by Cody Holmes, featured presenter at KBFC Day 2014
The Rockin H Ranch had always been primarily a grazing, cow/calf wean ’em and sell ’em type operation in the rocky Ozark region of southern Missouri. I bought my first set of cows in 1973 and grew to about 1,200 beef cows before the big change. Since I penned Ranching Full-Time on 3 Hours a Day the ranch operation has changed significantly.

A great deal of my book set the stage for a model of livestock ranching that not only encouraged grazing but also spoke of the necessity for the rancher to get off the tractor, and stay off, if he wanted to see black ink on the pages of his livestock financial statement at the end of the year. What I meant by this is that it is impossible to farm a cow; she has four legs, a wide mouth and a belly that can handle some of the roughest forages available. With the right kind of “cow,” which most of today’s cows are not even capable of fitting the mold, the cow can do just about all the work on her own. And therein lies the subject behind the title of the book.

Strictly speaking, if we find ourselves working more than about three hours a day on a truly grazing-based cow ranch we are probably doing much of the work the cow should be doing on her own, which in many cases has to do with time spent driving a tractor. When the book came out in 2011 we had just begun to get our feet wet with multi-species grazing. There is a sort of metamorphosis that has taken place, and continues today, over a period of about 40 years on my ranch. From this point forward in this essay I am going to discuss the changes made on my ranch that make up the so-called update part of the book and the ranch.

The things that have changed on the ranch can be divided into two categories. The first category has to do with the production side of the ranch, as far as grazing, and our expansion into larger herds of diversified species of animals. Of course, one primary purpose behind this growth and change is to get better utilization from the same acres, as well as increased production per acre while keeping the same basic tenets of grazing without using machinery. The second category has to do with increasing our net margin by getting better value for the animals we raise and sell. In short, we no longer sell animals — we sell meat, milk and eggs.

The second category of change required us to form a new corporation known as Real Farm Foods which is mainly a meat label and logo. Real Farm Foods is the marketing arm of our ranch that does everything except raise animals. But let’s not get the cart before the horse. The big change on the ranch began when we started to add larger and larger numbers of many different species of animals. We got rid of all our rented land so we could concentrate on the 1,000 acres we own.

Species diversity is a driving factor to boost livestock and soil health at Rockin H Ranch.Typical agri-business would assume that to increase the number of animals one is grazing on a given piece of land would require either the purchase of more grazing land or an increase in fertilizer, use of mechanical harvesting equipment and the added costs of many more expensive inputs that one finds in most of the large farming publications. We did not add any of these things; we only continued with even more effort at what was outlined in the book. We continued to add more fences, become better grazers, added many more species of animals and grew even more grass on the same ground. As the animal numbers increased so did the available grass, and this continues today. We actually grow more grass because we have more animals and more species of animals that do a better job of converting a larger variety of forages that grow on the ranch into meat and milk. We see an increase in forages and numbers of animals just about every year.

I do not know exactly where our animal numbers are going, but we have more than tripled the carrying capacity of the ranch from what it was 15 years ago. Back then, the ranch fed only about 150 cows or less. Now it is home to about 400 cows, 600 hair sheep, 1,100 meat goats, a Jersey cow dairy, a milk goat dairy, a cheese plant and creamery, pastured hogs, large flocks of pastured laying hens and meat chickens, extensive gardens and a greenhouse, and it’s still expanding. Now, instead of supporting only one family — my family — there are four other families on the ranch also earning a living. You can call it organic, you can call it all natural; I don’t really care what name you put on this style of mixed farming. After ranching the traditional way for over four decades we are more productive than we have ever been.

If your goal is to reduce production and sustainability simply add chemical fertilizer to your pastures, cut a lot of hay, buy a lot of farm equipment, give your animals a lot of shots, drugs and treatments and pretty much follow today’s modern protocol including monoculture farming and follow everything taught at the major agriculture universities and USDA recommendations. I’m sure you can guess that I am not a very popular guy at certain agriculture events!

What we are doing at the Rockin H Ranch is regenerative agriculture. The practices that we utilize bring more fertility to each pasture as we bring more animals to each pasture. Therefore, by simply grazing more intensively with not only more animals of the same kind, we continue to add more species of animals to graze and browse the literal hundred or more varieties and species of plants now growing. At the opposite end of the grazing matrix the cow will go straight away for the legumes and fine grasses and only occasionally the tree leaves she can reach and leaves from the blackberry bushes. The meat goat thrives on thorny material like multi-floral rose, buck brush, oak sprouts and will indeed devour the blackberries.

All the other different species of animals on the ranch consume something that is growing each year whether it is the hogs rooting out acorns, or the laying hens fighting over the earthworms and grasshoppers. I believe as a culture we have become very inefficient farmers. I have learned, and I am still learning, that this ranch has many streams of growth in many different areas, and it is up to us to put them to work.

REAL FARM FOODS

The second big change on our ranch is when we formed Real Farm Foods and began packaging our animals into USDA-inspected, customer-friendly, family-size servings. We had to develop a whole new set of skills for marketing, labeling, packaging, selling and distribution. And we started at the same place where most everybody else begins — the farmers’ market. At one time, either my wife or I was attending nine farmers’ markets each week; this is really difficult when you have a ranch to run at the same time. We eventually started picking up a few wholesale accounts including restaurants, grocery stores and health food stores, and now we attend only one farmers’ market each week. We now see our farmers’ market not so much as a day of spectacular sales as it is a publicity day to keep our name in the know.

My personal philosophy is that if a new farmer stays too long in the farmers’ market realm of things he never builds an actual sales business. I see many of these markets as more of an opportunity to jump into the market, test your products, get your name out, and then actually find larger markets that can support the amount of sales required for a sustainable enterprise. One of those markets that we use, and it has really set Real Farm Foods on the map, is our home delivery system that we custom designed from the ground up. Everywhere Real Farm Foods goes we collect names and email addresses for our weekly newsletter. In fact, if you have ever been to an event where I have given presentations you were probably given the opportunity to sign up as well. Over many years we have built and continue to build a database of friendly names that receive our newsletter bright and early each Monday morning. In addition to all the fun stuff that is in our newsletter, like “Cody’s Corner,” it serves as a reminder for our local customers to email us their weekly order of meat, milk, eggs, produce, mushrooms and whatever is growing at the ranch that week. Several days each week our delivery van goes door-to-door dropping off these orders in coolers on our customers’ front porches and office buildings. We always say we are just like the old-time milkman, only you can get more than milk and eggs — you can get just about everything you need for your meals all week.

We have two separate businesses wrapped in one, or probably better described as two mutually beneficial companies having the same holistic goal. The Rockin H Ranch continues to develop more skillful people to further our regenerative farming, getting higher and higher levels of efficiency from a fixed land base. This is done by grouping all the animals in smaller and smaller paddocks with methods like strip grazing say 1 million pounds of livestock on 1 acre of forage for half a day, a full day, or maybe two or three days depending the weather, the soil condition, forage availability, livestock condition and the intended goal for the specific pasture on that particular day. This cannot be accomplished simply by following the dates on a calendar.

Judgments about pasture, soil, water and livestock conditions are made each and every day. We have farm family meetings, with the families that live and work on our ranch in attendance, where we regularly discuss the strategy for the ranch. But the details and craft of such animal husbandry techniques can only be learned to a useful degree in a real life daily application that pushes one’s self way beyond theory. This skill development requires many years of practice and seems to only get better as many years pass, with never actually reaching a completion date. This has also been my experience with the soils, forages and capabilities of the ranch land itself. Each year the soils are improved, and now I don’t see a climax or ending date in sight. The question might be asked, just how good can the soil organic matter get?

As the ranch continues to produce more quality food, versus animals, Real Farm Foods has more work to do each year. We now deliver at least some of our products to about 20 different grocery stores, health food stores, restaurants and clubs. We maintain a small on-farm store for customers that are willing to drive 3 miles down a dusty gravel road for organic food, and each Monday morning our Real Farm Foods newsletter gets emailed to several thousand potential customers for home delivery each week. Real Farm Foods is constantly working on new products like pre-cooked meals, bundles and particular sales to give our customers the best service.

Although the ranch side of growing food may seem more attractive to many folks, the marketing, packaging, sales and distribution require plenty of energy to function generally six days per week without taking a breath. I really don’t agree with the empty theory that a good business can run itself. It takes creative, hardworking people at the ranch and even in that delivery van, to make sure each day it all comes together and has the capability to continue when the sun comes up tomorrow whether the rooster crows or not. Working with a prolasped cow on the ranch and fixing a bad T-bone packaging problem at a large grocery store can both happen on the same morning.
I also spend a lot of time traveling and speaking to groups of people interested in sourcing nutrient-dense foods or those who are working toward growing it themselves. And for those who might have an interest, there is a new book in the making. I will not give away any specifics but it will provide the details about how our ranch, farm families and the marketing part of our foods have all come together.

An aha moment happened to me about 15 years ago when I began to look at this thing we call agriculture from a different prospective. The land-grant colleges taught many of us farmers that we were not actually producing food and that we were only creating commodities. Once I began to view my production as real food, I was still a farmer, but I began to see more value from that production. Those of us who produce life-giving food have a great responsibility and provide necessary essentials to all people, generally three times a day. To move from one’s thinking position of simply a fence-builder on the ranch to one who provides life-giving nutrition gives profound meaning to regenerative agriculture and all those people it takes to accomplish this great obligation.

Cody Holmes is a Missouri grazier. His book, Ranching Full-Time on Three Hours a Day, is available from Acres U.S.A.
NEED MORE INFORMATION? For more about Rockin H Ranch, visit www.rockinh.net.

Reprinted from ACRES U.S.A. October 2014 Vol. 43, No. 10

Rockin H Ranch