Managing the Ranch as a Business: The One Square Yard Ranch

By Dr. Jimmy T (Gunny) LaBaume, President & CEO, Land & Livestock International, Inc.

Can you make a living ranching only a square yard? What a ridiculous statement! You say.

Well, maybe you can’t feed your family with only one square yard, but you can sure use one to illustrate what it is that you need to do to make the most from all those other square yards you own.

The first picture is a general view of a classic Chihuahuan Desert range site on the rim of  Isinglass canyon in Terrell County, Texas only a few miles from the Rio Grande river and the Mexican border (which is at the foot of the mountains shown in the distance).

General View from the Canyon Rim of Isinglass Canyon, Terrell County, Texas
General View from the Canyon Rim of Isinglass Canyon, Terrell County, Texas

The principle economic activity in the county was traditionally sheep and goat ranching. That was until the National Wool Act of 1995 repealed the wool and mohair incentive payment program and all the county’s grazers disappeared. There hasn’t been enough sheep and/or goats in Terrell County to make a good pick-up load since 1995.

The particular tract shown in the photo has been “rested” (“protected” from grazing) for some 20 years. The photo just below is a close up that illustrates what 20 years of “rest” can do for a black grama plant.

What 20+ years of "rest" will do for black grama.
What 20+ years of “rest” will do for black grama.

So what needs to be done? The picture below is of a single square yard (3 ft X 3 ft) selected at random on that same site.

As you see, the plot contains one whole perennial grass plant and part of another. The larger plant in the lower right is mostly dead but does still have some remnants of life. The smaller plant in the upper left is door nail dead.

Other than those two plants and a healthy number of rocks, there is no other soil cover. Right? Wrong! Looking closer you can see that the soil is almost completely “capped” with a black moss-like growth that is actually alive. Not only has it sealed off the soil so very little rainfall can infiltrate, it actually uses what little moisture is left behind.

One sq yard ranch before treatment
One sq yard ranch before treatment

Could cows help us cure this sick land? They sure can. Since the closest cow to the area is miles away, we had to resort to simulation.  

The first thing that we did was clip all the forage inside the plot and weigh it.

Then we assumed that, had this been done by a herd of animals, they would have ingested 50% of that weight and trampled the other 50% into the soil. So we put 50% (by weight) of the forage we clipped back onto the surface of the soil.

We know that cattle will put about 85% of the forage they ingest right back onto the surface of the soil in the form of dung and/or urine. So, we replaced 85% of the other 50% of the forage with dried manure brought in from another location. (There wasn’t a cow pie to be found for miles around.)

One sq yd ranch after treatment
One sq yd ranch after treatment

Then we took a semi-sharp instrument (hoe handle, actually) and agitated the soil to simulate what a dense herd of cattle would do with their hooves, breaking the cap and tilling the nutrients (trampled in forage and manure) in along with any dormant seed that might have been laying on the surface. In other words, we simulated the kind of hoof action that is needed to reclaim this sick land by making sure that there was not a single spot within that square yard where you could put your finger and not touch a “hoof print.”

Now we are ready for rain. I ask you, do you think that one (1) inch of rain would result in one (1) ounce more forage produced on the disturbed area than would have been produced on that area had it not been disturbed? That is only one ounce more per square yard. That’s not much, right? Well, let’s see.

How many square yards are in your ranch? Let’s say you have 30,000 acres.  

There are 4,840 square yards in an acre.

Multiply that  by 30,000 acres  and you get 145,200,000 square yards and an equal number of ounces of more forage.

Apply the same usage assumptions as used above to those additional ounce–50% trampled in, 50% utilized by ingestion and 85% of that (42.5%) returned in the form of dung and urine. It is the 50% utilized by ingestion that is key to determining how many additional animal units you now have.

Divide 145,200,000 total ounces by 16 ounces per pound and you get 9,075,000 more pounds of forage produced. Half of that (4,537,500 lbs) and will be trampled in and an equal amount will be ingested and hence is what determines additional animal days.  

Assuming that each of your animals will eat (ingest) 25 lbs of forage (on a dry matter basis) each day, you have an additional 181,500 animal days (4,537,500/25). Divide that by 365 days/year and you have an additional 497 animals year long from a measly increase of 1 ounce of forage per square yard of your land.  

And it has not cost you one dime for expensive, energy consumptive fossil fuel based inputs–herbicide, seed, fuel, fertilizer, or machine time.

Source: Hand Written Notes and a Transcript of a Tape Recorded Session Made at Alan Savory and Stan Parson’s Rancher School. Albuquerque, NM. Spring 1982.

Dr Jimmy T (Gunny) LaBaume [send him mail] is President and CEO of Land & Livestock International, Inc

Copyright © 2013 by Land & Livestock International, Inc. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.

About Land & Livestock Interntional, Inc.

Land and Livestock International, Inc. is a leading agribusiness management firm providing a complete line of services to the range livestock industry. We believe that private property is the foundation of America. Private property and free markets go hand in hand—without property there is no freedom. We also believe that free markets, not government intervention, hold the key to natural resource conservation and environmental preservation. No government bureaucrat can (or will) understand and treat the land with as much respect as its owner. The bureaucrat simply does not have the same motives as does the owner of a capital interest in the property. Our specialty is the working livestock ranch simply because there are so many very good reasons for owning such a property. We provide educational, management and consulting services with a focus on ecologically and financially sustainable land management that will enhance natural processes (water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics) while enhancing profits and steadily building wealth.
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3 Responses to Managing the Ranch as a Business: The One Square Yard Ranch

  1. Paul D. Butler says:

    Another terrific post, Jimmy. What a great way to think about your land. Eager to see the “after” picture.


    • Thanks Paul. Actually, all it was meant to be was a “demonstration” of “herd effect” followed by the application of logic (aka good old common sense) to a conclusion concerning what cattle can do for the land, if managed properly.

      Of course “if” is the biggest word in in the English language (“If” frogs carried machine guns, birds wouldn’t screw with them.) So let me rephrase my statement.

      Contrary to what “they” (the envior-wackos who blame everything from the crucifixion of Christ on down on the cow) say, if managed properly, cattle are the only economically viable salvation for the worlds rangelands.


  2. Pingback: Play To Win | Land & Livestock International, Inc.

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