For ranching operations to be sustainable they foremost must be profitable and attract entrants with a desired quality of life. Returns have to be proportionate to the efforts expended and fulfillment derived, or alternative endowers will be sought to meet financial and personal needs.
Secondly to be sustainable the resources utilized, primarily soil and water, must be kept productive and not degraded. Methods must conserve and improve soil health and water quality. Stocking, management, and methods need to address long term effects over short term gains.
Thirdly reliance and use of external (non-renewable) inputs as petroleum based fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, energy etc. should be minimized. The degree to which productivity and profitably can be maintained while lessening equipment use, off-farm energy consumed , and outside inputs, requires innovation and balancing costs and benefits.
Lastly operations and methods must be socially acceptable and in tandem with consumers preferences. In addition to environmental responsibility; recognized animal care and stewardship, and contributions to rural community structure and economics are of issue.
So what’s happening in these regards? Livestock herding and ranching have existed since biblical times and continues to use resources to meet our needs for sustaining food.
A global supply-demand driven market characterized by volatile prices; and a rising cost and standard of living has structurally changed the industry to fewer, larger operations, and aging participants. High land and capital cost are a barrier to new entrants as are cyclic marginal returns and threats from regulation and trade. Operations will likely continue to exit helping sustain the remaining growing businesses.
With their future tied to the productivity of the land, grazing ranchers have cared for their resources as their life blood. Grazing when at appropriate times, stocking rates and adjustment for weather extremes, benefits the grazing ecosystem for both preserved diversity and long-term productivity. Dispersed grazing livestock as a part of a biological system have had minimal impact on water quality; however as production systems lot cattle in concentration and bring them harvested feeds, issues of environmental protection and waste management are being addressed.
As machinery, fuel, and inputs have seen high inflationary rises in costs; the trend of increased usage and greater management intensity, for enhancing production is changing. Alternative systems of ranching to address labor and input costs are changing herd schedules, grazing strategies, feed production, and genetic preferences.
Ranching families have and continue to add value to acres of marginal lands through producing livestock. It creates wealth to provide for their families and in turn helped build and sustain rural communities. Ranchers take pride in their product and consumer preferences signaled through the market result in change in over time. Their success depends on their care of their livestock resulting in livestock needs for health, feed, shelter, being responsibly met. A challenge is the disconnected and lack of knowledge by those not directly engaged in ranching.