New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Zach Nicholas, APPRENTICE, Knott Land and Livestock
During my time as an apprentice on the Knott Ranch, I found not only a job, but a life long passion that has reshaped my trajectory and plans. Throughout my apprenticeship, I had my skills, endurance, patience, and preconceived ideas challenged. I found beauty in ranching’s closed system, tied to the natures order of birth, life, growth, death, and decay, and yet shielded from many of its hardships. I have seen how well managed lands recover, and I have concluded more management of our lands is going to be necessary to combat climate change. I feel animal agriculture is essential to improving local ecology, reducing greenhouse gasses, and increasing availability of local and healthy food for communities.
This summer, I had the chance on multiple occasions to observe the difference between well-managed rangeland, and desertifying land. Unfortunately, the impact of mismanaged land was extremely apparent with operations in the area that have bison. Most bison ranches I have seen are the pet projects of the extremely wealthy who use them as living lawn ornaments, with no real consideration for land health, market participation, or sustainability. While mismanaged cattle operations also experience desertification, cattle are trainable and more adapted to working in a closed system. Additionally, I see cattle as having an advantage in holistic management as it is easier to adjust your stocking rate according to the situation by buying and selling at a sale barn. In conclusion, I think due to the level of disturbance in our natural ecosystems, an unmanaged solution is no longer a viable option to restoring rangeland.
I think ranching is by far the most sustainable form of agriculture for western states, as livestock are able to integrate into the ecosystem, and if well managed can fill a niche missing from the ecology. Due to insufficient or unpredictable rain patterns, animal agriculture will have to play a greater role in our food system out West, as the amount of water needed for animal agriculture is far less than that needed for crops. This is not to mention, conventional crop agriculture is ecologically disastrous for our water tables, our wildlife, and will impact our food security in the future. I believe more effort needs to be put forth by government to relocate where we currently farm, and use animal agriculture to restore land abused for close to a century.
During this apprenticeship, I learned a lot about cattle, and how different operations pick and choose certain traits to breed depending on their local weather, altitude, and business model to maximize profit. For example, on the Knott Ranch, due to the high altitude and bitter cold winters, they stock Angus Hereford cross. They are the best option because they are large framed, suited for cold environments, and adaptable to high altitudes. Having a larger framed cow allows them to birth larger calves in the spring which helps reduce death-loss from the cold, and also increases overall weights in the fall when the calves get sold. I came to discover most of the home raised cattle are not suited for grass-finishing, and due to their size and the amount of feed it takes to fatten up a larger animal on grass, it is extremely cost prohibitive and difficult. I learned from the ranch that different breeds of cattle have their pros and cons, and people pick and choose based on both aesthetics and suitability.
While learning in the industry, I discovered the disconnect consumers have when buying meat. So much of our current market is saturated with products covered in buzzwords and terms that seek to influence consumers. In reality, most of these products are labeled with the intent of deceiving customers based on common misconceptions about the meat industry and this is no more apparent than in the term “grass-fed beef.” You might think as a consumer when you go to buy beef labeled “grass fed,” you would be getting a product from an animal that only eats grass for its entire life here in the U.S.. However, the majority of grassfed beef is imported from other countries and labeled with a USDA stamp as it is further processed in USDA inspected slaughter houses. It is important to remember all beef is grass fed until the last 6 weeks to months of its life. Which means, under the current USDA requirement of grass-fed certification, an animal has to be fed grass for 50% of its life, almost all conventional beef could fall under the USDA’s requirement for “grass-fed.” This being said, I discovered most consumers have no clue as to how their food is produced, and tend to be manipulated by businesses who prefer to keep our food system as un-transparent as possible to insure maximum profit.
I have been amazed at times, disappointed at others, and tired throughout, however now more than ever I feel passion in the work that I am doing. This apprenticeship helped me to determine if ranching was something I wanted to do, and the holes in my education, knowledge, and skills that still need improvement. I feel like a small part in the bigger regenerative movement that is having a direct quantifiable impact year to year. I have come to discover the impact animal agriculture has on ecology. Additionally, well-managed domesticated animals can integrate into an ecosystem with minimal disturbance, improvement to biodiversity, soil carbon levels, and water infiltration. For me, seeing is believing, and I feel my experience has led me to truly believe in the ideas of holistic management, and regenerative agriculture. I see myself continuing to ranch for the rest of my life, whether it be in production or as a hobbyist, however I am excited to be a part of a community of like-minded people. Without this apprenticeship, my desire to ranch would only have been a lifelong dream, never knowing if I had what it takes. At this point, 9 months after the start, I now feel I have a better understanding of the industry, the community, and my options moving forward.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
The Lost Tradition
When it comes to the question of how I got interested in agriculture, I suppose it’s best to understand I was born into a ranching family that had very recently lost our ranch and exited the business. In that sense, I have always been interested in agriculture, because it is what shaped my family’s values, habits, traditions, and pastimes. Both of my great-grandfathers had been ranchers at one point or another, one was born onto a sheep ranch, but it was my grandfather’s father who had not merely been born into the lifestyle but chose to adopt it as his profession. I grew up hearing the stories he told my dad about being born into a landscape of open range, where the prairie laid uninterrupted full of tall grass, where only livestock and small dwellings dotted the landscape. Having been born in 1912, he had helped build the first roads that crossed the desolate New Mexico landscape and participated in some of the last large cattle drives that echoed the times long past. He was there to see the transition, and watched as the ways of old were replaced by greed, efficiency, and decentralization. Growing up, my dad would tell me stories of the time he spent on his grandparents ranch, from the long days starting before the sun had risen only for his grandfather to exclaim “Hurry up we’re burning daylight,” to the large lunches they would call “supper,” and the talk of hard times they had experienced living through the Depression on the edge of the Dust Bowl. My dad, having grown up without his father, left me without a grandfather, but like my dad, I felt more connected to his grandfather because of the wisdom that he bestowed upon him.
When it comes to what I am hoping to get out of my apprenticeship, first and foremost, it is best to understand my ancestors and the mindset that influenced me without even knowing it. Additionally, I am hoping to understand what they experienced and dealt with daily, and to achieve a naive hope I could do anything to live up to their expectations and standards of what it means to be a cattleman, and a good man. While that may sound cliche, I will finish by sharing a piece of wisdom that my great-grandfather shared with my dad after a long day clearing a pasture of mesquite brush. The bed of the truck was jammed full and piled high above the cab, but rather than being happy or content my great-grandfather was more troubled than anything. After my dad saw his face, he asked him what was on his mind, and he stated “You know it wasn’t too long ago that we would be taking our own lives into our hands by taking more than we need.” His point was, don’t be greedy, take care of others, and share your resources or someone might kill you. While I am happy to no longer live in a world where the threat of death is ever present, I still think the idea of sharing is important to adopt especially if you want to be a cattleman.