New Agrarian Voices

Learn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.





Cooper Dias, APPRENTICE, San Juan Ranch, CO

November 2023

During the course of my apprenticeship I was given opportunities to pursue specific interests that pertained to the management strategies of the San Juan Ranch. Among those opportunities, most impactful on my education was the work I was responsible for on the BLM allotment. These responsibilities ranged from manual weed treatment and developing a standardized system for weed data collection to report to the BLM, research into the different ecological communities found on the range for use during the establishment of a biological monitoring program and running a cow camp to better enable efforts towards herding and containment of the cows in targeted parts of the allotment. I was also exposed to the marketing side of the business and was able to further my understanding of cattle markets and the varying approaches to selling different classes of animals at certain times of year.

Being that the BLM allotment is certified organic and herbicide application not a permitted tool under the organic standards; the responsibility for noxious weed control falls on the lessee. The weed specialist for the BLM office needed detailed information pertaining to the location, species, density, method of treatment and growth stage of the weeds being treated. I was tasked with documenting this information and communicating with the weed specialist and the agent using the collected data to develop a GIS map of weed populations in the management area. I put together a spreadsheet and standard system for collecting the needed data pre and post treatment which satisfied the needs of the BLM office. After a spring of decent moisture it became apparent that this particular year was an exceptional one for growing black henbane. After much pulling, digging and bagging I quickly learned the labor intensive nature of maintaining organic rangeland.

As a requirement for a CSP grant through the NRCS, rangeland specialist Kirk Gadzia performed a rangeland health monitoring report on the San Juan Ranch’s BLM allotment this summer. Mr. Gadzia used his “bull’s eye” range monitoring protocol in order to gather the necessary information for the report. Preemptively, I familiarized myself with the bull’s eye protocol. The bull’s eye method required an understanding of all ecological site types present on the land intended for monitoring, as well as a written future landscape goal. I was able to identify, locate and better understand the different ecological site descriptions, or ESDs, found on the allotment using the web soil survey application on the NRCS’s website. The web soil survey is a great land management resource and researching the ESDs on the allotment was a good chance to further my familiarity with the application.

Putting together a future landscape goal for the ranch was a good exercise in defining a multifaceted and all inclusive goal with the input of everyone on the team. A future landscape goal, similar to the holistic goal promoted by Holistic Management, is outcome based and considers more than ecological health but also the health of livestock and those who care for the land and animals.

Selecting monitoring transect sites before Mr. Gadzia’s arrival was more difficult than I anticipated. Depending on the approach, whether random or intentional, there were many factors to consider when choosing the transect sites for each ESD present. Because the grant called for the monitoring of sites with high risk of degradation we chose to locate transects within a mile radius of water points, where grazing would be intensive but also representative of a larger area as opposed to directly within the zone impacted by traffic in closer proximity to the water point. The permanent transect sites will be used in subsequent years to repeat the monitoring done with Mr. Gadzia, this way the data collected over time can be tested against the management goals established this year.

Spending the summer on the BLM allotment in a cow camp was a great opportunity to attempt to achieve high density, short duration grazing on rangeland. With twice a day herding and with the aid of temporary and permanent electric fences we were able to utilize previously underutilized parts of the range, which in turn allowed for a full season’s rest for a large portion of the allotment. A full season’s rest should, in theory, allow for the return of vigor to established plants. Most afternoons, after the heat of the day, were spent moving the cows to predetermined locations we felt could benefit from more intensive grazing. The intention for these targeted areas was to move the cows and settle them in a manner that would encourage them to remain there till the following day when they needed to travel back to water. Results varied in the “placing” of the herd. I found many factors influenced their interest in staying and returning to the targeted areas. Distance from water and terrain were certainly the most significant factors at play, but also weather, moon cycle (a bright moon allows for cows to graze and travel more during the night) and forage type also determined satiety.

One highlight of the apprenticeship was being involved in planning a stockmanship clinic with stock handling and horsemanship clinician Curt Pate. The clinic was very informative and the content was pertinent to the challenges with herding and placing/settling the cows up on the BLM allotment. I was pleased to have had the chance to ask Mr. Pate the many questions about stock handling, horses and stock dogs that I have amassed over the last couple years.

With George’s help, I now better understand how to interpret market reports and their correlation to the production cycle of traditionally managed operations. As recommended by George, I got in the habit of regularly checking reports produced by a few renowned auctions as well as the local sale barn. I have found that better understanding the ebb and flow of the commodity cattle market is key when developing business models that suit specific contexts. A thorough understanding of the cattle market is important when trying to identify certain resources that can be taken advantage of and enable a producer to either sell animals at a more strategic time of the year or provide a service that can beckon a higher price due to its lack of availability.

I am looking forward to hiring on at Grassland’s Western States Ranches for the winter. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to spend the time I did with George and Julie at the San Juan Ranch and for the experience I gained in many avenues of interest.

First Reflections
April 2023

Over the past several years I have discovered a passion for rangeland ecosystems as well as grass based cattle and sheep production. For a long time I have been interested in natural resource management and conservation. I began looking into ways to get involved in agriculture after learning of the potential properly executed practices had not only to prevent ecological degradation but to restore health to native flora and fauna. To me agriculture appeared to be a good way to become directly involved with my surrounding environment, community and the food that I consume. Books like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Wes Jackson’s New Roots for Agriculture have driven me to continue to search for a balance between production and conservation and to find the scale at which this is most efficient. 

I have also been drawn to ranching as a career for the rural lifestyle. I have observed that although people are further apart geographically in rural communities, they often tend to be closer and more tight knit. I am grateful for the opportunities working in agriculture has offered me to meet new people and learn different ways of going about raising livestock. 

After a few ranching and agriculturally related jobs I have come to the apprenticeship program to develop new skills and improve upon what I have learned up to this point. This year at the San Juan Ranch I hope to better understand how to implement practical rangeland monitoring procedures, further my stockman and horsemanship abilities, and learn the intricacies of selling cattle and grass-finished beef. I am particularly looking to gain insight into how a ranching business can be run without relying upon the commodity market. I have found the role at which genetics play in livestock production as well as their importance in land use very interesting. I would like to learn more about regionally adapted cattle and sheep and their potential to balance efficient resource use with weight gain and carcass quality. There appears to be many approaches to biological monitoring, many of which are impractical and time consuming. I intend to learn the best practices and procedures which can be regularly performed by most ranchers so as to be sure management is trending towards the desired future landscape. The art of stockmanship and stock handling has also been a steep learning curve and I am eager to continue to develop my skills in this area. I would like to work towards a capability to achieve good range management through proper stockmanship not only for the ecological benefits, but also for the livestock and people involved too.

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