Working With Nature
Sandhills Rancher Profits From Holistic Management

by Jane Sooby

Gail Nason is a rarity in the Nebraska Sandhills: she’s managed her family’s ranch for the past 10 years. In the male-dominated ranching culture, Gail stands out, not only because of her gender but because she is an innovator.

Gail uses Holistic Management principles (formerly Holistic Resource Management or HRM) to manage her pastures and has switched from winter to summer calving.

In only 3 years of applying Holistic Management principles such as cross-fencing pastures, she has seen a huge improvement in pasture quality. She has also been able to almost double grazing capacity on her 5,000 acres, from 350 to 600 head of cows and their yearlings.

Gail’s ranch is part of the old Bassett ranch, located 35 miles north of Tryon, Nebraska. She is the third generation of her family to work the ranch. Her folks who ranched it before her still live on the place and her dad still helps with the work. Her 16-year-old son Brett helps out on the weekends and in the summer when he’s home from attending school in Hyannis.

Gail thinks that Holistic Management can help people in the ranching business deal better with the ups and downs in the market. "We tend to dwell on these low prices," she said, "but we need to do what we can, learn how to be economical, and work with nature."

Holistic Management shares the ideals of sustainable agriculture. According to information on its website, Holistic Management "is a process that allows people to make decisions, based on their deeper values, that will be economically, socially and environmentally sound."

In practice, Holistic Management involves management practices like intensive grazing that increase production and profits while improving the land. Cross-fencing pastures is an important technique in managing pasture to optimize grass growth, though as Gail points out, "Most people think of Holistic Management as fencing. It’s more than fencing—it’s managing your resources."

In a ranch setting, Holistic Management involves monitoring pastures and observing cattle behavior to learn as much as possible about the resources. Gail uses a transect method to monitor pastures. This involves putting a permanent marker in place, laying a tape down from the marker, and randomly choosing a distance to observe up and down the tape.

Gail uses a 2’x4' rectangle at each point and counts the number of plant species, insects, and pieces of manure in the area. Additionally, Gail uses all her senses at each spot to take account of what is happening in the area that could affect grass growth. By going back to the exact spot year after year, progress can be measured.

This year, Gail reports a difference between her ranch and other ranches in the area. "Even though this was a good grass year, I could see a big difference," she said. "The main difference is in the quality and quantity of grass in the pastures. The prairie sand reed was as tall as I can reach," which she estimates to be at least 6’4".

A vital part of Holistic Management involves setting a three-part goal based on available resources and continually assessing progress toward that goal. A three-part goal includes the quality of life sought by the people involved in an operation, what they must produce to sustain that quality of life, and a description of the future resource base as it must be to sustain what is produced.

Holistic Management recognizes the importance of involving all stakeholders in setting this goal and acknowledges the importance of quality of life issues. In this way, Holistic Management brings the entire family together in determining the goal of the ranch and deciding how to achieve it. Gail admits that she hasn’t yet put the goal-setting part of Holistic Management entirely into practice but is working with a consulting firm to set goals and make long-term management plans.

Holistic Management led Gail to move from winter to summer calving because, "They teach you to get your cows closest to the natural cycles. Deer and antelope drop their young in June. They also talk about managing your whole, which is the resources of your people. We figured it was a quality of life thing."

The reason Gail gives for switching from winter to summer calving is, "I hate the cold weather and I hate missing my sleep," but the deeper reason is that she felt things had to change if she was going to be able to stay in the cattle business. She changed the entire operation over at once and is amazed at how easy the change has been.

Most people wonder about marketing calves at a different time of year. Gail says, "You can worry about the marketing end, but worrying doesn’t change anything." The calves are weaned November through December and backgrounded over the winter, then marketed in August through September as short yearlings. Although they calve two months later than winter calvers, their yearlings are only 40 pounds lighter. She’s producing 750 lb. steers and 725 lb. heifers. This year, Gail marketed her first set of summer-calved yearlings and was pleased with the results.

Another advantage to summer calving for Gail is that her son Brett is now involved with calving when he’s home for the summer, rather than with the artificial breeding that was formerly done in the summer. He is seeing a different side of the ranching operation and discovering the joys of calving. Gail said that he has never been fond of haying but does enjoy working with the animals.

Gail wants her son to go out and see the world after finishing high school, then would like for him to want to come back to ranch. Through Holistic Management, she can plan now to create the landscape, profit and quality of life that may encourage his return.

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