Sustainable Stewardship

By “sustainable land stewardship,” we mean agricultural practices that accomplish three goals:

  1. Profitable operations
  2. Environmental health
  3. Quality of life

Since our inception in 1994, Western Sustainability Exchange has worked in partnership with ranchers to implement and monitor a variety of practices to achieve these goals. Over the years, WSE has discovered that sustainable ranching increases profits and simultaneously improves the health of grasslands and waterways.

The financial benefits are achieved by decreasing operating costs, increasing production capacity and improving livestock health. Generally, sustainable practices reduce input costs by reducing the need for inputs (such as synthetic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and farm equipment). They also increase the productivity of rangelands, thus increasing the land’s carrying capacity and improving livestock nutrition. Cattle raised without antibiotics or growth hormones can be marketed to the growing natural foods market, which often pays premiums over commodity prices. In a 2001 study, ranchers reported that sustainable management increases profitability by 15 to 25 percent.

These same practices also ensure the integrity of soil, water, and air quality, of grasslands, and of stream areas. The health of these resources have lasting and positive impacts on the abundance and diversity of the organisms that depend upon them. Sustainable methods improve the health of “ecosystem processes,” such as the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow, and biodiversity.

Sustainable agriculture practices also oftentimes result in improved quality of life. The planning aspect of this approach identifies common goals and creates cooperation and efficiency among family members and employees. The economic benefits common with sustainable management also help producers keep their land in production rather than selling parcels to developers. This not only helps family ranchers stay in business, it also maintains vital open space essential for wildlife, recreation, and community well-being.

Sustainable Ranching Practices
While it is not always possible to incorporate all practices at once, the methods suggested below are techniques producers can build into their operation whenever possible and appropriate. This is by no means a comprehensive list of sustainable practices.

  • Develop management plans that include grass management, drought planning and financial projections
  • Select livestock and crop species adapted to the natural conditions of a farm or ranch operation
  • Select type of operation (i.e. cow/calf, stocker, sheep) to best fit a ranch’s natural environment
  • Practice time-controlled grazing to match grazing times and livestock numbers to the condition of the grassland resources, and rest-rotation to provide adequate rest periods for grasses
  • Actively manage livestock around sensitive areas such as riparian zones
  • Develop upland water sources to provide water to livestock and wildlife away from streams and to protect riparian areas and water quality
  • Herd livestock to concentrate animals and move them regularly to better utilize grasslands and to provide adequate recovery periods
  • Prevent livestock waste from contaminating surface and ground water
  • Use low-stress livestock handling when moving livestock and checking animal health
  • Provide livestock with outdoor access, fresh water, suitable shelter, proper handling facilities, and balanced feed rations
  • Eliminate growth hormone implants
  • Use low-stress livestock handling and adequate nutrition to eliminate the need for subtherapeutic antibiotics
  • Use livestock manure, green manure, and organic fertilizer as alternatives to synthetic fertilizers
  • Use livestock grazing, biological controls, mechanical tools and other nontoxic means to control unwanted plant, animal and insect species as part of integrated pest management
  • Use guard animals (dogs, donkeys, llamas), electric fences, suitable pasture location, noise deterrents and live trapping whenever possible to protect livestock from predators
  • Time calving and lambing to mimic wild ungulate birthing cycles and grass growth to reduce supplemental feeding costs and health problems with young animals
  • Graze crop stubble and standing forage to reduce the amount of winter supplemental feeding and hay production costs
  • Windrow hay crops for feeding to reduce the costs of full hay and winter-feeding operations
  • Regularly monitor resource health and adjust management strategies to achieve environmental and financial goals
  • Become certified by an independent third-party to verify that production methods comply with natural and organic market requirements

Benefits of Sustainable Management

Increased ranch profitability

  • Increased value of livestock (health & weight) through improved animal husbandry and nutritional forage conditions
  • Reduced expenditures for expensive chemical inputs such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers
  • Decreased expenditures for farming equipment and fuels by reducing or eliminating conventional hay production and nonessential farming
  • Decreased labor and feeding costs by calving or lambing around summer solstice to more closely match nature’s production cycle
  • Reduced property loss through soil erosion
  • Increased access to lucrative niche markets within the natural foods industry

Improved rangeland resources

  • Reduced sediment runoff into surface waters
  • Increased soil health through reduced erosion
  • Reduced chemical and organic waste contamination of ground and surface waters
  • Increased water infiltration of soil by reduced soil capping
  • Increased water storage capacity of soil by increasing soil carbon content
  • Increased diversity of plant, animal and insect species through healthy wildlife habitat (winter range, birthing grounds and migration corridors), and aquatic habitat

Increased quality of life

  • Decreased labor demand by shifting to summer calving and reducing the level of intensive farming and haying
  • Decreased stress levels through management plans that increase effectiveness and plan for drought
  • Decreased stress levels through realistic financial projections
  • Increased inter-farm/ranch communication and ranch efficiency by involving all relevant people in management planning

For more information on sustainable agricultural practices, visit these websites:

For information on trainings in sustainable stewardship, visit these sites: