Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ranching in the Desert

Roger Bowe, San Jon, New Mexico

Roger Bowe is one of the few full time ranchers in his area - most of the others tend to work in town to fund the ranch or live far away and just use it as a hobby. 10,000 acres as a hobby? - I know! This erosion of a farming community is something which Roger laments, his local town of San Jon is becoming a dusty ghost town - and this was one of the towns on America's original mother road Route 66, itself almost extinct and replaced by a bigger freeway.

The environment in which Roger has to ranch is extremely brittle, technically a desert. His story is an interesting one, this part of New Mexico was pretty much the last area of the USA to be homesteaded in 1907 after the USA bought it from the Spanish. Before that it was mostly herding cowboys but the homesteading was an attempt to get people to put roots down on the land. At the time the attraction was that you would have been offered 320 acres of land in New Mexico whereas you only got a 160 in places like Oklahoma and other parts of the Great Plains. The thing was that the land was simply not very fertile, the rains were not very dependable and after trying to grow corn and cotton the dustbowl of the 30's hit and a lot of people left. In between 1901-1930 Roger told me there were 14 smokestacks in view of his ranch - now there are none. Roger even said he was about the youngest rancher in the area - and I guessed he was about 50. It made me feel a bit sad really. All this land, needing good management, nobody young coming through and the price of land being to expensive for new entrants to buy anyway...

Anyway enough of the history! In about 1985 Roger went to one of Allan Savory's grazing schools and he says it changed his way on thinking. For him the issues of overgrazing, invasive species and erosion were evident and he felt he needed to change.

He started to divide up his 13000 acres of ranchland into paddocks of 130-250 acres. It has cost him about $5 acre to do this - he used old telephone wires for the electric strand and an assortment of metal posts. Efficient and environmentally friendly!
Picture Right: Notice how he has two strands of wire. Only the top one is live. In this dry climate he finds he cannot get a decent earth from the ground so the second strand is the earth. Also it means calves can go under the strand for a bit of extra feeding until they get too big and zapped.

On the pick up ride around the farm which I have now become accustomed to (in the pick up and round the kitchen table is the best way to get any information from a rancher or farmer) he explained his system:

"I'm the only full time guy around here now. I have to make a living from the ranch so its important that it wipes its face" he told me. "Firstly the more paddocks you have the less mistakes you make because it means you don't have to come back too soon." said Roger "in this landscape if you come back too soon then in three or four years time you can end up in a big rick - especially if you have upped your stocking rates in this brittle landscape."
Roger runs two herds. One of first calf heifers and younger which he feeds a bit extra protein as there are times of no green in the desert and then one of older cows. Also he says his first calf heifer is doing three things - still growing, calving one and trying to get into shape for the next one. He runs about 300 cow/calf pairs of older cows and 130 of younger ones. Calfs are sold at 8 months @ 700lb to the feedlot for finishing. It would be difficult - but far from impossible, Roger says - to finish out here. The cows are Angus (because thats what everyone wants!) and are put to a Charolais. This is double the stocking rate of the ranch when conventionally grazed, neither did he have to destock in a recent 3 year drought when his neighbours did."

He also says his cows last longer. They used to be culled at 8 years and now they will last 12-15 years. He doesn't know why exactly but he does know that in this extremely tight system replacements are a major cost.

Roger is as much a practical ecologist as a farmer - in fact more of a conservationist than many of those in environmental movements could understand.

"My land is rested for 95% of the year" he says " and it is this rest and then intense grazing that helps me provide good grass and better diversity for the ranch. Everything comes back better after a short intense graze, the herd effect is crucial." He pointed out one good example of diversity - "see this Yucca", (it was a sharp leaved cactus like plant with slim leaves) "that has saved me quite a few times in a dry Spring. The cattle will eat it that first. I need to make sure that I get as much cover as possible, without this the land will cap and nothing will grow here. Only broom snakeweed and mesquito grass which stock would rather starve than eat."
He also points out that some of the invasive species don't like trampling and so this allows other more palatable species to come in. Also biodiversity is key because in various years one species will do better than another, he's counted up to 20 species here in a transect.
When he moves his cows he deliberately does it in as calm and unobtrusive manner as possible. They know his routine - every morning he will open a new gate and they will all charge in for new grass. He doesn't shut the gate from the day before because as its so extensive there may be a stray newborn or cow left around which would catch up within a day.
He explains to me that in a herd the cattle act completely differently. They used to like being apart in conventional but now in the herd they cannot bear to be away from each other. This is why he never has to worry about running off or closing back fences - they simply don't want to be apart. He tells me at first it may stress the cattle but their behaviour changes in various ways.

Finally Roger reminded me that you can't really overgraze in the winter/ dormant season so he is more likely to extend the grazing cylce in the paddocks and maybe move them once every two days and keep them a little more rationed, besides it gives him more time to play Golf!

More on Roger:


  1. What an interesting fellow. I like your stories about people you meet and I like to see how they do things differently. Enjoying your blog.
    I have a neighbor who pastured his dairy herd in this same manner, (on a smaller scale). Kept him going through some tough years. Then he became a meth addict and had to take the buyout program.
    Seems to be recovering. Hopefully will get going again. He seemed to have a lot of good ideas. Except for one... Should have just lived on coffee to keep going at night, like the rest of us farmers. Coffee and snickers bars and up all night...

  2. Aww Budde, can't you come up with a more postive story than that?!!