...On the other hand, for cattle ranchers like Tom and Mimi Sidwell, it’s not necessary to bring up the topic at all. That’s because healing the carbon cycle is what they do for a living. Whether it improves you-know-what isn’t on their minds.
In 2004, the Sidwells bought the 7,000-acre JX Ranch south of Tucumcari, New Mexico, and set about doing what they know best: earning a profit by restoring the land to health and stewarding it sustainably.
As with many ranches in the arid Southwest, the JX had been hard used over the decades. Poor land and water management had caused the grass cover to diminish in quantity and quality, exposing soil to the erosive effects of wind, rain, and sunlight, which also diminished the organic content of the soil significantly, especially its carbon...
Enter the Sidwells. With thirty years of experience in managing land, they saw the deteriorated condition of the JX not as a liability but as an opportunity. Tom began by dividing the entire ranch into sixteen pastures, up from the original five, using solar-powered electric fencing. After installing a water system to feed all sixteen pastures, he picked cattle that could do well in dry country, grouped them into one herd, and set about carefully rotating them through the pastures — never grazing a single pasture for more than seven to ten days in order to give the land plenty of recovery time. Next he began clearing out the juniper and mesquite trees on the ranch with a bulldozer, which allowed native grasses to come back.
As grass returned — a result of the animals’ hooves breaking up the capped topsoil and allowing seed-to-soil contact — Tom lengthened the period of rest between pulses of cattle grazing in each pasture from 60 days to 105 days across the whole ranch. More rest meant more grass, which meant Tom could graze more cattle — to stimulate more grass production. In fact, Tom increased the overall livestock capacity of the JX by 25 percent in only six years, significantly impacting the ranch’s bottom line. The typical stocking rate in this part of New Mexico is one cow to 50 acres. The Sidwells have brought it down to one to 36 acres, and hope to get it down to one to 30 acres some day. Ultimately, Tom hopes to have the ranch divided into twenty-three pastures. The reason for his optimism is simple: the native grasses are coming back, even in dry years. Over the past ten years, the JX has seen an increase in diversity of grass species, including cool-season grasses (which grow primarily in the spring and fall), and a decrease in the amount of bare soil across the ranch. Simultaneously, there has been an increase in the pounds of meat per acre produced on the ranch.
...In 2009, the Sidwells converted their beef business from a conventional feedlot-based system to an entirely grass-fed, direct-marketed operation. Grass-fed means the animals have spent their entire lives on grass — which is what nature intended for them — and no time in stinky feedlots, eating corn and other assorted industrial by-products. Grass-fed beef consumes less fossil fuel in its production and distribution, especially if the customers are only a short drive away from the farm, ranch, or processing facility. It also has another benefit: profitability. As an added-value food, grass-fed meat sells for as much as 50 percent more than conventional meat — if customers are willing to pay the higher premiums, which in the Sidwells’ case they are. And this extra profit, even on a smaller herd, has allowed the Sidwells to make it through the dry times financially.
What the Sidwells have done on the JX is reassemble the carbon landscape. They have reconnected soil, water, plants, sunlight, food, and profit in a way that is both healing and sustainable. They did it by reviving the carbon cycle as a life-giving element on their ranch and by returning to nature’s principles of herbivory, ecological disturbance, soil formation, microbial action, and good food. In the process, they improved the resilience of the land and their business for whatever shock or surprise the future may have in store.