that harder to, that more lignified grass.”

 

Because it’s winter, Bridger wants the cattle to eat all the kinds of grasses, even if it means providing a nutrition supplement to get them through until spring. A conventional rancher would let them eat the same plants over and over as they struggle to try to grow back. In a couple weeks, they’ll get the cattle off this pasture and leave them off so these grasses can fully regenerate. The key is to get cows eating lots of species of grasses– but to take only one bite per plant.

 

“That’s one thing that you really want to prevent is that second bite onto that plant that’s trying to recover, and that plant can start recovery within three days of being grazed,” says Bridger. “Because each time that choice candy plant comes back up those animals are going to go back and take that second bite, and then two, three bites later that plant might die, or it’s going to be in a kind of state of degradation, that it’s not going to be able to come back up next year with the same amount of biomass because it wasn’t able to put any energy into its root reserves.”

 

To keep cattle from coming back when their favorite candy plant is regrowing to get a second bite, the Rardins move their cows often, unlike conventional ranching which leaves cows on pastures for months. 

 

After we visit the herd, Bridger and Tom head off to the next pasture where they plan to move their cows. Tom notices that, even though it’s cold and wintery, there’s green grass laced in among the gray. He crouches down to show me.

 

Tom Rardin grew up in this valley ranching sheep.

 

“This gray here?” Tom says. “That’s oxidized. What we want is we want them to eat this and get whatever green is in there. And then we want them to tromp that and put it into contact with that soil.”

 

…Put it in contact with the soil so it can store carbon there.

 

“In some places you can hardly tell that we’ve even grazed, you would have no idea that we’ve even grazed,” says Bridger. “That grass is now not in that oxidized state. It’s actually sequestering carbon. The energy is being stored in those root reserves. And then, the next year when that plant is grazed, you’re going to get some root sloughing and ideally that’s going to then lend itself to some carbon sequestration.”

 

Grasses like these store carbon – above the ground in their stalks and leaves – but mostly below ground, in their root systems and in the soil itself. There’s a groundswell of people saying that regenerative ranching techniques can increase the amount of this carbon sequestration in the land, potentially making a zero carbon cow viable. 

 

But some people are pretty skeptical that regenerative ranching can store enough carbon that it would actually make more of a difference than conventional ranching to compensate for all those burps and farts. You remember Mike Greunwald a couple episodes back, the climate and food guy? He says the science is still out on this. He wrote a story about the former presidential candidate Tom Steyer and his regenerative ranch, the TomKat in California.

 

“So what you saw was the TomKat Ranch was using an awful lot of land to support relatively few cows, and without storing any measurable additional carbon,” Mike says. 

“So that was pretty disappointing, especially since these regenerative techniques really require a lot of labor and a lot of money, which of course, Tom Steyer can afford. But if the idea is that ordinary ranchers are going to adopt these techniques, and that it’s going to create some sort of climate solution, even a zero carbon cow, there’s really no evidence at TomKat Ranch, or pretty much anywhere at this point that you’re gonna see those kind of spectacular gains.”

 

I did come across a recent study that showed a zero carbon cow was possible in Georgia. But that’s not high plains Wyoming. Bridger concedes that there’s still more to learn about whether the benefits are as dramatic on Western landscapes.

 

“There’s a lot of back and forth in the academic world on how effective grazing is for carbon sequestration, especially in the West,” Bridger says. “I think it definitely is happening in more Midwestern and Eastern states. In the West, it’s a little different, I think rather than it being more based off the carbon cycle, it’s more based off the water cycle and just nutrient cycling, in general. We’re trying to put high quantities and high densities of urine and manure down and spread it. If they’re drinking water from this creek, that’s actually taking that water from the creek and getting it out there in a much more plant-available form for other nutrients, like nitrogen and ammonium and whatnot.”

 

“Because otherwise, this water that’s right by us is just only flowing here,” I say, pointing at the creek running by our feet. “Whereas if they drink it, and then they pee over there…”

 

“Yeah, and you kind of get to inoculate each little spot where they pee or poop with some nutrients that water doesn’t normally have that the animal provides through its own system.”

 

We’re going to talk lots more about how ranchers can help the climate by healing the water cycle later this season. But even if this management style isn’t the cure-all, it still is a big improvement on conventional methods. 

 

The thing is, cows aren’t adapted to live in an arid place like the West but maybe regenerative ranching could help them adapt. For instance, the Rardins don’t let their cows graze on the whole length of streams since that leads to water pollution and ruins wetlands where carbon could get stored. But Bridger says, managed properly, livestock pee and poop can be beneficial for the West’s thin, nutrient poor soils. And this concept isn’t something an isolated group of ranchers are espousing. It’s gaining traction worldwide. 

 

The Natural Order of Things

 

I sat down with Judith Schwartz, the author of Cows Can Save The Planet. Judith is a warm, smiling woman and that’s because while the rest of us mostly see only doom for the future, she has hope that things are fixable, that humans can change their behaviors. She has reason to believe this, too. She’s traveled the world over, talking to livestock producers using holistic management techniques. What she’s learned is that grazing animals naturally are kept moving by predators, whether it’s lions with water buffalo in Africa or wolves with caribou in the arctic. When a predator approaches, herds bunch up.

 

“That’s how they protect themselves and then they flee en masse and they trash the land,” says Judith. “And what they’re doing is many things. So they are pressing in seeds, so that a diversity of plants have the chance to germinate, especially higher order animal dependent grasses that are very deep rooted grasses. They are pressing down the decaying plant matter that can be broken down and incorporated into the soil, enriching the soil with carbon, which is hugely important.”

 

But across the West, there aren’t enough predators to do that job anymore. In fact, Judith says humans are doing something completely opposite.

 

“So in nature, plants are stationary,” says Judith. “Plants stay in the same place and animals move. But we’ve created a situation where animals are stationary, you know, animals are in these feedlots and in one place, and we bring plants to them. So the plants are moving. This is something that requires so much energy and equipment, and moving around of resources, when the resources that the animals need are right where they are.”

 

Judith says we need to find a way back to the natural order of things. One way to visualize that order is to imagine livestock as middle management.

 

In the natural order of things, livestock are middle management, Judith Schwartz says.

 

“Okay, so they are middle management, humans are upper management, plants are lower management, and the workers are the microorganisms. So I think that’s really, really helpful when you’re thinking about, what are you managing for on a landscape? That you want your workers, the microorganisms to be happy and productive, and then the plants will flourish. And then when the plants are flourishing, the cattle will flourish, and then, you know, all the way up the chain.”

 

Judith says if the microbes are plentiful, they’ll actually consume a lot of the methane produced by cattle. But remember that soil I witnessed in the Red Desert on the feedline? The white hardpan stuff? No microbes to devour methane there. Judith says it’s time to adopt livestock management strategies that return us to Mother Nature’s way of doing things. 

 

“So I think it’s worth understanding that droughts are man-made, and floods are man-made. So if we have healthy soil, which ranchers through their management can help to build, then that soil is a sponge, and can help absorb a lot of water, so that you don’t have floods. Because you know, if the soil is absorbing water, it makes it very difficult to make a flood happen.”

 

But that means getting ranchers to practice this kind of livestock management across the landscape– not just one ranch here, one ranch there. 

 

The Benevolence Of Nature

 

I met someone who’s witnessing that. And it’s an area that’s way more arid than the Rocky Mountains. Alejandro Carrillo grew up on a ranch in the Chihuahuan desert of Mexico but went to work in the US. When his dad turned 70, he asked his son to come home.

 

“And actually, I was waiting for that moment,” says Alejandro. “So I joined the ranch. And I was very fortunate to be in a state in Mexico, the state of Chihuahua, where there were very good holistic management practitioners. So probably it was destiny and I was very fortunate to meet my mentors, and I started learning from them. We started traveling, we started reading and traveling to the United States and other countries and other continents.”

 

Now Alejandro is a vocal advocate for regenerative ranching. It might sound crazy: when you think of Chihuahua, you probably visualize cactus and sand as far as the eye can see. But Alejandro says the historic record paints a very different picture of Chihuahua, pre-European contact.

 

“[We know] based on the written documentation from these pioneers when the first white people were coming in,” he says. “The priests were the ones that actually were putting those records together and they said that it was pretty much a sea of grassland with plenty of wildlife. One of the things that really impressed me most is that they said that in Chihuahua we had plenty of beavers, plenty of beavers and otters all across the state.”

 

A sea of grass and enough water for beaver and otters. It’s an image he aspires to return to. And with his mentors, Alejandro is getting lots of other Mexican ranchers excited about regenerating the land too. The Mexican government even paid to host several regenerative ranching workshops in Chihuahua.

 

“And now we have over two-million acres of land being regenerated, mostly in ranching,” Alejandro says. “Farming is really not there yet. But ranching is really very, very good.”

 

I’ve seen photos of Alejandro standing up to his armpits in native grasses on his family’s ranch. He says conventional ranchers only have a handful of grass species on their land. He has over 50 species of perennial grasses. He says all that grass keeps any rain that does fall from evaporating. Conventional ranching? Not so much.

 

“Let’s say we get three inches of precipitation,” he says. “Pretty good rain, right, for a dry environment? On conventional ranches, you’re only getting 20 percent of that water infiltrated into the land. So you’re talking about only half an inch, right? So now we’re sort of realizing that it’s not really how much water you get, but how much water you can infiltrate.”

 

Alejandro continues, “Let’s say that they keep that half an inch. But because it’s always so compacted, lack of air and soil and layers of plated soil, that the water just simply penetrates just an inch. Let’s say that the air temperature could be 90 degrees. If you measure the soil temperature, it will be 150 degrees.” 

 

“Think about that multiplied to millions of acres,” he says. “So you pretty much lose all the moisture that you have. Versus ranching under good grazing management, where you have grass. Instead of the soil being at an outside temperature of 90 degrees, it will be at like 85. So we are creating the drought, I have no doubt about it.”

 

But Alejandro says that means that ranchers also have the power to create the opposite of drought: rain.

 

“Now, think about it when you’re working pretty hard and suddenly you get clouded. I mean, you have like a refreshing [experience], saying, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool!’ So essentially the clouds are the first line of defense. So we as ranchers have a huge, huge obligation and responsibility to generate more clouds. But in order for us to do that, we need actually to have more cover, more perennial grasses.”

 

Alejandro says in Chihuahua, because more ranchers are bunching and moving their cattle often, the region has more thick grasses. And he sees more rainfall because of that.

 

“We’re sampling my ranch that is 30,000 acres and we’re seeing more rain there already. And then about a five-degree difference between my ranch and neighboring ranches. So we’re creating that. And unfortunately, nature is really very benevolent when we work with her, but has no mercy when we work against her.”

 

Maybe this sounds a lot like the delusional thinking of those early pioneers who promised that God would ensure that rain would follow the plow. Except this time it isn’t about plowing– it’s about the science of how taller, healthier grass slows evaporation and puts more moisture in the atmosphere. This is all emerging stuff and research is still racing to catch up. But for the Rardins, they aspire to be part of this new rangewide effort to heal the water cycle. 

 

Embracing Change

 

Bridger recently finished an internship to learn more regenerative management strategies in a mentorship program called the Quivira Coalition that’s much like the one in Chihuahua. And they’ve banded together with other ranchers in this valley to market their meat directly to consumers. They get all their beef processed at 307 Meats, the place we visited last time. And that means they get to put the name of their ranch on their label and can sell it across state lines. But Bridger recognizes that he and his dad are pioneers in an entirely new sense of the word. And not a lot of ranchers are risk-takers like them.

 

“Cows aren’t bad, sheep aren’t bad, it’s all you manage the sheep and cattle.”

 

Bridger says, “I think there’s a lot of ranchers out there that manage fairly conventionally and it’s still pretty good management overall but it would be nice to see more people taking this on. And it is growing, there are more and more people shifting this way. Every rancher I think wants to take care of their land, but at times there’s so much information out there. And I think change is hard. But you kind of have to embrace change as well.”

 

And that’s what the Rardins are doing: embracing change one pasture at a time.

 

The Great Individualist photography by Ana Paola Castro-Coupal

This season of The Modern West is sponsored by the LOR Foundation

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