Beef Born of Good Practices: Grazier Manages Cattle with Ecological Focus
Building fence, moving cows, running water lines, and slinging grassfed meat for her customers are just a smattering of the daily activities in the life of Ariel Greenwood.
The 26-year old works as a grazier and herd manager for Holistic Ag, an ecosystems services company bent on regenerating landscapes through the use of many hooves and holistic management practices.
Based on the ecologically-diverse and vast Pepperwood Preserve in California's eastern Sonoma County, Greenwood's main responsibility is the care of roughly 150-head of grassfed cattle which Holistic Ag uses to restore the native plants and biological communities across the landscape. Boasted as one of the largest natural protected areas in Northern California, the location offers Greenwood a unique opportunity to work, live, and learn.
Homeschooled in the southeast United States, Greenwood was first drawn to agriculture through her undergraduate studies in ecology and experiences working as a gardener for wealthy landowners in the Raleigh, NC area.
"Understanding agriculture and its role in ecology, in feeding people, was my original motivation," she explains. "Now though it's much deeper and more expansive."
Feeling convicted to continue down this path, Greenwood moved to California in April of 2014. Six months later, a connection made during an agriculture meeting in the Bay Area, landed Greenwood in her current job.
Starting out like most farm or ranch hands, Greenwood was initially a paid employee. In due time as her experience and interest grew in the business, compensation for her efforts transitioned into partial ownership in the form of live shares (i.e., animals) in the cowherd she manages.
Through her stake in ownership Greenwood is able to manage her animals as she best sees fit, whether that means holding animals to finish longer or sending some to slaughter to later sell as grassfed beef under her personal brand, Circle A Beef.
"I like to think of the beef I have a hand in producing as an ecological and dietary staple as opposed to a luxury food," she says. "I have a product I can stand behind, beef born of good practices to nourish people."
More importantly, though, Greenwood emphasizes, "I think ownership has really helped me wrap my head around the whole system I manage with a lot more precision than I had prior to having product to move."
Her day-to-day tasks vary, but in general Greenwood says she starts most days out with a map in hand looking over grazing plans for the day. "I look at how big of an area I need to build fence on, what material length, and the amount I need," she says. "Then I go out knowing exactly step-by-step what I'm going to do."
With her plans set, Greenwood is then able to hit the field in her ATV which she uses to get around from pasture to pasture and carry any gear she will need for the day. Once at the pasture, she moves cattle to new forage and water tanks if needed. Afterward, she picks up any fencing materials left behind and repurposes them to build fence out ahead for the next grazing cell.
Depending on how much time she has, Greenwood might also assess upcoming forage to inform her planning or have a grazing meeting.
"I try to spend time with the herd, taking down data, counting up animals, just general observation and building herd rapport," she says. "It's really meaningful to me."
Greenwood's arsenal of highly portable gear plays a large part in her ability to easily manage the nearly 4,000-acre land base she grazes year-round. This mobile toolkit includes a variety of fencing equipment including braided fence wire, fiberglass posts, geared single reels, and a portable solar-powered fence charger equipped with deep-cycle marine batteries. Additionally, the herd's water needs are supplied by 100-psi poly-pipe fitted with plastic fittings and valves, portable tanks, and a solar water pump. Greenwood transports all of these materials are easily with her ATV.
While Greenwood admits her days are not always easy, she enjoys the challenge.
"Some days are one or two hours. Some days, it's going to be 14-hours if something goes wrong," she says.
In her early days on the job, Greenwood notes many of the challenges she encountered were from lack of experience such as getting forage assessments wrong or dealing with bovine escapees. Now two years in, she says it happens less and less.
"Now if something occurs, I just take my time," she says. "I observe the 'slow is fast' approach, but it's taken me a long time to get there."
Like any good manager, Greenwood continues to improve. Recently, she started a herd journal to report observations she makes in the field. Doing this, she says, keeps her conscious of how much time she spends on each task and allows her to keep a record of the changes she notices in both the landscape and the animals under her care.
Along with the herd journal, Greenwood tracks ecological conditions in the pasture with photo monitoring. Additionally, she uses software such as Google Earth Pro to plan grazing and map pastures, as well as Basecamp to communicate pertinent information and share files with preserve employees.
Of all her experiences, however, Greenwood notes, one particular thing has stood out as having the greatest impact on her success as a grazier and herd manager - learning from others in her field.
"For my own peace of mind, the feeling of support and camaraderie has been big," she says. "We can talk about and share our problems. We don't have to be on our own."
Greenwood took this concept one step further earlier this year, creating the "Get it, Grazier" group on Facebook in August 2016.
"We know that ranching needs to adjust and evolve through a changing landscape, market, and climate," she articulates. "I found as someone coming at it from a primarily ecological motivation, there weren't a lot of places for me or others to be amateurs. That's what the grazing group is about. It's about creating that space."
The goal in this group, Greenwood stresses, isn't about being the expert or the smartest one in the room. Instead, participants are asked to practice humility, ask good questions, and be open to answers. It's in this state that the real learning can happen.
On top of sharing ideas, Greenwood says developing her holistic context, being clear about her goals, and setting realistic expectations for her daily life have also assisted her in getting where she is today.
"The main thing is to have learning goals, even if they're big," she says. "Also remember, no amount of books or workshops can make up for just being on a piece of land with animals day in and day out."
Keep up with Greenwood's grazing adventures by visiting her website and following her on Twitter. For those interested in learning more about regenerative grazing, join the "Get it Grazier" group on Facebook.
Authored by Jesse Bussard, an agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Photography by Sage Berx and Stephen Smith.