In the beginning, I set out to create my own natural microcosm on my farm. Knowing more space is better than less space, I found good rich land surrounded by set-aside, non-farmed CRP, and a state game production area. When I needed to sell off land, I sold to The Nature Conservancy. I ended up with 320 acres of great cow and wildlife habitat within 700 acres of good wildlife habitat around me. If I include the fair wildlife habitat ranch land to the west of me, my land is within several thousand acres of okay habitat. However, I was naive to think that this larger area was large enough to make a haven for rebounding populations of wildlife, centered on my piece. Today, I see a lot of land around me coming out of CRP due to high conventional crop prices. Also with nature operating over tens of thousands of acres of land, the chemical- and inorganic fertilizer-laced farming around me is moving wildlife success in the other direction.
Two of my favorite authors, Dayton O. Hyde and Dan O’Brien, have been ranchers that tried to make a living with thousands of acres and at the same time enhance the ecological health of the land. Both barely squeezed by economically through portions of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, with sales from their great books helping them get a leg up. More recently the sales of grassfed meat, buoyed by the vibrant ecology they helped create, have spurred the ranches economically. In their stories, both tell how ranch size helped them enhance wildlife, even though agricultural norms around them hurt the process. (Read Don Coyote and Yamsi by Hyde and Buffalo for Broken Heart by O’Brien.)
Like them, my main perk in this business is being out working with nature surrounding me. I cherish the nature perk, so it burns me when major wildlife continues to decrease. There is irony in the fact that the main game animals, deer and pheasants, are fattened mostly on GMO (Roundup Ready) corn and beans these days. So much for natural game meat. Even the smaller, less mobile critters are affected by the water and air that moves through my place, bringing me crud from upwind and upslope.
I read historical accounts about the wealth of wildlife during the settlement of this country, and I can envision the buffalo, wolf, elk, antelope, coyote, deer, and smaller critters on my land. Back then the wild, mature grassfed buffalo and elk would likely have been tougher, leaner, and less juicy, but would have had flavor. This alone should correct the misconception that marbled beef assures full-flavored beef. All mature wild game has a lot of flavor, for some people too much flavor, but being fairly lean it is obvious that fat mostly provides juiciness in meat, not flavor or tenderness.
Early on in domestication, our ancestors made great improvements over buffalo when they selected for more efficient animals with more meat for the amount of bone and waste, and selected for more tenderness, more prime cuts, and better temperaments for life under domestication. It has been only in the past 50 years when essentially all the changes in cattle rearing have been geared toward getting them finished faster and, thereby, cheaper. Occurring over that span of time, the loss in the flavor and health aspects of the meat have been largely unnoticed.
But I’m off on a tangent—getting back to farming systems that work with nature: we need more and bigger blocks of land owned by people that steward the land. This will be driven by more people buying more carefully raised food creating greater opportunity for more sustainable farmers. The dream solution is to get many sustainable farmers located in large blocks where entire ecosystems can flourish. Of course in reality the planet is one big ecosystem; but cared for blocks of land of thousands of acres would sure help increase the amount of clean air and water and amount and balance of wildlife around us.