Interest in the ancient art of shepherding is being rekindled across the Intermountain West, as ranchers are forced to rethink management approaches in response to wildlife, health and ecological concerns, according to Glenn Elzinga, owner of Alderspring Ranch and a grassfed beef marketer from May, Idaho.
Recently Elzinga was joined by retired extension specialist and best-selling author Fred Provenza for an in-depth discussion of grazing, nutrition and land management at the annual Regenerate Conference, held in Albuquerque and presented jointly by Holistic Management International, American Grassfed Association and the Quivira Coalition.
Elzinga was looking for a way to counter wolf predation and improve the health of riparian areas on public land when he came across a book Provenza co-wrote in 2014, The Art and Science of Shepherding: Tapping the Wisdom of French Herders.
"I came across the book and thought, 'Let's reinvent that,'" he recalled during their shared breakout session.
Provenza, who launched his education and career at Colorado State University, discovered the writings of French researcher Michel Meuret in the mid-1990s, which explained how traditional French shepherds designed grazing circuits to optimize the forage intake of their animals. He ended up spending the next seven years working with Meuret to encapsulate those findings. The book they co-authored outlines techniques the herders used to stimulate appetite and improve dietary diversity, and reveals how herding schools helped to elevate the profession in France.
All of those things were intriguing to Elzinga, who had already been drawn to the idea of herding summer yearlings on horseback rather than moving them through a series of fenced paddocks.
He even invented his own term for what he wanted to do: in-herding, short for intensive herding. It's like management intensive grazing without the fences.
A herd of several hundred head of cattle are grazed during the day, typically covering around seven miles at a time, and then returned to one of several campsites and bedded down within a hot wire enclosure each evening. A team of around 20 herders remains with the cattle at all times. Elzinga sets up a rotational system through the summer to give them occasional breaks.
He trains them to work against the natural inclination of the cattle to modify their grazing behavior.
"What are two things cattle follow and are herded by if I'm not out there on horseback?" he asked the group. "It's green grass and gravity."
Before the in-herding program began, cattle spent too much time in the low spots and along the waterways, which affected water quality, harmed desirable plants and diminished wildlife such as beavers. Training the cattle to stay on the upland and eat a greater diversity of native plants — around 250 different species are available, according to Elzinga — the health of the range has improved along with the health of the cattle, he said.
Provenza stresses the importance of eating a diverse diet for both livestock and people in his latest book, Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom.
"We often focus on individual nutrients, but in food what matters most is all of the secondary compounds," Provenza said. "Those are hard to get a handle on. So diversity matters."
Diverse foraging appears to have a positive influence on the taste of the meat as well, according to Elzinga, who markets roughly 280 head of cattle a year as certified organic grassfed beef.
Routine taste tests have convinced him that the herded animals produce meat that is more flavorful. That's also backed up by an endorsement he received from author Mark Schatzker, who gave Alderspring Ranch a ringing endorsement in Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef, published in 2010.
So how practical is Elzinga's idea? The notion of cowboys living out on the range with their cattle is nothing new, of course. But in an age when labor is already in short supply on most farms and ranchers, some would question reverting to such a labor-intensive model.
In fact, Elzinga said he's had no trouble getting dozens of applicants after reaching out to land grant colleges across the West seeking interns. The long days and constant watchfulness required doesn't suit every temperament, he said, but some herders return to the job over subsequent years.
He believes in-herding holds appeal because it involves so many different skills, ranging from wildlife and ecological management to horsemanship and stockmanship.
Provenza noted he has met people across the country interested in starting shepherding schools to support the growing interest.
Provenza's ideas on the connection between grazing management and human and ecological health have continued to captivate audiences around the world.
Josh Tashiro, a rangeland management specialist from Canon City who was working at a trade show booth at the Quivira Conference, said the Society for Range Management will be bringing Provenza to Denver in February, where he will headline a one-day Healthy Grasslands Expo that is free and open to the public.
The expo on February 20 will feature Provenza and other guest speakers talking about how properly managed grazing leads to improved wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation.
Provenza has continued to look for ways to apply the lessons he learned from French shepherds to human health. Among other things, he's developed a keen interest in how production methods influence nutrition levels in food.
"Seed has been selected for yield and that trumps phytochemical richness," he said while in Albuquerque. "As a result, beef and produce have become blander and blander. We need to have a balance between the two."