Can livestock production and environmental conservation happily co-exist on the same plot of land? If you’re Sallie Calhoun, the answer is yes.
Owner of the 7700-acre Paicines Ranch near Hollister, CA, she not only supplies the South Bay Area with all-natural grass-fed beef from cattle raised and finished on their land, but also embarks on a variety of land restoration projects on the ranch.
“We have a vision of what we want the land to look like and we use cattle as a tool to realize that vision,” said Sallie, who’s also the Chair of the Board of Directors of Holistic Management International, an organization dedicated to helping farmers, ranchers and land managers use and conserve their land effectively.
Paicines Ranch (or Rancho Cienega de los Paicines) has been a working ranch since the mid-1800s. Both Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Sallie and her husband bought the land from Ridgemark Corporation in February 2000, with every intention of turning the ranch into their weekend getaway, just over an hour’s drive from their home in Saratoga. Like any modern land-owners, the plan was to lease the plot to cattle ranchers who would help tend to the land and oversee the day-to-day tasks of ranch management.
Being an environmentalist, avid backyard gardener and curious observer, it wasn’t long before Sallie realized that she wanted to be more involved with land management instead of leaving it to others. Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Management marked a turning point; the book gave her a vision of what she could achieve with the ranch.
“We bought our first cattle in 2001,” Sallie recalls, “After talking to some of the ranchers and reading about Holistic Management, and thinking about goals, I realized that we needed to manage the cattle ourselves. I had long-term goals for the ranch that were not necessarily the same as the goals of a rancher with a lease.”
“Among other things, I wanted to restore the wetlands on-site, replenish the riparian lands along the San Benito river (which runs through the ranch) and for the land to continue to generate good grass in the long-term. A tenant – whose lease usually lasts from 1-5 years – would be more likely to take a shorter-term view than mine, so their reaction to drought or stocking rates would reflect that too.”
Apart from preventing soil erosion, the riparian zones also encourage the growth of reeds and river plants that act as filters for murky river water as it winds its way to Monterey Bay.
“I’m basically managing the water so that it minimizes soil erosion and prevents flooding,” Sallie explained.
Since her introduction to Holistic Management 10 years ago, and in partnership with her ranch manager, Chris Ketcham, much of the conservation work on the ranch follow the cycle of reading, experimenting, observing, and tweaking measures to get the desired outcome, like promoting ecosystem density.
“The majority of our observations have been anecdotal and we’re only starting to really document them now. Take grasses for instance. We’re starting to monitor the appearance of native grasses and have seen more diversity in the pasture now that we’re giving the paddocks a resting time of nine to 14 months,” she said.
Her efforts with restoring the wetlands on the ranch seem to be reaping rewards too.
“There are very few cienegas left in California, so I’m trying to restore what we have in order to develop a new ecosystem of plants and bird life that exist around these water systems,” Sallie said. “We’re also turning a field back into wetland by changing the way some of the water flows from a spring and the row crop ground. A group of ornithologists came out in February and they found about 42 species of birds there.” (image below)
Sallie and Chris’ newest initiative is participating in the Soil Carbon Challenge, which launched this January. A 10-year monitoring program, its goal is to encourage land managers to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by keeping it in the soil, which boosts soil fertility. Essentially, this is achieved by increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil and encouraging grassroot growth.
“We signed up for this because we want to know whether our changes in grazing management are sequestering more carbon,” Sallie shared.
“We’re still doing the same things that we’ve been doing to optimize animal performance and biodiversity although we may use the yeoman’s plow or compost tea in some pastures. Ultimately, we see our participation in this challenge as being key for all of us to get others to change their grazing management techniques.”
Chris Ketcham manages the ranch’s daily operations with the help of two farmhands, and lives on the ranch with his wife Betsy and their two kids. Betsy breeds Andalusian horses on the ranch while Chris also runs a horse-boarding facility. Cinnamon, their Jersey cow, provides the family with an endless supply of fresh whole milk while a herd of chickens guarantee their egg supply.
As ranch manager, Chris is also responsible for two cattle herds: the 100 heads of Paicines Ranch cattle, of which 30 are harvested every year, and a larger herd of Stocker cattle (2200 heads) that graze at Paicines during the winter months before being shipped off to Wyoming in the spring and harvested later in the year.
The herds, while kept separate, are rotated through the ranch’s 16 paddocks at one time, giving each pasture a long resting period. Plans are in the works to increase the frequency of rotation (grazing some parts of pastures two or three times during the grass growing season instead of once like what they’re doing now) and managing the herd by installing electric fences.
Given the ranch’s long history, many structures from the late 1800s still stand today, following extensive refurbishments. The largest of these is a Victorian house (“The Grogan House”), which anchors their event center for weddings, reunions and dinners like the one organized by Slow Food’s South Bay chapter last May.
After my visit to Open Space Meats, I drove to Paicines thinking that I knew what to expect: discussions about grass, grazing techniques and the state of agriculture in California. I turned out to be wrong.
Strolling with Sallie from the office, past historic structures, down to the San Benito river, it felt like I was on a science excursion in a state park.
Paicines Ranch showed me, in a very concrete way, how raising livestock and caring for the environment are not mutually exclusive goals. Provided everything is kept in balance. When meat production becomes the sole objective, driven by economic efficiency to maximize the number of animals that can fit into a certain area, that’s when things start to spiral, and the savings that appear on paper actually materialize in long-term environmental and health costs for everyone.
The flip side? This model hardly makes financial sense, and it means expensive meat. But perhaps, animal husbandry is meant to be inherently inefficient, and meat is meant to be expensive. Maybe it’s Nature’s way of telling us to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”
It’s not my place to be prescribing food choices for others (the easiest thing to do), but in Sallie’s words, “…ultimately, your actions boil down to: what is your goal and where do you want to be eventually?”
There’s some food for thought for all of us.