How Young California Ranchers Are Finding New Ways To Raise Livestock And Improve The Land

How Young California Ranchers Are Finding New Ways To Raise Livestock And Improve The Land Sonoma County, California hired this herd of sheep from Sweetgrass Grazing to reduce invasive plants and flammable fuels and make room for native plants on protected land. Sonoma Open Space, CC BY-ND Kate

As California contends with drought, wildfires and other impacts of climate change, a small yet passionate group of residents are attempting to lessen these effects and reduce the state’s carbon emissions. They are ranchers – but not the kind that most people picture when they hear that term.

These first-generation ranchers are young, often female and ethnically diverse. Rather than raising beef cattle destined for feedlots, many are managing small grazing animals like sheep and goats. And they are experimenting with grazing practices that can reduce fire risk on hard-to-reach landscapes, restore biodiversity and make it possible to make a living from the land in one of the most expensive states in the country.

Our research focuses on food systems, rangelands and livestock production. In our recent work, we found new ranchers in California using innovative strategies that they believe can mitigate fire risk to communities and improve soil through grazing.

We see an opportunity for the public and government agricultural agencies to support these producers, who are reframing livestock production systems in ways that could benefit the environment.

Ariel Greenwood describes what it’s like to be a young female rancher.

A hard industry to enter

Ranching is a family operation in California, with the vast majority raising beef cattle. The primary ranchers on traditional operations are mostly male, mostly white and generally in their late 50s to early 60s. They typically work together with their children, which lets younger generations draw on decades of knowledge and experience, as well as long-term connections to the land and to rural communities.


 Get The Latest From InnerSelf


Because land in California is expensive, there are few independent first-generation beef cattle ranchers. Several first-generation ranchers whom we interviewed relayed stories of friends leaving the state to find places with cheaper land and fewer regulations. One explained that expanding urban edges and more profitable land uses are rapidly transforming rural landscapes and making it difficult, if not impossible, to “make a go of it” as a new rancher.

New ways to ranch

Climate change is challenging farmers and ranchers across the U.S. in many ways. On western rangelands, climate variability has increased the magnitude and number of extreme wildfires that occur each year. Wet years cause vegetation to thrive, while subsequent severe droughts turn it into deadly fuel.

Our research team wanted to understand how first-generation ranchers were adapting to California’s changing climate. Our preliminary research indicated they were less prepared for future droughts than more established ranchers, and they were less likely to use drought adaptation strategies, such as raising fewer animals than their land can support in good years. This approach hedges against the risk of bringing animals to market during dry years, when prices are less favorable.

But we soon discovered a new generation of ranchers who are creating different and often entirely new types of production systems in response to California’s climate extremes and high costs. Because they are starting from scratch, many of them do not view their practices as adapting, we learned. Rather, they see these techniques as central elements of a new kind of ranching.

How Young California Ranchers Are Finding New Ways To Raise Livestock And Improve The Land A herd of dairy goats grazing in Southern California. Kate Munden-Dixon, CC BY-ND

For example, we interviewed one young first-generation cattle rancher who is experimenting with “mob grazing” – putting animals on small areas of land in dense groups for periods as short as a few hours, then moving them to new plots. Moving his herd as a close-knit unit across pastures mimics the natural movements of historical elk herds that use to roam coastal California.

His goals are to increase soil carbon storage and native vegetation by using hoof trampling to break up and incorporate residual plant matter into the soil after grazing. Then the pasture receives a long rest, which allows the soil and grass to recover.

An emerging model

New ranchers are spread throughout the length of California, from grassy foothill regions of the Sierra Nevada along the state’s eastern edge to the Pacific coast ranges. Many established California ranching families have large land holdings in multiple locations, but new ranchers tend to have smaller and fewer parcels of land.

Diversification is a key economic and ecological strategy. The average new rancher raises two types of livestock, and one-third of them also produce crops. The majority of these new ranchers (53%) are managing sheep, while less than half (47%) are raising beef cattle.

Many of these new ranchers view improving the environment with grazing animals as a way to positively affect the world. Like millennials in general, they want their work to be purpose-driven and are seeking work-life balance.

Although many are struggling to survive economically, these emerging ranchers believe they are providing a public service to communities. Some of them suggested to us that California should reconceptualize ranchers as ecosystem stewards who use grazing animals to restore watersheds and habitats, creating more resilient communities.

These services are valuable in California, where active management of landscapes can foster and enhance the state’s incredible biodiversity. It also reduces grasses and other forages that are potential fuel for devastating fires.

Beyond beef

So far, however, new forms of ranching have received little public buy-in or assistance. While this type of ranching has been gaining popularity, many policymakers and agricultural agencies still tend to equate livestock production with California’s US$3.19 billion beef cattle industry.

We see a critical opportunity for the public and government agencies to actively support ranchers who are working to mitigate the climate crisis. Several new and expanding funding streams could provide public support to new producers, including California’s Healthy Soils Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Consider the staggering impact of wildfires, which generated $13 billion in insurance claims in California in 2018. Expanding incentive programs for new and beginning ranchers who are interested in fire mitigation and climate adaptation could support California’s land management goals.

However, without an increase in outreach and support, the future of these new ranchers is uncertain. Help from university researchers and agricultural and natural resource extension advisers is crucial to increase the number of new ranchers who begin and stay in ranching. And partnerships among universities, government agencies and nonprofits can help the next generation pursue innovative solutions to offset carbon emissions and reduce wildfire risks.

About The Author

Kate Munden-Dixon, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Sustainable Food Systems, Indiana University and Leslie Roche, Associate Cooperative Extension Specialist, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Recommended books:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty. (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century Hardcover by Thomas Piketty.In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, says Thomas Piketty, and may do so again. A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.


Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature
by Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams.

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature by Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams.What is nature worth? The answer to this question—which traditionally has been framed in environmental terms—is revolutionizing the way we do business. In Nature’s Fortune, Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy and former investment banker, and science writer Jonathan Adams argue that nature is not only the foundation of human well-being, but also the smartest commercial investment any business or government can make. The forests, floodplains, and oyster reefs often seen simply as raw materials or as obstacles to be cleared in the name of progress are, in fact as important to our future prosperity as technology or law or business innovation. Nature’s Fortune offers an essential guide to the world’s economic—and environmental—well-being.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.


Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it -- by Robert B. Reich

Beyond OutrageIn this timely book, Robert B. Reich argues that nothing good happens in Washington unless citizens are energized and organized to make sure Washington acts in the public good. The first step is to see the big picture. Beyond Outrage connects the dots, showing why the increasing share of income and wealth going to the top has hobbled jobs and growth for everyone else, undermining our democracy; caused Americans to become increasingly cynical about public life; and turned many Americans against one another. He also explains why the proposals of the “regressive right” are dead wrong and provides a clear roadmap of what must be done instead. Here’s a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.


This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement
by Sarah van Gelder and staff of YES! Magazine.

This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement by Sarah van Gelder and staff of YES! Magazine.This Changes Everything shows how the Occupy movement is shifting the way people view themselves and the world, the kind of society they believe is possible, and their own involvement in creating a society that works for the 99% rather than just the 1%. Attempts to pigeonhole this decentralized, fast-evolving movement have led to confusion and misperception. In this volume, the editors of YES! Magazine bring together voices from inside and outside the protests to convey the issues, possibilities, and personalities associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. This book features contributions from Naomi Klein, David Korten, Rebecca Solnit, Ralph Nader, and others, as well as Occupy activists who were there from the beginning.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.



enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfifrdehiiditjakomsnofaptruessvtrvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}