A Ranch Where Quality Beef Production And Biodiversity Coexist

Food & Drink

On this Endangered Species Day it is appropriate to consider how our efforts to preserve and protect our planet’s biodiversity can be reconciled with the need to feed a still-growing human population and particularly with growing global demand for protein. It takes a great deal of land to produce the food for humanity, and historically the expansion of agriculture has decreased the amount of land in natural ecosystems, often leading to a reduction in biodiversity. The need to increase farmed land area has been significantly mitigated through “rational intensification” of food production per unit of existing farmland, but it is important to find ways to foster and protect biodiversity within the farmed area. For mainstream, row crop agriculture that can involve things like “Prairie Strips,” diverse “cover-cropping”, or set-asides for pollinator habitat. For animal agriculture, and particularly for ruminant animals like cattle, it is possible to generate nutritious human food in grazing systems that still favor biodiversity. There is an interesting example of such a “food+biodiversity” paradigm which is underway in the Rocky Mountains southwest of Denver.

Eagle Rock Ranch is a family cattle and hay operation in a high elevation but relatively flat grassland region of Colorado known as South Park. That area is surrounded by beautiful 13 to 14 thousand foot mountain peaks. This particular ranch is stewarded by the Jean and David Gottenborg family, which includes their daughter Erin Michalski. The family did not come from a ranching background, but sold another business and bought this ranch in 2012 (story video). The ranch itself includes two parcels totalling 2,819 acres that are is between 8.9 and 9.1 thousand feet above sea level. They lie within ecoregions classified as “Southern Rocky Mountain Montane-Subalpine Grasslands” and they can be home to diverse, natural habitats that support a wide range of plant and animal life including many rare and imperiled species. The natural grazing animals of the area include elk, deer and antelope and historically included bison.

The Gottenborg’s long-term goal has been to operate their ranch in a way that is compatible with all that lives in their beautiful, natural surroundings. They avoid over-grazing by stragegically moving their cattle from pasture-to-pasture. They use “Lay-down Fencing” so that they can open up the land to accomodate the seasonal natural migration pattern for local elk populations.

They are working on establishing an “elk occupancy agreement” with the Property and Environment Research Center for letting elk range and forage on their property. They built fish ladders on one of the creeks that flows through the property to facilitate fish breeding and feeding, and have planted willow bushes along the banks for erosion control. For their hay production they leave 5 to 6 inches of “stubble,” which helps to capture more snow in the winter that in turn leads to higher moisture in the soils. In addition to their online store, they have a retail store in the town of Fairplay, which is run by their daughter Erin, where they sell their beef as“pasture raised and grain finished.”

That is a more meaningful description than “grass fed” and is both efficient and associated with good flavor and a desirable fat profile. They have loyal customers including leading chefs who swear by the unique quality of their beef and they received an award as “commercial producer of the year” by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association in 2023. More details about the operation and its owners are available in this article in the Colorado Sun.

Both for their direct beef marketing and for ranch tours that they offer, the Gottenborg’s wanted to be able to validate and document the environmental benefits of their management practices. To get an expert assessment they funded a baseline biodiversity inventory of its properties by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP). CNHP is a 45 year-old organization with a diverse staff of scientists now based at Colorado State University. Their mission is to “provide the information and expertise to promote the conservation of Colorado’s wealth of biological resources.” The study at Eagle Rock included a particular focus on species and natural communities that are rare and/or at-risk.

The Biodiversity Survey Results

The CHNP survey produced encouraging information supporting the conclusion that “current grazing practices have resulted in a landscape that is in a natural state, supporting an abundance and diversity of wildlife and significant vegetation.”

Unlike some grazed areas in Colorado and elsewhere, the plant communities were in a natural state, with many species found only in high-quality natural areas. There were healthy populations of many native species including four plant species considered to be particularly vulnerable to extinction and thus a conservation concern – the Pale Blue-eye Grass, Colorado Tansy-aster, Grassyslope Sedge and Fendler Cloak-fern. The “state imperiled species”, Rocky Mountain Ragwort was also found. There were healthy populations of moss associated with wetter areas, and lichen collected from dry rock and grassland. The bird communities were found to be healthy and diverse with encouraging populations of Bald Eagle, Prairie Falcon and Veery.

The ranch not only fed cattle, it provided foraging habitat for elk, pronghorn antelope, Bighorn Sheep and Mule Deer. Other animals that were doing well included the Acute Bladder Snail, Great Blue Heron, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Western Tiger Salamander. The executive summary of the survey concluded with the assessment that: “The conservation value of the natural vegetation and wildlife habitat preserved by this working ranch cannot be overstated.”

While this particular production model is in a unique and limited setting, it is notable in that cattle production and biodiversity could co-exist in what would seem to be a delicate natural environment. What the Eagle Rock Ranch example supports is the idea that properly managed grazing behavior of domestic cattle is sufficiently similar to that of wild herbivores like elk to allow meat production to co-exist with the protection of biodiversity and of vulnerable species.

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