Friday, February 12, 2016

Where has the magic gone? Thoughts on ranching, science and easy answers

In the last several years, I found that I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of easy answers and “magical” solutions when it comes to ranching.  The quick fix that will solve all of the challenges of raising sheep on rangeland seems elusive – whether it’s supposed to address economic, ecological or animal husbandry problems.  When I was getting started in the sheep business, these recipes and mystical answers held a great deal of attraction to me.  Today, much of the magic is gone!  Perhaps that’s a good thing!

Perhaps this is related to my age – I’m no longer the naïve youth who wanted to make my living from farming and ranching 15 years ago.  Perhaps this related to my return to school – I’m currently pursuing my master’s degree in integrated resource management through an online program at Colorado State University.  Most likely, this is a combination of these and other factors.

I should probably provide an example or two.  I’ve written previously in this space about my own struggle to resolve the differences between the advice of farm writers like Joel Salatin with my own experience (see this post, for example).  As I’ve gained practical experience and knowledge, I’ve realized that someone else’s recipe for success can never address my own specific circumstances and environment.

More recently, I’ve been intrigued by similar suggestions relating to rangeland productivity and predator protection.  I’ve read about ranchers in other parts of North America who have experienced tremendous increases in productivity by planting and grazing cover crops.  I’ve listened to folks in other parts of the West talk about their success in using fladry (hanging flags on polywire) and other technological tools to deter wolves from preying on livestock.  These sound like easy answers to some of the problems I’ve faced (or will face if wolves make it this far south) – and yet my increasingly skeptical mind wonders whether these easy solutions are too good to be true.

Much of this skepticism, I realize, has to do with my own paradigms.  In my experience, my paradigms can be powerful filters for incoming information and drivers of my own approach to ranching.  For example, I firmly believe that low-stress livestock handling works.  I also firmly believe that my integrated approach to protecting my sheep from predators (using dogs, management and electric fencing) works.  Because of this, I’m inclined to seek answers when something doesn’t work (like when I lose a sheep to a coyote, or when cows don’t flow easily through a gate) that fit my paradigm.

In many ways, science can help uncover the site- and situation-specific complexities involved in answering these questions.  However, I also find myself frustrated with a reductionist approach to science.  Putting 5 ewes in a small paddock and measuring their impact on yellow starthistle doesn’t acknowledge the complex relationships between herd effect, grazing preferences, animal performance and soil health.  A single-season experiment doesn’t account for variations in weather, animal behavior, or ranch management.  Experience has shown me that these things are related in complicated ways – just like experience has shown me that hard work matters more than easy solutions.

So if there aren’t the easy answers I once found so attractive – if there aren’t magical solutions to my most pressing issues as a rancher – where will the answers come from?  Perhaps our scientific approach needs to evolve – perhaps we need to find ways to deal with complex natural systems, economics and human relationships (that is, with ranching) through long-term, integrated scientific inquiry.  Perhaps we need to blend natural science and social science in a way that acknowledges practitioner experience and the scientific method.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that questions that I once thought could be answered in black-and-white terms are much more complicated.   Indeed, I’ve found that I’ve had to try things before I realized how much I didn’t know.  I’ve read that Albert Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” (He had to have said it – it’s on the internet!).  Regardless of who said it, however, I’m beginning to see the truth in it!

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