Looking back is the only way to go forward

Courtesy photo George Whitten and partner/wife, Julie Sullivan, operate the holistically managed San Juan Ranch

Holistic rangeland management and the San Juan Ranch

SAGUACHE — When third-generation rancher George Whitten stands on the land that makes up the San Juan Ranch, he’s on ground that has been in his family since 1893 when his grandfather homesteaded. “That’s how long we’ve been around here,” he says in a slow and humble yet straightforward way. “We’ve only done livestock – cattle and sheep – that whole time.” Whitten, who is frequently asked to make presentations or speak on panels, goes on to explain what he does and how he does it.  In so doing, a sense of history and timelessness comes out in his language with references in passing to Manifest Destiny, the impact of railroad ties on the massive herds of bison that once roamed the plains or being raised by a father who never used fertilizer “not just because we were cheap but because we didn’t need it.”

It’s a striking contrast in an industry that’s largely driven by multi-billion dollar companies developing new technology. And for those hearing Whitten for the first time, his historic references and soft-spoken, thoughtful demeanor may suggest he is a nostalgic dwelling in an imagined past.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The approach George Whitten and partner/wife, Julie Sullivan, take to managing the organic, holistic, internationally recognized and successful San Juan Ranch is based on Whitten’s experiences growing up watching his father and grandfather, his own years of experience, ongoing monitoring of the extraordinary inter-relationships between soil, plants and cattle and a presentation by a man who revolutionized range management, a man whom Whitten and a group of other ranchers heard at a Colorado Cattleman’s Association meeting in 1985 and, subsequently, attended his school. Savory, whose approach is called “holistic management” revolutionized the Range Management School at Colorado State University.  Among those ranchers who went to school, Whitten says there are a number of holistic ranching operations practicing the approach throughout the West.  Personally, for George Whitten, it was, in his words, “a watershed moment .”    

The presenter was a man named Allen Savory, a refugee from what is now known as Zimbabwe where he had been a range manager. When he came to the southwest, Savory saw it as being a great deal like the Serengeti and shared what he had learned in Africa. “For years, Savory watched millions of cloven-hoofed grazing animals – huge herds, moving across the landscape,” Whitten says. “They’d graze it down and trample it and, in the process, they’d trample with their hooves all that manure and dung in with the seeds of the plants. And then they’d move on. He watched what it did to the range and realized overgrazing wasn’t about the numbers of animals. It was about how long they’re there.”

On the San Juan Ranch, Whitten uses what he learned from Savory as the foundation of his approach. He puts cattle in a space where access to the grass is controlled by solar-powered electric fencing. The cattle graze for a period of time – sometimes a day, sometimes less, depending upon the intensity and forage available – and then the fence is moved, allowing cattle access to the next rotation of grass while the area they just left can rest.

“That combination of high density of cattle combined with long rest periods.  That’s how we manage our ranch. We try to emulate that natural order of things based on an evolutionary process that has gone on for millions and millions of years. ”

The holistic rangeland approach is now beginning to be used with farmers, “especially potato farmers trying to rebuild the soil.”  Farmers raise a cover crop and Whitten puts his cattle on their property. They then put an electric fence on the sprinkler and the sprinkler, which acts as a movable fence, moves the cattle throughout the day.

“The sprinkler waters for ten minutes and the head moves, moving the fence. Cattle then have access to that feed on the ground that’s never baled. Cattle turn it into dung and urine and add that to the soil across that whole field. That means that everything that’s produced there goes right back into the soil. So these farmers that want to grow a monoculture, like potatoes, can take that soil with all that organic biomatter because the cattle have replaced that process of using compost or whatever they do.”

As focused as Whitten and Sullivan are on present-day holistic rangeland operations, they are also equally committed to the future including those people who are just beginning ranchers and those who’ve been ranching for a while but are seeking a better, long term approach.  The result is their “new agrarian program” where they offer one and two 8-month apprenticeships, teaching the strategies they use and the philosophy behind them.  In addition to on-site apprentices, Julie Sullivan is also mentoring those ranchers who are offering apprenticeships, having discovered that communicating effectively with new agrarians is crucial to successful learning.

Originally started in 2003, San Juan Ranch has had a total of 17 apprentices.  All but one are now managing their own successful, holistic ranches.  And San Juan Ranch is one of nearly twenty such programs in existence.

“People think that what we’re doing is backward because we don’t rely on technology.  But, in a lot of cases, it’s technology that’s killing us. Some of our practices in the past have created many of the problems we’re facing.  And what was it that Einstein said? ‘Problems can’t be solved with the same mindset that created them.’”

Whitten readily acknowledges the number of other significant factors that are involved in the ranching industry– speculators and the cattle futures market, consumer expectations and the desire for inexpensive food. And, of course, limited water resources.

Always, water. 

But, at its core, it all comes down to the life and health in the soil.

“I never have to kill anything. I never have to plow it down, never have to spray a weed. What I’m trying to do is nurture life by using the interaction between livestock and the grasslands.”

Given all the challenges he mentioned plus the issue of climate change that, while clearly present, is still an unknown in terms of scope and impact, it’s a natural question to ask George Whitten if he’s still hopeful about the future.

“Yes, I am,” he says. “All I have to do is look down at what I’m walking on, at that soil that is so full of life. That life makes me hopeful. As long as that’s there, I’ll continue to feel that way.”

On Saturday, March 20, George Whitten will be speaking at the Annual Rio Grande State of the Basin Symposium hosted by the Salazar Rio Grande Del Norte Center.