Common ground: Young ranchers find resiliency through sharing
Special to The Union
What: 2016 California Grazing Academy - Soil Health
When: April 29 - 30
Where: UC Sierra Research and Extension Center, 8279 Scott Forbes Road in
Cost: $170.00 includes meals, course materials, some lodging available
Registration due by April 17, no walk in registration
Shades of morning tinged the sky as ranchers Rob Thompson, Brad Fowler and Joe Fischer walked out into the field to inspect the young, tender forbs and brassicas — plantain, chicory and alfalfa — sprouting up in the grass.
The young plants will increase the nutrient diversity of the “forage base” that Fowler’s animals graze on.
Fowler and his ranching friends are experimenting with ways to improve the health of the soil.
In turn, the livestock they raise will be healthier.
Ultimately, the people who eat the meat will be healthier, too.
“It’s something we play around with. We’re all in the grazing business,” said Fowler.
Fowler and his wife, Alana, raise grass fed and finished beef, lamb, goat and pastured chicken, turkey and pork for their meat Community Supported Agriculture operation, Fowler Family Farm.
The Fowlers also manage a herd of goats as part of their vegetation management business, The Goat Works.
Once a month, for roughly the past two years, this trio of young 30-something ranchers have met for breakfast and coffee and walks on the land to share ideas, trials and errors and give support to each other.
This small producer-led group has common ground.
Rather than view each other as competitors, they meet for educational and professional growth, for accountability and as a business resource.
They cover a range of topics — from soil health and rangeland restoration to animal husbandry, stockmanship and facilities design.
Jokingly, they refer to themselves as “grazing geeks.” Yet they are serious about their work and how the practice of taking care of the land translates into making a sustainable living on it.
“We’re all business entities that support families,” said Rancher Joe Fischer.
Others join them, including veteran rancher, Dan Macon, who with his wife Sami runs a small-scale commercial sheep operation known as Flying Mule Farm.
Macon also serves as an assistant specialist for the rangeland program at UC Davis. He says meeting with other ranchers has helped his own operation.
“The purpose of our meetings is to share information, questions and mostly to learn from one another. I think the fact that we know and trust one another is key — we don’t see one another as competitors, and we’re willing to share problems as well as solutions.”
“We’ve all been at this long enough to realize that we have more questions than answers. We’re all trying to learn — from each other, from our land and our animals, and from other innovative operations. We’re also comfortable with the fact that we don’t know it all — we’re not experts, but we’re all trying to become better at what we do,” said Macon.
All are graduates of the California Grazing Academy, taught by Placer-Nevada County Farm Advisor Roger Ingram of University of California Cooperative Extension.
Ingram regularly joins the group on field trips and data collection.
They recently took soil samples at area ranches that were sent to Cornell University’s soil health lab.
“I help facilitate the group when needed, do a little teaching and a lot of listening. They are trying to implement things they learned at the Academy and many other things as well, and most importantly, they trust each other — which opens up a new level of sharing,” Ingram said.
Sun up to sun down farming and ranching can be isolating.
The meetings offer ranchers the chance to cooperatively work through problems in a way beyond the formal classroom.
Hardly a new notion, the idea of “grass alliances” is something that harkens back to the days of old. Ingram hopes to see spinoff groups emerge.
“I think, if anything, we need more smaller groups like that. Finding ways to network is really critical,” he said.
Microbes and Dirt
Thompson, 34, grew up in Eastern Oregon.
“I’m a cradle rancher. I was born into it. This is what I’ve always done,” he said.
His family bounced around, following the cattle. As a young man, he ran feedlots, grew corn, spent time “custom haying.”
“I gypsied around. Put up hay for people,” he said.
Five years ago, in between jobs, he and his wife moved to Nevada County.
Thompson found part-time work at Elster Ranch. Now, he manages the operation full-time.
He follows the lead of conservationist Aldo Leopold to holistically manage the grass with the sole emphasis of improving land health and sells beef and lamb on the side.
Elster Ranch beef can be found at BriarPatch Co-op and in the summer months at Nevada City Farmers Market.
In 1860, Joe Fischer’s family moved from Missouri to California’s Valley Springs area. His grandfather drove hogs by horseback, hauled acorn-finished pork to the mines and ran a charcuterie business.
“All I ever wanted to be was a cowboy,” said Fischer, who now manages thousands of acres of a ranching operation in Auburn.
His parents paid for his education at Cal Poly where he earned a degree in animal science with an emphasis in livestock production.
Contiguous land is becoming increasingly hard to come by. More and more, population pressures lead to chopped up land segmented for development.
Fischer manages seven parcels between Auburn and Lincoln.
“It spreads a guy out,” he said.
These days, it’s easier to improve carrying capacity than it is to expand, the ranchers say. Regenerative health of the soil is the answer.
“That’s why we’ve got to boil it down to microbes and dirt,” said Thompson.
“What’s cool is there is so much synergy in what we’re doing. We represent a new way of thinking,” said Fischer.
Like Gabe Brown, the award-winning sustainable farmer and rancher who spoke at this year’s Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference, these local ranchers have become observers of the natural world.
They experiment with “mob grazing,” a method that mimics nature’s patterns, like the timeless cycle of large herds of roaming elk that once dominated the California landscape.
When done right, the high-density impact of many animals on the ground combined with sufficient rest periods is dramatically improving rangeland soil.
With increased soil health and fertility, the ranchers are finding they have flexibility built into their systems to be more resilient to the whims of Mother Nature.
While it feels good to have science validate their work, at the end of the day, these pioneering businessmen with families to raise are doing what pays the bills.
“This isn’t our side business, this isn’t our recreation,” said Fowler.
“This is what we do,” said Thompson.
Learn more at:
UCCE will hold its annual California Grazing Academy on April 29 and 30. This year’s emphasis will be on soil health.
This year’s academy will feature participants working in teams and having a herd of cattle to manage.
Learn about controlled grazing, pasture and range ecology, soil health, working with temporary electric fencing, cell design, range nutrition and supplementation, feed budgeting, grazing planning and monitoring.
Learn more and register at: http://ucanr.edu/sites/Roger_Livestock/2015_California_Grazing_Academy/.
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