New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Matt Brant, APPRENTICE, Barthelmess Ranch, MT
I learned so dang much during my Quivira apprenticeship that the thought of writing it all down is pretty daunting. However, I will simplify what I have learned. I think that the biggest theme of my education, one that Leo mentioned many times, is that ranching and life are all about relationships. Relationships with coworkers, relationships with family, relationships with significant others, relationships with neighbors, relationships with environmentalists, even relationships with livestock are all key to a thriving ranch.
Relationships are always important, but they are especially vital during a time like the summer of 2021. My apprenticeship took place during the worst drought that South Phillips County has experienced in living memory. This summer has been marked by dried up reservoirs, hot smoky days, little to no forage regrowth, and cows that were constantly searching for greener pastures. The last eight months on the Barthelmess Ranch have certainly come with their fair share of struggles. Even my mentor Leo Barthelmess and his brother Chris Barthelmess said that they were in uncharted territory. However, together we educated ourselves, we adapted, and in the end we maintained our quality of life throughout what was clearly a period of crisis.
Even during a stressful period like an exceptional drought it is still important to practice daily rituals. Rituals can help maintain a sense of normalcy when times are filled with uncertainty. One of our rituals was our morning coffee. A day at the Barthelmess Ranch starts around Chris’s kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Here we talk about what the plans for the day might entail. This is a time to reflect on the events and lessons of yesterday and to have a moment of peace before the events of today begin. During my apprenticeship I have learned that ranchers are not always the most communicative bunch so this ritual also acted as a time for us to brainstorm ideas to improve the success of our operation, and to philosophize on all aspects of regenerative agriculture.
One topic of philosophy that was often brought up around the kitchen table was stockmanship. Regenerative ranching is not possible without stockmanship. The goal of regenerative ranching is to use cattle as tools to improve soil and rangeland health. Stockmanship is the skill that allows us to use this tool effectively. Low-stress livestock handling is a method of stockmanship that attempts to work with cattle to make our idea their idea. Forcing cattle to do something often ends up in a fight or in a wreck. When you take into account the natural instincts of a cow, and use those instincts to get to your goal, everything becomes easier. Bud Williams once said that if you work for your cows then they will work for you all day long. This was made clear many times at the Barthelmess Ranch.
Chris and Leo have spent years developing a good relationship with their cows. This relationship was tested during this year’s drought. One test came in July when it was time to precondition the calves. On a normal year we would have brought all the calves and cows into the pastures surrounding the main corrals. However, the cows had been in those pastures during calving season, and there had been zero regrowth since then. During one of our ritual morning coffee sessions we decided that since the cattle could not come to the corrals, we would have to bring the corrals to the cattle.
The only potential problem with this plan was that our temporary holding pen would have to be made of some of the flimsiest panels ever to be used in South Phillips County. These panels would get bent out of shape if a calf jumped into them so a herd of 350 cows could tear our holding pen down within seconds. However, this herd had been in corrals many times before and had not had any bad experiences. This meant that when the moment came to drive the herd into the corral, the cows willingly and calmly walked into the holding pen. This ability to take the corrals to the cows became crucial to our regenerative grazing management.
Leo Barthelmess often talks about the importance of telling a good story about ranchers. He realizes that much of our society today sees cows as an environmental problem instead of a potential regenerative solution. While at the Barthelmess Ranch I learned about two different conservation organizations. Both of these organizations are devoted to conserving the sagebrush prairie ecosystem that the Barthelmess Ranch is a part of. However, the two organizations have radically different ideas on how to accomplish this conservation goal.
One of these organizations is the American Prairie Reserve (APR). They are of the belief that conservation means creating a National Park and removing all humans from the land. This idea is flawed from the beginning because many of the most degraded grassland ecosystems are located in National Parks. This is due to the lack of animal impact, which leads to the overabundance of old decadent grasses, a lack of regrowth, and in brittle environments leads to desertification. However, this is not even my main concern with the APR approach. My main concern is that their model for conservation leaves out the people who are already on the land. The ranchers in South Phillips County see APR as a foreign colonizing force that desires to exterminate their way of life. As you can imagine, the relationship between APR and these ranchers is anything but productive.
The second organization is called the Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance (RSA). Their mission statement reads, “Ranching, conservation, communities, – a Winning Team!” RSA is an organization that understands that South Phillips County is a community of people who love their home. RSA realizes that these people have lived on their land for generations, and that they want to conserve that land for the generations to come. This is why the conservation model of RSA is that these ranchers are not at odds with conservation, but that they are instead vital to the conservation of the sagebrush prairie. RSA works to educate ranchers on regenerative grazing practices, distribute funds for conservation projects on ranchlands, and provide an open forum for members of both the environmental community and the ranching community to come together and just talk.
This concept of coming together and talking is the single most important thing that I will take away from this apprenticeship. Before applying to be a New Agrarian apprentice, I read about the Quivira idea of the “radical center”. I find this term to be sarcastic because the center is obviously not a radical place to be at all. However, in our society today it does seem like the far edges of the spectrum are growing, and this important middle ground is being lost. Throughout this apprenticeship I spoke with many people who did not share my political beliefs, but the conversations that I had with these people were often the most thought provoking. I learned to clearly represent my ideas in these conversations while at the same time listening to the other argument. These conversations strengthened my own arguments, and gave me perspectives that I would not have understood on my own. In the end, this apprenticeship has solidified my belief that we all need to let go of our egos and just listen to the other side.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
I became interested in ranching through my family and the quality time spent together at our ranch in Albany, Texas. I am part of the fourth generation of family members at Lambshead Ranch. Lambshead has been owned and operated by our family since the late 1800s. I did not grow up on the ranch, but many of my best memories shared with my parents, brother, and cousins have been made there. I learned from a young age that I love life on the ranch. Through this apprenticeship I hope to gain a better understanding of the ranching business so that I can be an active and well-informed participant in the management of our ranch.
As a member of the fourth generation I hope to bring innovative ideas to Lambshead. In my first month spent here at the Barthelmess Ranch I have already learned innovative practices ranging from low-stress livestock handling techniques to regenerative grazing management. At the basis of all practices on the ranch is a focus on improving soil health. An example of this can be seen in how the Barthelmess Ranch is handling their current drought situation.
Droughts often put ranchers in the uncomfortable situation of having to cull their livestock. However, Chris and Leo Barthelmess do not seem to be quite as uncomfortable with the idea of culling. This is because they have put a higher value on their land health than on their herd genetics. They have spent years using their cattle as a tool to improve the value of their land. Their philosophy is that cattle will come and go, but your soil and grassland health is a value that your ranch will always have to fall back on.
This idea of using cattle as a tool to increase grassland health is something that I want to take back to Texas. Texas is 95 percent privately owned land. This means that in Texas conservation has to happen on the private land ownership level. I personally believe that private land conservation is the most effective conservation. As seen at the Barthelmess Ranch, improving soil health has economic benefits for the rancher, while at the same time helps to improve diversity and resilience in the grassland ecosystem.
I hope to learn as much as I can about local collaborations between the ranching community and the environmental community here in Northeast Montana. One such program is the Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch grass bank. The grass bank uses cattle from local ranchers as a management tool to improve grassland health. In return for their service, the ranchers pay a subsidized rate for the land that they lease.
It often seems like environmentalists and ranchers are two groups that have little in common and few shared interests. However, here at the Barthelmess Ranch it is clear that there is great value in the partnership between these two communities. This is evident by a sign that sits just off the county road that reads, “Love the prairies? Thank a rancher.” Through this apprenticeship I hope to learn how to foster a community that shares this sentiment.
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