Alderspring Ranch, Idaho
The Elzingas developed a system of intensive and intentional herding at Alderspring Ranch to restore the native ecology and provide their cattle with the most diverse diet possible. If you get the chance to order meat from their online store you'll have a taste of the nutritional density of the beautiful Pahsimeroi Valley.
Is Moving Away from Meat the Right Direction?
Glenn Elzinga: A lot of people have a problem with cattle grazing on any land. Some people have a problem with just seeing cattle out there. There’s this whole movement to get away from eating meat, and you know what… I don't blame them!
I go through the Midwest, and I see the feedlot agriculture. I see the hog sheds, and it's nice that you can't see the hogs, but you see the hog sheds. I know what's in them. I've been on confinement hog farms and it's a mess. It's a nightmare for a hog. And then I go past vast feedlots in Kansas that have anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 head of cows in confinement. They are eating fecal dust mixed with their combined corn ration or dried distillers grain ration or some kind of concentrate ration that's made to make them gain weight and maximize productivity… and it's wrong. It's just wrong.
When cattle graze grass, they can live a long and happy life. We have mother cows that still produce calves and between 15 and 20 years old. And what’s the average life expectancy of a feedlot dairy cow? It's 2.5 lactations right now in Idaho. They get through 2.5 lactations in confinement feedlot areas. Is that husbandry? I think not.
So, when I hear vegans and anti-meat people say, “Hey, we got to stop eating meat,” and that is the picture they show, I agree with them, because I've got a problem with it. I got a real problem with it. It's not responsible, it's not stewardship, it's not husbandry by any stretch of the imagination to have animals in those kinds of conditions. That’s why I have to side with those people. They're not necessarily my enemy, but they are misinformed, because instead of throwing the entire baby out with the bathwater, they could say, “wait, there's got to be a better way.”
Here’s the perspective I want to bring people back to about animal agriculture… What was going on before we showed up on the scene as humans? what was going on in the tall grass prairie of America, and how many buffalo did we have? Numbers vary, but I've read various reports that say 50 to 90 million head of bison ran all across America (not Canada, not Mexico, just America). What is the annual kill of feedlot cattle right now in America today? $30 million. It's less than the bison produced before we came along.
So, if you think animal agriculture has no place for regenerating soils, maintaining soils, and for sequestering carbon, you need to stop a minute and say, “Wait, what happened before we showed up? What happened when the tall grass prairie was this huge carbon sink? What happened when the sagebrush steppe of Western North America and the Rocky Mountains was healthy grassland ecosystems and healthy riparian areas because there was sporadic grazing by buffalo that was high intensity in short duration?” What if we mimic those things in our animal agriculture and create a new paradigm? Create a new regenerative paradigm that's going to be something that brings carbon back into the soil with abandon!
We need these animals to create carbon sinks in the soil. We need them because most of the plants in our communities, especially in the tall grass prairie, have been built around an animal impact associated with that grassland.
Living with the Cattle at Alderspring Ranch, Idaho
My name is Glenn Elzinga. I own and operate Alderspring Ranch outside of May, Idaho in the middle of the Pahsimeroi Valley (its mountain valley around 5,000 feet). We have a base ranch there of about 1,000 acres, and it's all certified organic, but where we are today is up on the grazing allotment. It's 46,000 acres of certified organic native rangelands.
We actually live with our cows during the summer. We have remote cow camps, and we station cowboys and cowgirls on horseback to live with the cattle and keep them all in a controlled grazing paradigm.
Intensive, Intentional Herding (Inherding)
Public lands grazing is a very common aspect of the wide-open spaces of the Rocky Mountain West, and we are permitted to run cattle on this 46,000-acre piece of public land. What's different here is that, first, we're certified organic. We're one of the largest certified organic holdings in the country. Secondly is that, for several reasons, we've discovered that herding our cattle and actually grazing our cattle intensively up here has led to various sorts of gains for us. Some of them are economic, some are ecological.
Photo by Melanie Elzinga
For a start, we don't lose cattle anymore to wolf predation. We were getting hammered pretty hard by the wolves losing anywhere between 5 and 14 head a year, so we knew we need to do something dramatically different. We came up with the same called inherding. That's what we called it: intensive, intentional herding.
We guide the cows through the day to where the best grass is. As a result, our weight gain started going up, and we stopped losing them to other things besides predation (we stopped losing any to poisonous plants). So, all these productivity measures were going up, we were gaining economically, but there is also this huge ecological thing that was happening.
With total control, we found that no longer did we have to graze all of our riparian areas. What that means is that critical habitats like bull trout or dolly varden trout habitat was taking off. Aspen trees were releasing dramatically and were getting all these new Aspen stands taking off because the cattle are no longer nibbling them. Willows were taking off. Brush thickets along riparian areas became impenetrable and they became all this avian habitat. All these songbirds started loving it down there, and then, just last year, the beavers started coming in out of nowhere and colonizing all these Aspen stands that were regenerating. That that was super, super exciting stuff. Inherding was benefiting us economically, but it was also benefiting in the land, ecologically.
Meal Planning for Livestock to Increase Meat-Eaters’ Nutritional Intake
What's interesting is that these alpine shepherds of either cattle, goats or sheep (or all three) will actually strategize and plan, even weeks in advance, where they're going to go with their animals to decide how best to maximize their nutritional intake. That was an epiphany for me!
We can actually choose the highest diversity of choices so that these animals can now plan their own grazing journey if we just provide an extensive salad bar of different greens to choose from. At that point, they can maximize their own nutritional destiny based on their palates.
Photo by Linnaea Elzinga
There are all of these studies showing that it’s important for humans to be able to maximize palate choices to create our best wellness. Once you're eating whole foods, once you get all the crap food, all the processed (you know, the box stuff in the center the grocery store), and you start shopping around the perimeter, or drop the grocery store eat out of your garden, and eat out of your backyard, eat wild game…. When you start maximizing those kind of wild food choices and you start listening to your body, you're going to maximize your wellness.
When you take the concept of palate choices and combine it with the meal planning idea, it gets very, very exciting, because now we have cattle that we can bring to an area of great diversity, and it becomes an area of great nutritional diversity, because they start picking and grazing all this plant diversity out here. We can not only maximize just their productivity, but we can also maximize their health, their wellness, through their nutrition. And guess what? Guess what's really exciting about maximizing those things? It means that we're going to be maximizing nutritional intake for us, the eaters of these livestock and our patrons who buy our beef.
Sure, it requires more work. It requires cowboys and cowgirls up here all the time. But I know we're doing the right thing for the land. And you know, we love it. We love the land, and its stewardship. It's what we're asked to do on any piece of land, whether it's one acre or 46,000 acres.
Photo by Melanie Elzinga