Environmental Sustainability: The Cowboy Way

Posted on October 29, 2012


Environmental sustainability has been the cowboy way for generations–long before Al Gore’s inconvenient truth-telling made it fashionable.  Cattle ranchers and the organizations that represent them believe that the way ranchers have worked land for generations represents ideal conservationism.

Photojournalist Ami Vitale’s work is displayed on the NBC photo blog this week, documenting working ranches in Montana that run their cattle the “old-fashioned way” with horses instead of trucks and four-wheelers.

As Vitale got to know the ranchers, she found that some were returning to traditional cattle drives, forgoing trucking their cows in favor of moving them from horseback, and frequently changing their grazing location to try to minimize the cattle’s impact on the land. One of the ranch managers, Bryan Uhrling of J Bar L, says it helps to think of cattle as “…mobile composting machines. Their hooves plant seeds, their urine moves moisture from watering sites to arid grounds, and their manure is a natural fertilizer. They are the perfect all-in-one farming machinery.”

The California Cattlemen’s Association is an example of an organization defending cattle ranching as environmentally friendly and sustainable.  The section of the website dedicated to Cattle & the Environment states that the sustainability of modern ranching has improved in the last thirty years.

In 2008, data from Aspen Media and Market Research showed that over 65% of America’s 1 million cattle farms and ranches have been in the same family for two generations or more.  Explore Beef points out that for those who make a living off the land, sustainable practices are more than just ethical–they are good business.

America’s cattle ranchers have a vested interest in sustainable environmental practices. After all, the industry thrives on multi-generational family farms, meaning land stewardship and best practices for green farming go hand-in-hand with managing a successful and long-term family business.

The Explore Beef website aims educate the public on the “everyday environmentalism of ranchers,” offering a list of 40 ways that ranching helps the environment.

The Environmental Stewardship program grants annual awards to “America’s foremost land stewards”–those farmers and ranchers who represent the best in conservation practices in America.

These organizations and others seek to promote good practices in cattlemen, and remind America of the beneficial work being done by ranchers around the country.  But how will this best be accomplished?

A 2010 survey by IPSOS Public Affairs for The Beef Checkoff Program found that ranching were viewed as the third most environmentally friendly profession, with a decisive 86% stating a belief that farmers and ranchers are committed to protecting and preserving land and natural resources, but only 22% of those surveyed got this opinion from first-hand experience with ranchers.  Many said they got this impression from magazine articles or TV shows.

Perhaps, in the future, the work of organizations seeking to promote an understanding of ranching sustainability will be first and foremost to educate an increasingly ignorant American public on what ranching is all about in the first place.