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Montana Ranch Builds Resilience with Focus on Healthy Soil and Biodiversity

While many producers might think a successful ranch starts with having the right type of cow or forages, B Bar Ranch manager Wes Henthorne says it begins somewhere even deeper.

“It actually begins below the soil surface,” says Henthorne. “The only way we can improve our plant and animal communities above ground is to provide a healthy base in the soil to support them. There are so many beneficial changes that can result from optimizing the environment beneath the surface.”

Located just a short drive north of Big Timber in the shadow of central Montana’s Crazy Mountains, the B Bar Ranchis an organic, grassfed and grass finished beef operation. Under organic management since 1990, the ranch has continually maintained a focus on greater biodiversity and soil health in their ranch practices.

We like to think that our pastures are more resilient now than they were before we started conscious efforts to manage for diversity and soil health,” says Henthorne. “Resilience is a great thing in trying times and a lack of resilience offers hard lessons that we hope we only have to learn once.”

White Park CattleAlong with a strong land ethic, the B Bar has also played a major role in preserving Ancient White Park Cattle, a rare heritage breed. In 1989, when the ranch purchased their first breeding group, only 20 animals of the breed were known in North America. Today, thanks to their efforts, those numbers now stand at more than 700. Despite this success, Henthorne notes, balancing what’s best for a threatened breed and his grazing lands has not always been easy.

“There were dry years when the right move from a grazing standpoint would be to destock,” says Henthorne, “but when balanced against preserving very rare genetics we often chose in favor of the cattle.”

Now that breed numbers are up, Henthorne has adjusted cattle numbers to better fit the ranch’s available resources. He focuses his grazing management on improving plant communities.

White Park Cattle Grazing“We have had some success with using very high stock densities for a very short time to begin a shift in species from annual plants to more desirable species,” says Henthorne. “We also try to adjust our cattle movements to match plant growth rates. This has also resulted in some species shifts.”

A typical grazing season at the B Bar Ranch starts in late April to early May. As a year-round purveyor of fresh beef to many retail accounts, Henthorne must manage cattle in strategic groups to ensure an adequate supply. He develops this grouping system along with his annual grazing plan prior to each season.

“We adjust the plan as necessary based primarily on moisture or lack thereof and plant responses to grazing during the season,” says Henthorne. “As we have become better grazing managers, we have focused more on recovery and rest periods. Our guideline is that longer is better for rest and recovery and if we can combine cattle into fewer management groups we can increase these periods.”

Over time, lengthened recovery and better planning have resulted in improved soil cover across the ranch. Henthorne indicates he has also observed some modest successional changes with an increase in perennial species in some areas.

Healthy Montana ForageAdditionally, Henthorne interseeds new forage varieties into existing pastures to assist in boosting species diversity. This typically happens in irrigated fields, but sometimes test strips are also seeded into dry rangeland areas to learn what germinates, survives, and performs best in those locations.

To directly stimulate soil health, the B Bar Ranch also applies compost tea and fish hydrolysate to some of their pastures. According to Henthorne, both are amendments known to directly influence microbial and fungal populations in soil. To brew the compost tea, aerated water in a large tank is mixed with equal parts compost and water. In addition, fish hydrolysate, which is essentially ground up fish in liquid form, and sometimes molasses are added to the tea.

"We shoot for about a pound per acre of compost and 4 gallons per acre of fish hydrolysate,” says Henthorne. “We aerate this to get as much oxygen as practical in our water and then apply about 30 gallons of total mixture per acre with a broadcast sprayer.”

Most applications are made on irrigated acres; however, Henthorne notes, similar to interseeding test strips he also occasionally does the same with compost tea on rangelands.

The key factor the ranch is trying to change with these amendments is the ratio of fungi to microbes in the soil. Visual observations from boosts in production and annual testing of soil biology help to determine if the compost tea is working.

White Park Cattle“Our goal for optimal forage production is a ratio of one to one,” says Henthorne. “We’ve been able to move the needle in some areas from 0.45 to 0.84 within the past three years so we are moving towards our goal.”

Going forward, Henthorne says he plans to continue on his course to enhance the ranch’s soil microbiology and improve grazing management. He believes through these efforts the ranch will continue to see greater forage production and, in turn, more profitability.

“I’m not sure we know enough yet to say that soil health work is inherently more profitable than more conventional practices,” says Henthorne. “I am confident, however, that building soil with organic management is a much better way to provide a full range of options to the managers of the future that follow me on this land. And, it’s very satisfying to be thinking about building a better future.”

For those interested in improving soil health on their own operations, Henthorne recommends reading, listening and studying the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham.

“Our goal for optimal forage production is a ratio of one to one”