Sunday, June 05, 2011
Mother Earth and Her Sisters
Mother Earth and Her Sisters
Image and Reality
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
The term “environmentalism” has become a warehouse of suggestive assurances of right versus wrong. It has become the phraseology to justify anything that demands public approval or political correctness.
The outcome is not lost on our youth. Talk to a nine or ten year old kid about matters of the environment and far too many have formulated opinions that that make grandparents shudder.
The new buzz word is sustainability. Sustainable agriculture, sustainable ranching, and sustainability seem to all imply an improvement over the now largely latent but suggestive ravages of history. What does that mean and what institution has broken through the mystery to finally put the land stewards on the right track?
In a recent issue of a magazine that profiles western lifestyles, there was an article about sustainable ranching. The fact that it was a positive article about cattle was greatly appreciated, but it was interesting to note the number of years the ranches profiled had been practicing “sustainable” ranching techniques.
If the famous ranch near Cambria was taken off the list along with the ranch in eastern Colorado that set the standard before the word was invented, the rest had been in the business of “sustainability” an average of six and a half years!
Think about that. What happens on a ranch at a point of six and a half years? For one thing, cows reach their heaviest potential weight in year seven. That means that the operations that are practicing sustainable ranching should have adult cows that will reach that point sometime this year. Is that one of the markers that demonstrates sustainability? Is it possible to pull one of the coming seven year old cows from a sustainable ranching operation and pick her out in a herd of traditional ranch cows?
Reading through the promotional material of those operations, various practices were noted that promoted healthier and more nutritious beef. Included were things like the cattle drank only cool spring water, grazed unfertilized pastures, grazed high mountain pastures, grazed arid lands pastures, received no hormonal implants, and were treated humanely. In reflecting, those characteristics sounded a lot like several historic ranches in southern New Mexico that are near or over the century mark under the same brand, but not one of them was referenced among the sustainable ranching operations. Are those historic operations not sustainable ranching models?
The fact of the matter is they are not considered under the paradigm of sustainable because they don’t finish cattle on grass, and they are, categorically, the poster images of the environmental pillagers of the West. Who else could it be that the environmental front refers to as the reckless stewards of the West . . . those rapists who overgrazed the lands and left them barren and unproductive for the ages?
Consider some simple logic. If a ranch has been in operation for say, 127 years, and it produces a total beef output that varies linearly with rainfall totals shouldn’t it be a viable model of sustainability? Isn’t there something in the dynamic of such a model that would conjure proven sustainability?
In fact, that is not only a logical conclusion it is something the “6½ year models” have not even started to address. Cattle genetics and rhythm and timing protocol are points of management that are not created in a decade. It takes years to adapt herd genetics to the specific conditions in which each ranching operation is confronted. Generations of breeding are needed to build a herd that fits the country.
Likewise, the use of pastures and the ability to use them efficiently comes only from experience and investments in infrastructure that allows cattle movement. It is simply not done in 6½ years . . . nor is it accomplished with simple awareness in enlightened thought accompanied by education and conservation exposure. It takes years of diligence to make it work.
Good mothers . . . and their abusive sisters
Not long ago, I introduced 937 to the world. A rancher will recognize 937 was born in 1999 and she was the 37th calf branded that year. When you work her she blends into the landscape and she is never an issue. Her calf is always with her . . . she is always in the right place at the right time . . . and the respect she has earned will not be lost in time. She is everything a great mother should be. She is a great cow.
That is not the case with all cows. Like their human counterparts, many are adequate mothers, but some are not acceptable. The worst could be categorized as abusive. Their calves are the ones that are the ones running off in a bad situation, they are climbing out of a corral through a trough, or they are missing in a pasture rotation. The Colorado operation that defined sustainability taught us how to deal with those abusive mothers. You shipped those cows . . . they produced a valuable chip or they were gone.
Mother Earth and her environmental step sister
Has “environmentalism” become a mother figure? A better approach to that question is to make it a statement. “Environmentalism” has become a mother figure, and, the truth is, many have now made the value judgment as to her status as a good or an abusive mother.
Mother Earth in her raw form holds no lingering grudge. If the steward pays attention and is diligent, he can usually survive her mood swings. Drought, fire, flood, and even disease can be dealt with in varying degrees of give and take.
Environmentalism, on the other hand, seems to exist only with lingering grudges. She must be dedicated to class envy and division to attract the allegiance of her largely urban donors who seem to be educated in the ways of raping and pillaging natural things. Slander, defamation, vilification, and even fabrication cannot be easily dealt with in any degree of give and take.
There is a big difference in the two. One is brutally raw, brutally unforgiving, but brutally honest. She is timeless. She does not seek popularity, but she does reward diligence.
The other has sought motherhood status by her human creators and advocates. She has attempted to gain status by acclamation through legislation and litigation. She rewards only her curators and benefactors.
Making the cut
If sustainability ranching is predicated on genuine long term benefits for both producer and consumer our industry will benefit. Nobody is antagonistic to niche marketing or general improvements to any segment of the beef business.
If the movement is grounded in an attempt to reboot past endeavors to somehow make “sustainable” ranching acceptable to the sisterhood of environmentalism, though . . . that sure does leave an empty feeling in my stomach.
For the present, we will continue to judge motherhood on the basis of what we can touch and manage.
As for Mother Earth, we stand in awe of our creator and his creations every day. We are profoundly respectful. We are humbled to be part of his natural world.
As for Environmentalism . . . she would have been shipped the first time she came out of the chute and tried to run over us!
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “937 was in the first pen of cattle sorted at branding time in the spring of 2011. At her side was calf number 11. When she was offered an open gate she took it without a second glance. She went out into the dry lot and laid down until we ran the calves back in to pair. She picked up her calf and left without fanfare. I saw her yesterday when we were pushing dirt up around troughs so the baby calves could more easily drink in this drought. Her calf was at her side.”