What in the World is Conservation Ranching?

Your guide to Audubon's program to make cattle ranching prairie- and bird-friendly

Wild bison were unwitting conservationists. As they roved the Great Plains, snacking here, trampling there, the hefty mammal carved diverse plant landscapes for any species’ nesting, mating, or hunting requirements. When humans substituted these shaggy ungulates for cows, the territory transformed. Without guidance, cattle mow fields to a single height and encourage only a couple plants to rebound. Few birds thrive in this monotony.

But birds aren’t the only ones who suffer in a monoculture. In different pastures, Allen Williams’ cattle were struggling, too. A sixth generation rancher turned professor, he watched more and more feedlot animals fall sick. Ranchers would sink cash into medical care, cutting slim profits even slimmer. So he did what he had to. “I gave it up,” he says, “every bit of it.”

Williams returned to his family land to try something new. He would not only graze his cattle, but manipulate their patterns to keep a thriving mix of green leaves, blades, sprouts and shoots.

When a variety of plant life returns, so do the birds. So for the past five years, Audubon has coordinated with Williams to support this kind of cattle-raising effort, called conservation ranching. More specifically, Audubon a habitat certification program for ranchers interested in raising and selling prairie-friendly beef. Behind each green hexagon lies a rancher’s commitment to protocols developed by ornithologists, mathematicians, and a host of other experts. When consumers pick up a package of prairie-friendly beef, they know the cattle was raised not only antibiotic, hormone, and cruelty-free, but with the health and habitats of local birds in mind.

Interested to know more? We spoke with the experts involved in Audubon’s protocol development, and cattle ranching experts who started studying how cows could heal our grasslands long before Audubon got involved, what sustainable ranching looks like.

So, how does conservation ranching work?

Conservation ranching lies between the field-flattening of typical cattle grazing and the random undulations that bison carve. Ranchers can coax cattle to rehash a select number of bison-induced conditions, explains Christopher Wilson, the director of Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program, targeting different conditions depending on the region’s birds. Alison Holloran, the executive director for Audubon Rockies, consulted with a variety of ornithologists to list prioritized species for each ecosystem. The High Plains ecoregion, for example, focuses on 17 species. The protocols for each terrain include maintaining the different grass conditions those birds need.

How do ranchers control when and what a cow eats in a field?

For some newcomers, this requires some learning, but “Allan is the master of teaching this stuff,” affirms Wilson. Williams coaches ranchers on recognizing when and where cattle should feed next. To keep cows from wandering off, Audubon ranches use single-wire electric fences that cows know not to touch. Since cattle prefer younger grasses, they amble into new territories as soon as cowboys redraw their boundaries. The cords are solar-powered and wind up on reels, making them easy to transport and restring, and even Williams’ most hesitant lecture attendees realize how little manpower this style of ranching requires. “You can always see the lightbulb going off with them,” he says.

Each property requires different handling. Some might move cattle a few times a day, says Wilson. Others are so vast, patches will only see the ruminants every two years. Once farmers master their territory’s needs, they won’t need to think about providing for nests or breeding grounds anymore, says WIlliams. The birds will just come.

Is it better for the cows to manage land is this way?

As it turns out, yes. Like any gardener knows, a range of plant species brings a range of nutritional benefits and sprouting seasons. Daren Harmel, the director for the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Center for Agricultural Resources Research, helped initiate a conservation ranching initiative in central Texas about five years ago. Different plants ensure the cows keep eating well through the typical ranching season, he explained. The forced diversity of plants can be beneficial for them, “and I can’t imagine the wildlife would disagree,” Harmel adds.

How do you measure the bird-friendliness of a particular ranch?

To measure success, Nicole Michel, an Audubon senior quantitative ecologist, and her coworkers devised a Bird Friendliness Index. This equation factors in how many of the sought-after species each ranch has, as well as the population count of each species. The higher the calculated the score, the more bird-friendly the ranch. Any operation, no matter how low their initial value is, can join the Audubon certification process, says Michel, because “the goal is to see [the ranch] become more friendly over time.” Her team performs periodic audits on each program participant to ensure scores keep rising. Bird populations aside, the Audubon seal of approval affirms the cattle received no antibiotics or hormones and were treated humanely as well. A third party auditor checks in to keep ranchers true to that promise.

I heard that cows are drivers of climate change, so how can there be climate benefits to bird-friendly ranching practices?   

It’s true, cattle contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. But controlling levels of harmful emissions is all about math. Plant growth can return global warming promoters to the soil, in a process called carbon sequestration. If grazed grasslands suck back in more than what cows emit, conservation ranching stands a chance of improving climate conditions. So far, the researchers studying this possibility agree: Ranching could help our atmosphere. “Right now, we have a consensus that we have the potential to increase carbon sequestration in grazed pastures,” says Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, an agricultural ecosystem researcher at the University of Illinois. The harder question, she says, is nailing down what exact protocols encourage this process. Work on this sector is ongoing.

So what are some of the challenges?

Achieving simultaneous wins for cattle, birds, and the environment is a balancing act. Holloran went through dozens of protocol iterations when negotiating what conservationists and ranchers wanted.

Justin Derner, who directs the ongoing research initiatives that Harmel was involved in, watched as researchers and ranchers found compromises. No matter how much a rancher cherishes his or her land, they need to make a living. “There’s not a lot of people running around, paying you for land heterogeneity right now,” he points out. Cattle have to achieve marketable weight on different conservation and carbon sequestration strategies for ranchers to stick around.

And no matter the maneuvers, cows aren’t bison. Johan du Toit, a grassland ecosystem researcher at Utah State University, points out to imitate bison habits, ranchers need tracts of land far larger than what many currently own. Bison also shed carpets of fur that many animals furrow away for nesting materials, and cows can never provide that building material. “But you have to start somewhere,” du Toit says.

Read more about Audubon’s conservation ranching program here and here.