As an undergraduate intern at CSANR for the summer, I had the privilege to travel to Lazy R Ranch for our summer advisory committee (AC) meeting at the end of June. Maurice Robinette, long-time AC member, was gracious enough to host us at his ranch and share with us a taste (literally and figuratively) of his operation. To try to stay comfortable in the summer heat, we sat under the shade trees on the front lawn as Maurice and his daughter Beth shared with us the key element to their ranching success: holistic management. As the longest-standing example of holistic management in Washington State, the ranch serves as a learning site for the Pacific Northwest Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Institute Hub. Their farm, like many others in the northwest, is committed to seeking a more sustainable way of farming – sustainable for the land, animals, and people who live there.
Lazy R Ranch, a fourth generation family ranch, began in 1937. In those early days, Maurice’s grandfather Earl milked cows. The farm was converted to beef in 1950, and later, Maurice took over the farm after attending graduate school. Low cattle prices in the 1990s forced him to consider quitting ranching – until Maurice participated in a holistic management project at WSU led by Don Nelson. Willing to try just about anything, Maurice first began applying holistic management practices in 1996. He has not looked back since. Beth returned to the ranch after attending graduate school for business and marketing. Since returning, she has implemented direct marketing of their beef through a meat community supported agriculture (CSA) program and sales to restaurants.
Holistic Management: It Depends
The ranch consists of five non-contiguous pieces of land currently divided into 38 paddocks, including both dry upland sections with pines, and wetter sub-irrigated areas with deeper soils and higher grass productivity. The animals are entirely grass-fed. The land is certified organic, but the beef is not. Because of their close relationships with consumers in the CSA, the Robinettes have not found certification to be particularly necessary. The herd size fluctuates between 150-200 head. Each year, about 50 animals are slaughtered at two years of age.
Holistic management requires a different way of thinking. It is not immediate, but a slowly implemented change. It is fundamentally a way of making thoughtful decisions, aimed at achieving long term goals for the ranch. Thus Maurice and Beth frequently resort to the answer “it depends” when asked specific questions about their management. Strategies are flexible and it depends what goal they are trying to reach, as well as the characteristics of the land.
For ranches, one fundamental element of holistic management is timing of grazing, which ensures an adequate recovery period for grasses. Given their average annual precipitation of 15 inches, each paddock is typically grazed 1-3 times a year. Currently, Lazy R Ranch is experimenting with a minimum rest period of 90 days for the grasses in each paddock. They have increased this rest period gradually over the past few years, and they have found good results with longer rest periods thus far. During grazing, some grass is consumed, while other grasses are trampled by the animals. These trampled grasses come in contact with the soil and are broken down by soil microbes, benefitting soil health. When examining recovery periods, the Robinettes monitor to make sure the most desirable plants are recovered. This method can be used to control species shift and eliminate undesirable areas.
Maurice claims Lazy R Ranch’s most powerful tool is its financial plan. He uses a traditional equation in a nontraditional way which reads “Income – Profit = Expenses.” Income is estimated based on previous years and the desired profit margin is subtracted. The remaining funds are available to cover expenses.
In an attempt to gather more data on holistic management, a study is being conducted at Lazy R Ranch by WSU researchers Tip Hudson and Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, funded by BIOAg through CSANR. The study will examine the effect on plant community and soil carbon from high density grazing over a shorter duration verses low density grazing over a longer duration. Four different soil treatments will be applied: compost, manure, control, and compost tea. A K-line irrigation system will be used across the experiment.
There is much controversy surrounding holistic management and the lack of scientific data in support of the practice. This controversy is addressed in detail in a two-part blog post by Chad Kruger, part one and part two. In my opinion, after touring Lazy R Ranch and learning about holistic management, the practices implemented are beneficial to the entire ecosystem and contribute to improved soil quality, increased production, and improved grasses. The controversy of holistic management only increases the importance of collecting scientific data, including that collected in the study by WSU researchers.