Writers on the Range: This rancher has radical ideas about water
Writers on the Range
If Jim Howell, a fourth-generation rancher in Western Colorado, has a guru, he’s Allan Savory, the champion of intensive cattle grazing even on semi-arid land.
Howell, 52, says Savory’s methods, which require moving cattle quickly from pasture to pasture, enable him to keep adding thousands more animals as the ground recovers. He says the method is so efficient he can even foresee leasing out irrigation water that he doesn’t need.
If all this sounds unbelievable, Howell, who is ranch manager for Eli Feldman in Ridgway, understands the skepticism. But he says the ranch speaks for itself.
Western States Ranches is huge; a 213,000-acre spread that’s a mix of 3,000 acres of irrigated bottom land in Delta and Montrose counties, plus 210,000 acres of mostly leased federal rangeland that sprawls from western Colorado to eastern Utah. There’s forested, high-elevation range, but half of the ranch is semi-arid. Rainfall can be a scant 10 inches per year.
The herd is also large at 3,300 head, with 1,800 pregnant cows. What makes Savory’s approach effective, Howell says, is speed: In a day or two, cows eat fresh grass and weeds, then move on to new pasture before an enclosed pasture is damaged. Ten cowhands make the process work by moving miles of electric fencing, even though they’re traditionally loath to get off their horses. Feldman found Howell by consulting the Savory Institute, where Howell’s wife, Daniella Ibarra-Howell, is director.
The man and the money behind this enterprise is Eli Feldman, whose Conscience Bay Company is mostly staked by lifelong friends, the Laufer family of Stony Brook, New York.
East Coast money and Western know-how might seem an odd combo, but Howell studies the land with total concentration. He says his rule of thumb is to make a grazing plan and then rip it up as changing conditions dictate.
Howell has made dry, overgrazed range bloom before. Using Savory methods, he boosted the number of cattle on his former family ranch on Blue Mesa in Western Colorado. He went from 150 cows to 450, while also attracting herds of elk.
But if demand management gets going — the controversial plan of leasing water temporarily and voluntarily to fulfill downstream obligations — Feldman and Howell are on board. Feldman asked Trout Unlimited to administer a demand management study on part of his ranch that lies in Eckert, where ground is irrigated only until July 1.
Howell derides programs that encourage leasing water for full seasons. “It’s going to be seen as socially untenable for ranchers in the upper basin to be over-irrigating hay fields when downstream users are running out of water.”
Because Feldman is an outsider with a formidable operation, he says he’s been a target since the ranch got going in 2018. Shortly afterward, he recalls, a Delta County commissioner poked him in the chest with a finger, saying, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
Feldman figures he’s been cast as a water speculator. “But when a ranch was auctioned off recently,” he says, “we passed on the irrigated land (with senior water rights) and purchased the herd and grazing permits only.”
For both Feldman and Howell, one of their goals is to restore grass on ground that’s been ranched “old-school.” By that they mean trampled creek beds where cows for generations wallowed away the summers.
Howell says he has all sorts of tricks to get lazy cows moving. Artificial watering holes are scattered across dry range, while gullied creeks are fenced off and left to recover. The payoff is growing grass-fed, certified organic beef, and Howell says it commands a 15-20% premium over cattle grown for the commodity market.
Despite the ranch’s sprawl, it seems a lean operation. Howell manages it halftime from a small tent, which also doubles as his sleeping quarters. His cowhands are equipped with little besides horses, trailers and portable electric fence. Still, Howell has his share of environmental critics. The Center for Biological Diversity charges that grazing any cattle on marginal land leads to degraded water and spurs desertification.
Howell shrugs off the charge. “These native rangelands evolved with hooved animals,” he says. “To say they are not meant to be grazed is total BS. They were meant to be grazed — but as nature intended.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.