October 2013

Healing the Carbon Cycle with Cattle


Courtney White


In 2004, Tom and Mimi Sidwell bought the 7,000-acre JX Ranch, south of Tucumcari, New Mexico, and set about doing what they know best: earning a profit by restoring the land to health and stewarding it sustainably.


As with many ranches in the arid Southwest, the JX had been hard-used over the decades. Poor land and water management had caused the grass cover to diminish in quantity and quality, exposing soil to the erosive effects of wind, rain and sunlight, which also diminished the organic content of the soil significantly, especially its carbon. Eroded gullies had formed across the ranch, small at first, but growing larger with each thundershower, cutting down through the soft soil, biting into the land more deeply, eating away at its vitality. Water tables fell correspondingly, starving plants and animals alike of precious nutrients, forage and energy.


Profits fell too for the ranch’s previous owners. Many had followed a typical business plan: stretch the land’s ecological capacity to the breaking point—add more cattle when the economic times turned tough and pray for rain when dry times arrived, as they always did. The result was the same—a downward spiral as the ranch crossed ecological and economic thresholds. In the case of the JX, the water-, nutrient-, mineral- and energy cycles unraveled across the ranch, causing the land to disassemble and eventually fall apart.


Enter the Sidwells. With 30 years of experience in managing land, they saw the deteriorated condition of the JX not as a liability but as an opportunity. Tom began by dividing the entire ranch into 16 pastures, up from the original five, using solar-powered electric fencing. After installing a water system to feed all 16 pastures, he picked cattle that could do well in dry country, grouped them into one herd, and set about carefully rotating them through the pastures, never grazing a single pasture for more than 7-10 days, typically, in order to give the land plenty of recovery time. Next, he began clearing out the juniper and mesquite trees on the ranch with a bulldozer, which allowed native grasses to come back.


As grass returned—a result of the animals’ hooves breaking up the capped topsoil, allowing seed-to-soil contact—Tom lengthened the period of rest between pulses of cattle grazing in each pasture from 60 days to 105 days across the whole ranch. More rest meant more grass, which meant Tom could graze more cattle to stimulate more grass production. In fact, Tom increased the overall livestock capacity of the JX by 25 percent in only six years, significantly impacting the ranch’s bottom line.


The typical stocking rate in this part of New Mexico is one cow to 50 acres. The Sidwells have brought it down to one-to-36 acres, and hope to get it down to one-to-30 acres someday. Ultimately, Tom hopes to have the ranch divided into 23 pastures. The reason for his optimism is simple: the native grasses are coming back, even in dry years. Over the past 10 years, the JX has seen an increase in diversity of grass species, including cool-season grasses, and a decrease in the amount of bare soil across the ranch. Simultaneously, there was an increase in the pounds of meat per acre produced on the ranch.


The key to the Sidwells’ success? Goals and planning. That doesn’t sound terribly novel, but it’s how the Sidwells do it that separates them from the large majority of other ranchers. They take a holistic approach, planning the management of the ranch’s resources as a whole and not just parts of a whole as is traditionally done. It’s the classic Triple Bottom Line: land health, human well-being and financial prosperity. They accomplish this by monitoring and re-planning based upon what the monitoring tells them. When Tom does the annual planning for the ranch, he takes into account not only the needs of the livestock but also the physiological needs of the vegetation and wildlife.


Tom considers soil health to be the key to the ranch’s environmental health, so he plans to leave standing vegetation and litter on the soil surface to decrease the impact of raindrops on bare soil, slow runoff to allow water infiltration into the soil, provide cover for wildlife, and feed the microorganisms in the soil. He also plans for drought. That’s why the JX has standing vegetation and litter on the soil, as I saw, because Tom adjusts his livestock numbers before the drought takes off, instead of during or after the drought has set in, as is traditionally done. “I plan for the drought,” Tom said with a wry smile, “and so far, everything is going according to plan.”


There is an important collateral benefit to all their planning: the Sidwells’ cattle are healing the carbon cycle. By growing grass on previously bare soil, by extending plant roots deeper and by increasing plant size and vitality, the Sidwells are sequestering more CO2 in the ranch’s soil than the previous owners had. It’s an ancient equation: more plants mean more green leaves, which mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded, which means more CO2 can be sequestered in the soil, where it will stay. Tom wasn’t monitoring for soil carbon, but everything he was doing had a positive carbon effect, evidenced by the increased health and productivity of their ranch.


There’s another benefit to carbon-rich soil: it improves water infiltration and storage, due to its sponge-like quality. Recent research indicates that one part carbon-rich soil can retain as much as four parts water. This has important positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams, which are the lifebloods of towns and cities.


It’s also important to people who make their living off the land, as Tom and Mimi Sidwell can tell you. In 2010, they were pleased to discover that a spring near their house had come back to life. For years, it had flowed at a miserly rate of ¼-gallon per minute, but after clearing out the juniper trees above the spring and managing the cattle for increased grass cover, the well began to pump 1.5 gallons a minute, 24 hours a day!


In 2011, the Sidwells’ skills were put to the test when less than three inches of rain fell on the JX over a period of 12 months (the area average is 16 inches per year). In response, Tom sold nearly the entire cattle herd in order to give his grass a rest. He had enough forage from 2010 to run higher cattle numbers, but asked himself, “What would a bison herd do?” They would have avoided a droughty area, he decided. It was a gamble, but it paid off in 2012 when it began raining again, although the total amount was 10 inches below normal. “It was enough to make a little grass,” he told me. “We had some mortality on our grass and a lot more bare ground than before the drought, but I think the roots are strong and healthy, and recovery will be quick.” The Sidwells decided to purchase cattle and are now nearly 30 percent stocked and back in business. In contrast, all of their neighbors kept cattle on their land through 2011 and had to destock due to a lack of grass— just as the Sidwells began restocking!


Grazing- and drought planning are a godsend,” said Tom, “and we go forward with a smile and confidence because we know we can survive this drought.”



Courtney White co-founded the Quivira Coalition. Today his work with Quivira concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with an emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement Courtney@quiviracoalition.org



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