By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Quay Valley rancher Tom Sidwell has acquired a reputation as a successful user of agricultural practices that are considered sustainable and holistic, and on Saturday, he hosted a group of 50 like-minded farmers and ranchers from as far away as Oklahoma and Colorado to show them how he does it.
Sidwell not only showed them how, but how well he has succeeded by using new-age ranching techniques.
The bottom line: these techniques hold water—quite literally. His assigned subject for the day was successful ranching during a drought.
The one-day seminar at Sidwell’s ranch was sponsored by Holistic Management International, a nonprofit organization based in Albuquerque that helps promote farming and ranching practices that conserve water and other resources. Each participant paid $20 or $30 for the day of enlightenment, and they came from Oklahoma and Colorado, as well as Texas and New Mexico.
The session at Sidwell’s JX Ranch was one of HMI’s Open Gate series of ranch visits held in Texas and California, as well as the JX Ranch.
Sidwell focused on four components of his sustainable strategy: solar-powered water pumps, a pipeline that connects water tanks and wells, clearing invasive, water-guzzling bushes and trees, and a “one herd” strategy that keeps his cattle together as they circulate from pasture to pasture.
Since Sidwell has divided his 7,000 acres that border the Caprock into 25 pastures and he herds his cattle to one pasture at a time, he said, it means that each pasture does not undergo grazing for 96 percent of the year.
A system of solar-powered pumps distributes water from wells into holding tanks and allows water to be transferred between the holding tanks to where the cattle are grazing, he said.
By allowing pasture land long “rest” periods between grazing, he said, the grass can establish deep roots and thrive even under dry conditions.
“It’s more important to have the grass grow deep than have it grow tall,” he said.
By clearing invasive, thirsty trees and bushes like mesquite from one area of his property, he said, a water tank that is filled from that area now holds five times the water it used to contain.
Sidwell used photographs taken at a fence line that show grass growing on his side and ground almost bare on the other side. The other property, he said, uses “open grazing,” in which the cattle have access to all of the property. In dry years, Sidwell said, that can lead to overgrazing.
Sidwell said his best year since he bought his ranch in 2003 was 2011, when his cattle density was about 35 acres per cow. His herd then would have measured 200. In 2012 and 2013, the worst drought years, he said, he cut his herd in half, and this year, with better rainfall, he is allowing the herd to expand gradually by keeping more calves.
Since he purchased the ranch, he said, his gross income from cattle operations has climbed from $30,030 in 2004 to just under $200,000 in 2011. In the worst drought years of 2012 and 2013, he said, annual gross income dropped to an average of $126,000.
He said his profitability is enhanced by selling his cattle to customers who are seeking grass-fed beef, which many consider to be higher quality than grain-fed beef.
In making improvements to the ranch, Sidwell has received assistance from the Natural Resources Conservaion Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the National Wild Turkey Fund because his property is wild turkey habitat. Because of these programs, Sidwell said, he has only had to pay about $8 per acre in improvement costs of the $21.25 per acre that has been expendedfor improvements.
Following Sidwell’s talk, the class participants toured his ranch and heard lectures from other specialists in forages, wildlife habitats and agricultural marketing.