Gunthorp Farms

Gunthorp Farms

Greg Gunthorp, Gunthorp Farms, La Grange Indiana. Credit: Kristin Hess, Indiana Humanities, Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest.

The weather appears slightly more variable, not significantly more, but slightly more variable. I was still farming with my dad during the severe drought in ’88. The drought in 2012 was worse, but I guess we were due for another one. I don’t know, but the weather does appear a little bit more variable. We’ve always had to deal with these weather extremes. It seems like we just have to deal with them a little more often.”

Greg Gunthorp

Gunthorp Farms

Midwest Region | LaGrange, IN

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 225 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to on-farm processing and direct marketing, multi-species pastured livestock, on-farm charcuterie.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Greg Gunthorp has been raising pigs for as long as he can remember on his family farm near LaGrange, Indiana. The Gunthorp family has always raised pigs on pasture, resisting pressure to modernize when confined animal production really took off in the pork industry in the 1980s. Just after Greg and his wife Lei took over the family pork operation in 1995, pig prices hit historic lows following an especially intense period of consolidation in the industry. At that time, with pork processors paying fourteen cents a pound for live hogs, Greg found himself selling hogs for less than his grandfather had decades ago.

Greg did not want to be the last in a long line of Gunthorps to grow pigs, so he began thinking about how to reach higher-value markets. Greg believed that the growing consumer interest in local foods and pasture-raised meats on both coasts would eventually spread to the Midwest. Greg knew he could raise high-quality pork on pasture and he knew he could market it. He also knew access to processing would be a challenge, because of the concentration in the pork industry. So in 2002, Greg built a USDA-inspected processing plant on his farm, one of only a handful in the country.

Today, Greg grows and processes pasture-based pork and poultry on 225 acres of farmland managed as perennial pasture, annual forages and grain crops. Pork and poultry are outside year-round and are protected with portable huts and electric netting. The livestock are rotated through pastures, the forage and grain crops, and a small woodland. Feed grains are grown on the farm or sourced from neighboring farms, including those of his parents and a brother. The woodland and standing corn also provide some shelter and forage for the pigs in late fall and winter and Greg encourages mulberries in the woodlands and along fence lines because of the high feed value of the fruit.

The Gunthorp Farms production system is designed to work with seasonal weather patterns. “We try not to start too early in the spring on the birds,” Greg explains, “and we don’t go way too late into the fall because of how difficult it becomes for us to make sure that they’ve got water. We try to focus production during the time of year when the pasture and forages are growing well so that the animals are on better pasture. We try to time our production to what nature does.” Greg views the high soil quality on his farm as an additional plus for production as well as a buffer against more variable rainfall. “We raise a few crops, but our soils are relatively high in organic matter, even though we’ve got sandy soils, because we have so much pasture. Our soils are more resilient to heavy rainfalls and more erratic rainfall patterns.”

Although the processing plant has been the key to the success of Gunthorp Farms, Greg admits it is a lot to manage at times. “I always tell people we really have three businesses,” he says. “We have a farm, a processing plant and a meat distribution company. In order for our model to be successful, all three of them have to function relatively efficiently and work together. We slaughter and process our own pigs, chicken, ducks and turkeys. Depending on the time of year, we have eight to twelve full-time employees for our processing plant. We do slaughter, raw fabrications of chops, roasts, steaks, chicken breast and primals. We also do ground products and sausages. We have a smokehouse and we do our bacon in there, as well as some smoked hocks, a few smoked hams and smoked sausages.” Greg also does some custom slaughtering for other local livestock producers on occasion. Gunthorp Farms meats are direct marketed through an on-farm store and weekly deliveries to more than 150 high-end restaurants and meat markets in Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit.

The processing plant has a number of energy and environmental conservation features, including a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment, solar thermal preheating for the hot water used in processing, heat recovery from the refrigeration units and geothermal space heating. Solid waste from the processing plant is composted with crop residues and returned to the pastures and croplands. Greg is pleased with his efforts to recycle wastes and conserve energy in the processing plant. “We really work on it,” he says. “We’re doing a few interesting things. It’s kind of neat actually and it is a lot of fun. I like to play around with alternative energies.”

Thinking about weather challenges, Greg says that extreme weather is pretty much a normal part of farming in his region. “Blizzards would definitely be on the list of weather challenges,” he says, “along with drought, summer heat waves and very heavy rains. Excessively high winds can make it hard to keep our shelters from flying away, but blizzards top the list, because they can make it really difficult to get to the animals and make sure that they have feed, water and a dry, draft-free place to sleep. It’s more the getting to them than anything, because the snow and then the drifting snow can cause us to get stuck going out there. Then it gets cold enough that you can only stay out in it for a little bit.”

Although Greg thinks other farmers believe the weather has become more variable over the last decade or so, he can’t say that he has noticed any significant changes in patterns over his lifetime; however, he does think the spring warm-up pattern seems to be changing. “My grandpa’s rule of thumb was you didn’t throw pigs out on pasture until the last week of April because you might get a little bit of snow after that, but it wasn’t going to stick,” explains Greg. “And that is still somewhat consistent. I remember growing up, when I was really little, my grandpa always said you ‘freeze the frogs three times.’ He meant that after the frogs started singing in the spring you would get a thin layer of ice on the mud puddles and the ponds three more times. And this is the thing that is getting really weird right now. In the last twelve years, one year the frogs froze twenty-one times, and another year it was like twenty-three times. Otherwise, the frogs are just about always right on. Maybe the frogs know something we don’t.” Although some of these changes in weather have caught Greg’s attention, they have not required any changes in production practices at Gunthorp Farms.

Greg says that one of his biggest challenges with weather right now is longer and more intense summer and fall dry periods. He thinks this change may be connected to the increase in center-pivot irrigation in his region. “I’m 100 percent convinced that when all these guys around us turn on their center pivots, our rain becomes very, very intermittent,” says Greg. “It is almost like the rainfall just goes around us. I have no data to support it whatsoever, but I’m convinced that once they turn their center pivots on, the precipitation variability increases drastically. I think the humidity from the center pivots is changing the direction of fronts and precipitation. My dad used to say it all that time and lots of people used to think he was crazy, but there’s a lot more people starting to believe it.”

Thinking about the future, Greg is pretty optimistic about the continued success of Gunthorp Farms, mostly because of the high-quality natural resources in his region and on his farm. “I think we’re in a part of the country that is going to be one of the last places to be severely impacted by more weather variability,” he explains. “This is mostly because we have easy access to a lot of good-quality water. We don’t have the issues that the Western Corn Belt has with worrying about whether they’re going to end up running out of water.” In addition, Greg believes that the rolling landscape on his farm and the high-quality soils created by rotational grazing and diverse cropping help to buffer the farm from extreme weather events, as does his use of standing corn and woodlands to moderate extremes in temperatures and winds.

Greg also appreciates the accumulated wisdom developed by his family over many generations of raising pigs on pasture at Gunthorp Farms. “I think we know how to deal with weather variability in animal production,” Greg says. “We’ve always had thunderstorms. We’ve always had blizzards. We’ve always had high wind events, high rain events. We haven’t had them at the frequency that we have now, but we’ve always had them.”

Greg goes on to explain that pastured-based producers have a really different mindset compared to producers who raise animals indoors. “Pasture-based livestock producers had to build production systems that took weather into consideration from day one,” he says. “The people that put up confined livestock operations were the ones that never wanted to figure out how to deal with weather challenges in the first place. It’s a very different mindset when you are growing on pasture, because you’re managing a system that cooperates with nature rather than trying to just build something that works regardless of whatever nature does. It’s 180 degrees on the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Greg Gunthorp is active in sustainable agriculture and rural social justice issues and speaks regularly at agricultural conferences, particularly on pastured-livestock production and extreme concentration in the livestock industry, and has collaborated in research on his farm. Gunthorp Farms was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.

 

Rosmann Family Farms

Rosmann Family Farms

Rosmann Family Farms

Ron and Maria Rosmann run Rosmann Family Farms along with their sons, David and Daniel, and Daniel’s wife, Ellen (not pictured). Credit: Rosmann Family Farms.

In the last three years we’ve had these huge amounts of rain in late May and June right when we’re supposed to be doing field work like weed control and planting cover crops into standing corn. We can’t get the job done. We can’t get decent weed control and so on because the window of opportunity for getting into the field is so small. So then labor becomes an issue and you have to put in incredible long days when the opportunity arises.

Ron Rosmann

Rosmann Family Farms

Midwest Region | Harlan, IA

Main Product: Livestock & Grain

Scale: 700 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Diversified crop/livestock production, on-farm retail store, local foods café in nearby town.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Rosmann Family Farms is comprised of 700 acres of rolling prairie lands near Harlan in west central Iowa. With help from their children, Ron and Maria Rosmann produce certified organic feed and food grains as well as beef, pork and poultry on land that has been in the family since 1939, when Ron’s father established the farm. After graduating from Iowa State University in 1973, Ron returned to manage the farm when his father retired. Ron farmed for commodity markets for about ten years, but became uncomfortable using chemical fertilizers and pesticides because of concerns about impacts to the environment and his family’s health. So Ron reverted to crop rotations that were common when his father started farming, and found that the farm could be profitable and productive. Ron went on to become an early adopter in his region of more sustainable production practices such as diversified crop rotations, intensive grazing and the Swedish deep bedding pork production system.

Today, the Rosmann Family Farm is a certified organic crop and livestock farm. The farm integrates beef cattle and swine into a diverse five-year crop rotation designed to produce the feed needed by the livestock operations, plus feed and food grains for sale. Corn, oats, soybeans, rye, barley, turnips, pasture and hay are grown on the farm. Intensive grazing practices produce grass-finished beef from a heard of eighty-five cows and calves, and a farrow-to-finish operation produces pork from thirty sows in a Swedish deep-bedding system. The organic waste produced by the farming operations, including the manure from the hogs, is composted and returned to cropland. Ron has not purchased nitrogen fertilizer since 1982, instead getting nitrogen for his crops through crop rotation and compost. Rock phosphate is applied about once every four or five years according to soil test recommendations. Beef, pork, feed and food grains are sold through wholesale and direct markets, including an on-farm retail store, managed by Maria, that is stocked with a variety of Rosmann Family Farm products as well as goods from neighboring farms.

Thinking about the effects of weather variability and extremes on farm performance over his lifetime, Ron says that there have definitely been some changes in recent years. More heavy rainfall and extreme weather, particularly extreme temperature swings in winter, more wind and a longer growing season, have created some new management challenges. “Anything involving variability in precipitation generally is a challenge,” according to Ron, “but the worst for us is excess moisture because it means you can’t get your work done, whether it’s baling hay, cultivating, planting, harvesting, planting cover crops, you name it. Of course, that’s an ongoing problem for organic farming anyway, but it’s just been exacerbated by the increased variability.”

Other changes in weather include more wind and more extreme storms. “We never used to have tornados,” Ron explains. “I saw my first tornado when I was forty-four years old, in ’94. I’ve seen two, three, four tornados since then. And hail. We never used to have hail very much, maybe once every seven years. Now we get it a little bit nearly every year. We’re in what’s come to be called a hail belt.” Another change is that temperature extremes have become more extreme. “If you come from the Midwest or have lived in the Midwest,” says Ron, “you know we have extremes, but the extremes have gotten worse. An example is last Monday [January 2014], it was 18 below zero temperature with a 25-mile-an-hour wind. We had a 40 below wind chill. Five days after that it got up to 48 degrees.” Looking back, Ron thinks the greater temperature extremes may have started in the early ’80s, when it was common to have weeks of 50-below wind chills and huge amounts of snow. Still, the worst snow that Ron has ever experienced was in the winter of 2010. “Our cattle were out in the fields. We couldn’t get out there and when we eventually did, we had no place to feed them,” Ron recalls. “It took some pretty big equipment to get through that kind of snow because it’s the wide-open prairies out here.”

Besides such physical challenges, Ron thinks the recent extreme swings in temperature are creating novel stress for his cattle. “What is the effect of temperature fluctuation and extreme weather changes on rates of gains?,” he asks. “ I think there may be more challenges for ruminants like our cattle with weather fluctuations. It used to be that the cattle could tank up on feed because you could count on the cold spell hanging around a couple weeks,” Ron explains. “Now we’ve got 50-, 60-degree swings in a matter of days, plus you throw the wind in. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yes, we’ve always had those variations but not happening continually. You’d have longer periods in between. These extreme swings are hard.”

Longer growing seasons have increased weed management difficulties on the farm too, particularly with one weed species, giant ragweed. It has been a long-term challenge in the low-lying areas of the farm, but in the last five years or so it began moving up the hills on parts of the farm. Ron thinks wetter weather in May and June, combined with earlier spring warm-up and the longer growing season, work together to promote the spread of the weed. He explains, “We use a ridge-till system, which is a minimal tillage system. We don’t do any spring tillage until we are ready to plant. We historically are not even thinking about planting corn until May 1, but now the giant ragweed are already getting big by then. They are a tough weed to take out with cultivation.”

Ron says that many neighboring farmers are also increasingly challenged by changing weather conditions. Giant ragweed is even more troublesome on their farms and more narrow windows for fieldwork are creating other challenges. Many of his neighbors, most of whom are industrial corn and soybean farmers, have abandoned best management practices in an effort to get their fieldwork done at all. Ron explains, “Now every farmer in this region, just about, gets all their nitrogen fertilizer put on in the fall because they’re worried about it raining all spring. They have got to get the work done when they can because they are farming huge numbers of acres with huge equipment. But the data says between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen that they put on their ground is lost every year to the ground water.” Ron also says that many farmers in his region are upgrading and expanding tile drainage systems in an effort to move standing water off their fields after more frequent heavy rainfalls. This increased drainage capacity will likely wash even more nitrogen out of the farm system.

Ron is concerned about adaptations like these, which many industrial farmers are making to address current climate challenges. He fears many such farmers are focused on addressing the symptoms of climate change rather than looking for root causes such as federal support for large-scale industrial agriculture. “They keep working on genetically engineered crops and so forth, without ever looking at what caused the flooding or extreme drought in the first place. They just don’t consider the big-picture issues or how the system is creating these issues.” Ron goes on, “I found that out loud and clear this past fall [2013] when I was on a panel about the World Food Prize. There was a big biotech farmer on the panel who suggested to me that our farm system isn’t sustainable because it can’t be scaled up. I found out later that he and his brother were paid $2.3 million in farm subsidies over a thirteen-year period, which was the most of any farm in that county. And he has the audacity to say that his system is sustainable.”

Thinking about his farm as a whole, Ron says, “A testimony to the resilience of our farm system is the fact that we have never lost a crop to pests in thirty years now of no pesticides. We have never even come close to having insects or disease or anything destroy our yields. We’ve had stable, very good yields during all that time. That’s always something that people tend to look at you with, ‘Huh? I find that hard to believe.’ People don’t believe it. Of course, I’ll be the first to say we have a lot of things we could be doing better, but still, overall, the resilience shows itself in our system. Our soil quality shines here. It really does. And we work to enhance those ecosystem services, as they’re called, by continually planting more trees, more shrubs, more crops for pollinators, more windbreaks and more wildlife habitat. The diversity is what will continue to play a big role for us.”

In the future, Ron would like to move away from annual grain crops and incorporate more perennial nut, fruit and berry crops, both as food and as forages for livestock. He is inspired by Mark Shepard’s work adapting perennial cropping systems to Minnesota prairie landscapes. Ron explains, “That’s the kind of thing I would ideally like to do. But right now I’m going to put an emphasis on more water quality buffers, increasing the diversity of our headlands, getting more pollinator plants out there and planting more trees. Right now we have two and a half acres of managed woodlands, a diverse plantation that I planted with eleven different species on it.”

Over the years, Ron has engaged with diverse audiences on sustainable agriculture and rural community issues and the Rosmann family have welcomed numerous tours, visitors and research collaborators to the farm. Ron is a founding member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, a farmer-driven research and education organization, and has been active in the Organic Farming Research Foundation as a member, board member and president. In 2006, the Rosmann family received the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture, which recognizes Iowa farmers who have made significant contributions toward the stability of Iowa farming. In 2012 the Catholic Rural Life Conference presented Ron and Maria with the Isidore and Maria Exemplary Award, which honors a rural couple who exemplify fidelity to a vision and vocation of rural life that combines family, stewardship and faith.

 

Straus Family Creamery

Straus Family Creamery

Straus Family Creamery

Albert Straus, Straus Family Creamery. Credit: Straus Family Creamery

In 2020 and 2021, we have not had any significant rain at all. It’s been the driest year on record. It’s never happened before that we haven’t had any rain, and it looks like we’re going to continue to have extreme shortages into the future.

Albert Straus

Straus Family Creamery

Southwest Region | Petaluma, CA

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to intensive grazing, add processing/retail marketing, growers’ network, carbon farming.

Albert Straus returned to his family’s dairy farm in the late 1970s during a time of dramatic change in the dairy industry. Small family dairies were under increasing pressure to either get big or get out of the business. Returning home after earning a Bachelor’s degree in Dairy Science, Albert thought he could see a third option, one that put new best agricultural practices to work saving the family farm. In the early 1980s Albert and his father, Bill, implemented no-till seeding of crops to prevent soil erosion and reduce fuel consumption. They were already farming without herbicides or chemical fertilizers.

Despite these innovations, falling milk prices continued to threaten the economic viability of their dairy business and Albert wondered if the growing consumer interest in organic food offered a solution. He began to imagine a new kind of market for his milk, one that reflected the true costs of production, promoted responsible land stewardship and offered a viable, principled and sustainable business model for small dairy farms. Albert realized that going organic would allow him to fully embrace his deeply held belief in land stewardship, while also addressing the challenging economic realities of family farms in an era of intense industrialization.

Inspired by these ethical and economic considerations, Albert transitioned his farm to organic production in 1993 and founded the Straus Family Creamery in 1994. “How do you create a viable farming system?” Albert asks. “That’s the challenge we’ve tried to address with certified organic production and collaboration with the 12 family farms supplying our creamery. What I’ve tried to do is create a sustainable organic farming model that is good for the Earth, the soil, the animals and the people working on these farms, plus helps revitalize rural communities.”

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

CS Ranch

CS Ranch

Julia Davis Stafford, CS Ranch, Cimarron, New Mexico. Credit: Julia Stafford.

We have several rivers that run through the ranch and during all of my childhood and young adolescence the rivers were always flowing. You could count on them as a source of water for livestock. That has definitely changed over the last few years. The rivers now routinely dry up in stretches and that has been devastating in terms of pasture use. So we have had to really scramble to address our water system where always before the rivers ran through most of the pastures.

Julia Davis Stafford

CS Ranch

Southwest Region | Cimarron, NM

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 138,000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, dynamic stocking, shift to no-till and to multi-use perennial forage species in irrigated pastures, add local foods café in nearby town.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

The CS Ranch is located on 130,000 acres of upland shortgrass prairie at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico. Cattle and quarter horses have been the focus of production since the ranch was established by Frank Springer in 1873. Today, Julia Davis Stafford and her five siblings, Springer’s great-grandchildren, work together to manage cattle production and marketing, farming, hunting and quarter horse production.

Julia was raised on the ranch and has actively worked with her family to manage the cow/calf and stocker enterprises for more than thirty years. She takes the lead on strategic planning and water resource management for the ranch, and manages cattle production on the headquarters division near Cimarron. Julia uses planned grazing practices to raise cattle on native grasslands and improved hayfields, which are irrigated from the Cimarron River.

For many years, the cowherd numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 head, but fifteen years of continued drought have forced Julia to destock the ranch, and today the herd is down to about 850 head. CS Ranch sells cattle mostly into wholesale markets with some direct sales locally.

Over the years, long-term weather challenges on the ranch have included variability in precipitation, dry periods and drought. Because grassland production depends entirely on precipitation, either as rain or snow, dry periods and drought are challenging because the grasslands are so responsive to variations in precipitation. Wind also creates some challenges, because it tends to both dry out grassland through evaporative loss and cause soil erosion. Variability in winter snow is particularly challenging because the snowpack that builds up over winter in the mountains is the main source of river water on the ranch.

“New Mexico is very arid to begin with and cyclical drought is very common here, so what I think of as our average annual precipitation is about fourteen to sixteen inches of rainfall,” Julia explains. “That’s what we hope for. Most of our ranch is upland shortgrass prairie, and we have a little bit of irrigated ground along the rivers that we mostly use to graze and raise hay for winter feed. Keeping the hayfields alive in times of drought is really tough. So that’s led to us selecting varieties that are drought tolerant and trying to minimize tillage so that we can increase soil organic matter and develop better soil health to make the most of what moisture we do get.”

The hayfields used to be flood irrigated, but over the years water-efficient, center-pivot irrigation has been installed in most of them. The water supply on the ranch is almost entirely from surface waters fed by meltwater from the winter snowpack in the nearby mountains. “The winter snowpack has been slim to none over the past ten years,” said Julia. “Over the last decade of drought, the flood-irrigated areas have received water only sporadically. So a lot of the improved grass species, the bromes and orchard grass and those sorts of species, have disappeared, because we simply run out of water and can’t irrigate enough to keep them alive.”

Julia has noticed many other changes in weather in the past decade or so, particularly more variable precipitation and more extreme drought, warmer winters, and more wind. “Over time we tend to go in about ten-year cycles,” she explains. “But I think this drought has been longer than the last recorded cycle.” Julia has also noticed that winters have gotten warmer since she was a kid. “I couldn’t tell you exactly how much warmer in terms of degrees or anything, but it does seem that the winter temperatures have gotten warmer and we have less snow. Summer temperature is possibly warmer too, but that hasn’t struck me as being as noticeable as the wintertime temperature changes.” Winds, always a part of life in northern New Mexico, are different these days as well, according to Julia. “It seems like when I was a kid that wind blew mostly in the spring and the month of March was always very windy, but now it seems like the real strong windy times have increased and are more common throughout the year.”

These changes in weather have caused Julia to make some adjustments in production, most notably the reduction in herd size, but also in the management of the irrigated hayfields. “We’ve shifted very much over to a no-till type of approach under the center pivots,” said Julia. “Before, when we would plow up an alfalfa field, we would plant wheat and graze it periodically before planting a hayfield again, but we are going now to less and less planting or plowing, just less soil disturbance overall. We have shifted more to no-till and we are using perennial varieties that are good for both grazing and for making hay. The more that I’ve learned about soil health, the more obvious it has become that the less disturbance, the better. Having a permanent crop is better for the soil, better for the water, just better all the way around.”

Julia says that other ranchers in her community perceive many of the same changes in weather. Talking about the drought is “the first and automatic topic of conversation,” she says. “Everybody is bemoaning the drought. I would say that besides the drought being of tremendous concern, other ranchers also agree that that we just don’t have winters and the snowpack like we used to. And everyone is complaining about the wind. There is a very definite feeling of anxiety among other farmers and ranchers and townspeople around here about the lack of water, because many of the towns are facing water rationing and dwindling supplies and that sort of thing. People are leaving towns in this area and moving to metropolitan areas. I’m sure that weather is a factor in this because as agriculture decreases, business and prosperity in the area decline. There is definitely the perception that this is the worst drought that anybody has ever experienced.”

Julia says that the continuing drought has created some concern about the future at the CS Ranch. “I’d say there is anxiety over wondering, ‘Is this the new normal?’ There is just a real awareness that if you continue to destock, at a certain point, how can the ranch keep going with fewer and fewer cattle? We are also concerned about the impact on our livelihoods and on our employees. We haven’t really done any thinking ahead ten years and asking the question, ‘What are we going to do if things keep going this way?’

Thinking about the future, Julia feels fairly confident in the management practices she uses to reduce the risks of weather variability and extremes, particularly planned grazing, soil health, water conservation and the use of drought-tolerant forage varieties and cattle that are well adapted to the region. Julia says that if climate change continues to intensify, she’ll likely just continue to destock the ranch, figure out how to cut back on the need for irrigation and how to supply water to the remaining stock if surface waters were to fail.

Julia also plans to keep learning how to improve existing management practices and about new practices through participation in groups like the Quivira Coalition. “What is always tremendously encouraging to me is just the networking at these various agricultural gatherings, talking to people, and going to listen to them speak,” Julia explains. “Sometimes, particularly just after I get home from a Quivira Coalition conference, I feel we’ll be able to sort through this and go on just fine. And sometimes I feel really anxious about how we will keep going on if these same patterns — the drops in moisture and increasing temperatures — continue. If they continue to play out on those same paths, it’s going to be very tough in not very long.”

Julia has been actively involved in community-based governance of regional water issues for many years. She has served on the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, as a board member of the Cimarron Watershed Alliance and as a member of the Western Landowners Alliance. She is an active member of the Quivira Coalition.

 

Frasier Farms

Frasier Farms

Mark Frasier, Frasier Farms, Woodrow Colorado. Credit: Mark Frasier.

I think historically a person would be hard pressed to say that the drought we’ve been in recently is any more severe than what my father experienced in the 1950’s or my grandfather in the ’30’s. When you look directly at any one aspect of weather – variability, precipitation, temperature, length of growing season – those are always in flux. In the environment where we live, 40 degree fluctuations in temperature are not uncommon any time of the year. Our precipitation comes in concentrated periods of time and it’s not necessarily predictable. There is an inherent unpredictability about our environment.

Mark Frasier

Frasier Farms

Southwest Region | Woodrow, CO

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 29,000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, dynamic stocking, cow-calf plus stocker operation, long-term weather forecasts, subsidized production insurance.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Frasier Farms is a family owned and operated ranch that spreads across 44,000 acres of rolling native shortgrass prairie in Eastern Colorado, where the land is dry and the wind is almost always blowing. Brothers Mark, Joe, and Chris Frasier manage the ranch in two divisions, one near Limon and the other near Woodrow. Frasier Farms produces cattle with an 800 head cow-calf and stocker operations and offer hunting leases and custom grazing. The rolling hills of native grasses such as blue gramma and buffalo grass are managed using planned grazing practices that improve soil health and the health of the grassland, recycle nutrients and enhance biodiversity on the ranch.

Mark Frasier has managed the Woodrow division of Frasier Farms for more than thirty years. In addition to the calves produced on the ranch each spring and fall, Mark buys stocker cattle each spring to run about 5,000 head when fully stocked. The cattle are split into three large herds and moved through 125 pastures on the 29,000-acre ranch, leaving 90 percent of the ranch free of cattle at any one time. Cattle produced on the ranch are marketed to feedlots through value-added natural beef and source-verified programs. Mark also sells into higher value markets by planning production to catch seasonal high prices and retaining ownership of a portion of the cattle sent to feedlots.

Mark says that year-to-year variability in seasonal weather patterns, dry periods, drought and winds are the most significant long-term challenges to dryland ranching on the eastern Colorado plains. Particularly critical is the timing and type of precipitation through the year, because grassland response to weather conditions changes throughout the growing season. Mark explains, “Let’s put it this way: A two-inch rain in September doesn’t have near the value of two inches of rain in April or May. We just get a lot more bang from an earlier precipitation event. Spring rainfall tends to be a drizzling, all-day sort of affair in the best case. When we have the same amount of precipitation in the late summer months, it’s more likely to come in an afternoon thunderstorm, so it is not as effective in terms of capturing that moisture into the soil because there is more runoff.” Wind can also present some challenges to cattle management. “On the plains, especially in the spring,” says Mark, “we can have some very strong winds and we can have winds in the summer as well. If it’s hot, those summer winds can just whip moisture out of the soil and have a very great drying effect on the plants and the soil.”

Weather variability and extremes have always been a part of life in the Great Plains region, and Mark doesn’t perceive that there has been any change in these challenges in his lifetime. “Our operation is entirely native forages,” says Mark, “and the production that we get from that varies year by year per the growing condition that we experience. It has everything to do with temperature and the amount and timing of precipitation. In terms of first day frost, in terms of wind, in terms of how long the grass stays green, all those kinds of things vary year by year. No two years are the same and they never have been. So that’s really one of our challenges is trying to manage in a highly variable environment. We develop a plan but that plan has to have significant contingencies in it because the conditions will always change.”

Mark goes on to explain that the natural environment in eastern Colorado is well adapted to the weather variability and extremes typical of the region. “For example, the grasses are extremely opportunistic,” Mark says. “They don’t have a narrow window within which they need to grow or to put out seed or perform some other function. They will stay in near dormancy until conditions are just right and then they’ll just explode and we’ll have a significant amount of growth in a very few days. Plants have evolved in the sense that they are adapted to an environment that is unpredictable. Our environment is not ungenerous, but the plant has to be ready to grow when the conditions are right.”

This same kind of preparedness to take advantage of opportunity when it comes is a central feature of Frasier Farms management. “Personally, I don’t understand when people complain about not getting rain and then when it does rain oh, now it’s too muddy,” says Mark. “We constantly prepare for the next rain, because, generally speaking, our most limiting factor is soil moisture. If in everything that we do, we can create an environment that is receptive to precipitation, so that whenever it does come we can take advantage of it, we will just be that much more efficient and more effective. It’s an attitude or a philosophy that’s grown over time. It is something a person experiences in the sense that, after you’re unprepared a time or two, you begin to think ahead a bit more. So it’s just a function of maturing and management, I think, as much as anything else.”

Mark draws on many resources to enhance the capacity of Frasier Farms to weather variability and extremes, but the use of adaptive management strategies have proven key to his success. He explains, “I look at that key word, variability. You’ve got to have adaptive management to respond, both in terms of knowing how to respond, but also anticipating what a change will bring. Oftentimes making a timely decision is key, either in a cost-saving sense or in a sense of conservation of natural resources.”

Managing both a cow/calf herd and a stocker operation gives Mark the flexibility he needs to respond to changing weather conditions. “We have the two components.” he explains. “The cowherd is actually a smaller piece of what we do. We’re bringing in most of the livestock on the ranch. If conditions are not favorable for the growth of grass, we don’t bring as many cattle to the ranch or we can destock early or in some other way change the number of cattle on the ranch. That’s our control valve. We have certain performance expectations for the cattle. If conditions are not good, then we don’t meet those expectations, and on the flip side, if conditions are very good, we exceed them. It’s not a doomsday situation for us to pull the cattle from the grass because they’re destined for a feed yard anyway so the fact that they may be going to the feed yard forty-five days earlier than normal or weighing fifty or a hundred pounds less than what we expected is not good, but it’s not a complete disaster.”

Mark also uses some other tools to reduce weather-related production risk. He finds that long-term weather forecasts — one or two months ahead — can be helpful when making stocking decisions if conditions are dry. He is also trying out a new type of federally subsidized insurance that insures the livestock producers against a large deviation from normal precipitation. This “rainfall insurance” is a pilot program of the USDA Risk Management Agency and at present is only available in a few locations.

Thinking about the future, Mark is fairly confident that he has the resources needed to keep Frasier Farms healthy, productive and profitable despite weather variability and extremes, although his confidence is related to the particular situation, as he explains. “I’d say it is really situational. It depends on what the extreme is and when and how it presents itself. There are times when I feel very compromised just because there’s not much I can do at the moment. And there are other times that situations unfold more slowly and if you have the capacity to understand what’s happening, you can modify the resources you have or take advantage of opportunities to mitigate risks.” He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn how to successfully manage grasslands and cattle in the more variable climate of the Great Plains. “I’ve seen extremes in almost every sense and so I know what comes next. I know what the end result is likely to be. I have been through it and I am prepared to deal with it. Although no one likes to be in that position, I’d say I’m comfortable with it.”

Mark is active in the civil life of his community and has provided leadership over the years to a number of community-based and agricultural organizations. He consults with other ranchers on holistic range management and is a regular speaker at agricultural events. Mark currently serves as the president of the Colorado Livestock Association. In 2003, Frasier Farms received the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Regional Environmental Stewardship Award, which recognizes the outstanding stewardship practices and conservation achievements of cattle producers across the United States. Frasier Farms was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.