Defining Sustainability on the Ranch

Exploring what sustainability means to cattle producers, and the importance
of maintaining a sustainable operations. Article by Laura Handke.

Lincoln, Nebraska – Beatty Canyon Ranch co-owner Steve Wooten’s rancher perspective of sustainability resonated with attendees of the American Gelbvieh Association national convention.

“We have a consumer today that is more informed, more inquisitive and really wants to know where their food comes from,” he told attendees. “And they’re extremely loyal.”

Wooten presented a session at the Cattleman’s Profit Roundup that looked at the rancher’s definition of sustainability, sharing that his family made the decision to move toward becoming “low cost and high efficiency” through better management practices in 2001. Since that time, Wooten has shared what he continues to learn about efficiently producing beef with the rest of the industry. Today, Wooten is a member of the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB).

“Six years ago, 150 of us (cattle industry members) met in a meeting room at NCBA headquarters. We set out to identify the most important elements within our beef supply chain that need to be addressed when considering sustainability and climate issues for the future of the industry,” Wooten says.

When those members left that meeting room, animal health and wellbeing; greenhouse gas emissions; efficiency; yield; employee safety and wellbeing and land and water resources were the focuses of USRSB.

The Definition of Sustainability

“Our land is our lives. Everything starts from the soil and comes up, and being a sustainable industry that can do some good against climate, it really becomes true,” Wooten says.

Everything starts below the soil’s surface: the microbiology, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling… everything. The soil is the production warehouse for the ranch and is an important driver of a ranch’s profitability.

“The soil is the tool we provide to the system to fight greenhouse gases,” Wooten says. “And if you stay engaged with USRSB, you’ll see how we are going to collect data and use it to help establish grazing management for carbon sequestration.”

Wooten says that Beatty Canyon Ranch has had a grazing plan since the early nineties. The practice, he says, was added to the ranch’s management after attending a Ranching for Profit school. The resulting grazing plan allowed for different pastures to be managed at different times.

“We make sure that plants are getting almost a full season of rest before we bring a cow back,” he says, also noting the way the ranch monitors stocking density. “We don’t want to put the same density (of cows) in a pasture two or three years in a row. We’ll move our density up and down based on the amount of moisture we receive across the ranch in a given year. The breakdown of the old grass material left to cover the soil will become organic matter. Everything we do with our grass is a contribution to carbon sequestration and soil health.”

The ranch also focuses on plant diversity. The plants that develop and thrive as a result of these management practices are deeper rooted and work to break up clay and sandy soils.
Wooten says that stockmanship and stewardship also have an important place in the sustainability conversation.

“We’ve made a personal commitment to gentle cattle and true stockmanship and stewardship because we know how important it is to the guys that buy our calves and put them out on wheat. They can drive out to a wheat pasture and if a calf or two is on the wrong side of the electric fence, they can step toward them and the steers go back across the electric fence. They don’t throw their head in the air and take off running down the highway,” he says of the value gentle cattle provide.

Another tool that Wooten says is invaluable to Beatty Canyon Ranch operations is Beef Quality Assurance. Once all animal caretakers and handlers are trained on the protocols, the consistency of practices adds efficiency not only to the ranch, but to the entire value chain.

“There is no other tool that is more important to us. Everyone is trained and we take it seriously,” he says, asking the audience, “Do you know what happens when a broken needle is found on the line? It shuts the entire chain down and it adds expense to the industry.”

For Wooten, sustainability also means the ability to pass the ranch to the next generation, and having a succession plan in place is the key to making that happen.

“I was blessed with a mentor in my uncle, and by the time Joy, my wife, and I, came home from college, there was no need for us to think about land available for lease or trying to buy 5,000 acres in the next county,” Wooten says. “The succession plan was already there and working, and we’ve done the same thing with our children. They are already in full management control.”

The Critical Role of the Breed Association

Wooten says that breed associations play a critical role in animal health and wellbeing. The genetics that move forward to influence future generations significantly impact efficiency.
“The determination of a breed association’s genetics moving forward makes a difference in what I can do. This is an example of a first calf heifer of ours,” Wooten says, pointing to a slide of a newborn calf, “I was there when she pushed the calf out. This is three minutes after; that calf is already getting up on his feet. I cannot emphasize how important it is for every cow to have a calf that gets up within 10 minutes and gets that first colostrum to jump start its immune system. Everything that happens right here affects that calf’s performance for the rest of its life. You can’t make up with all of the supplements in the world what that little guy is going to get in the next five minutes.”

The American Gelbvieh Association is a progressive beef cattle breed association representing 1,100 members and approximately 40,000 cows assessed annually in a performance-oriented total herd reporting system.