EAST OF BROADUS — When a ranch manager starts talking about holistic grazing, does it mean that staid, stoic Eastern Montana has gone counterculture?
Or could a different approach to ranching in the arid West not only revive grasslands but also energize families and communities while increasing profits?
It sounds too good to be true, but that's what Grasslands LLC, a division of the Savory Institute, is touting after purchasing the Cinch Buckle Ranch in southeastern Montana's Carter County in February. Ron Goddard, who used to work at the Lazy E-L Ranch in Roscoe, is the ranch's new manager.
Goddard, his straw cowboy hat tipped back as he leaned on an ATV addressing a small crowd on the lawn of his new home, said he used to make jokes about the program when he was introduced to it.
"We called a horse that was jumpy a holisticator," he said.
But at some point his thinking changed. The idea seemed to make sense. He followed up with a class put on by the Savory Institute on grazing management.
"Ever since then, we've been hooked," he said.
Grasslands LLC is one part of a multipronged nonprofit founded by Allan Savory, born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Savory has tirelessly promoted his unusual method of restoring native grasslands using intensive grazing. Under the Grasslands division, the institute has cultivated Eastern investors who bought the Cinch Buckle and two ranches in South Dakota that are being managed for the betterment of the planet, rural people and an expected profit of 4 to 11 percent.
"The idea is that as we build ecological resilience and build biological and social capital, that these places will be more attractive," said Daniela Ibarra-Howell, co-founder of the Savory Institute. "We're empowering communities to learn to live with their environment."
Ibarra-Howell and her husband, Jim, who is the CEO of Grasslands, brought an unusual group of visitors to the Cinch Buckle Ranch recently. They included representatives of environmental groups, young men from the East who had hired on as summer interns and a New Jersey dairy farming couple.
The environmental groups are looking into the Grasslands methodology not only as a way to restore an environment but also as a possible investment in line with their green thinking.
The idea seems odd; environmental groups have long battered cattlemen and grazing as detrimental to public lands. But the Grasslands approach has caught their eye, because it claims to improve the ecosystem while also turning a profit.
"The big strategy now, in terms of grasslands, is collaborating with other organizations that are aligned with us," Howell said.
He pointed to groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy as possible partners.
Louisa Wilcox, NRDC's senior wildlife advocate in the group's Livingston office who participated in the tour, said she thinks the grazing program is really dependent on the ranch manager and how well he stays on top of the grazing plan.
The Grasslands idea is to intensively graze grasslands and then quickly move the cattle onto a different parcel, much like native animals did for centuries as they migrated.
Rotational grazing has been around for a long time. The difference that Howell stresses is the timing. Cattle are moved onto fresh graze more often, allowing forage to be chewed back only once. Then the cattle are moved and the grasses are allowed to fully regenerate before the cattle are allowed back. The method involves stringing and unstringing large rolls of electrical fencing to keep cattle on smaller portions of the 39,000-acre ranch. Animal waste acts as a fertilizer, and their hooves aerate the soil.
"What we're trying to do is change the grazing pattern so every area gets grazed," Howell said. "We're trying to show we can get much more even utilization out here and because of that, we can run historically higher levels of stock out here."
Tony Malmberg, a co-founder of the Savory Institute and a former Wyoming rancher, also sees the program as good for wildlife since more forbs and grasses are left standing for animals like young sage grouse, a species under consideration for listing as an endangered species.
His wife, Andrea, touts grasslands as a way to offset climate change as a place to sequester carbon.
"We are hoping that with the Savory Institute we can show that by using holistic management we can avert climate change," she said.
Although prairies may not be as alluring as rain forests, she said they have the potential to sequester even more carbon.
Carbon sequestration, holistic grazing and energizing young urban people to take a greater interest in ranching all seem strangely out of place in southeastern Montana. But there is one common theme even old-timers can probably agree on with the Grasslands folks.
"We want ranches where young people want to stay," Andrea Malmberg said.
"We're working, hopefully smarter and harder, to take this to a level so that it is fun and attractive," Ibarra-Howell said. "We're finally reaching this point of acceptance where governments are more receptive to our message. There's more conversation going on than ever before."