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10 Minutes with Cassidy Johnston

The Inside View

10 Minutes with Cassidy Johnston

This column is about the "how" of sustainable business. At the practical level, how do leaders make change happen? Cassidy Johnston is a cattle rancher, New Mexico area bull and semen rep for Leachman Cattle of Colorado and a sustainability officer of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA).

Bob Langert: Why and how did you decide that cattle stewardship is your calling?

Cassidy Johnston: When I was in college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I worked at the Stock Show in Denver for another job and I just fell in love with it. I really did. So, for my degree in environmental studies, I wrote my undergrad honors thesis about environmentalism and ranching. While doing research, I met my husband — a cowboy — and then we fell in love.

Since 2011, we have worked for several large ranches in three states. I just really love it — the tradition of it, taking care of the animals, being outside and taking care of the land. I truly believe we are stewards of the land. And until I had children, I got to work outside with my husband, Bert. I worked horseback with him every day and put in hard but rewarding work, which is a really neat way to start your life with someone.

I love the business. I love the people. And rural America is a great place to raise children. I'm suited for ranching and that's why I enjoy it.

Langert: Beyond ranching, you work as a sustainability officer for the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance? What is that about?

Johnston: USFRA gets farmers and ranchers to lead conversations about food, especially with thought leaders, retailers and influencers. From soybeans and corn and dairy and pork, they have farmers representing almost all of the commodities. I represent beef, and as one of six sustainability officers we provide food companies, restaurants and grocery chains with access to the farmer and rancher perspective. It is critical for farmers and ranchers to have a voice in conversations with others in the supply chain about sustainability, food and agriculture.

Just last week, I did a webinar with Culver’s and I spoke with their CEO and other senior leadership about today’s cattle ranching and the safe, humanely raised meat used for their burgers. It’s connections like this across the value chain that really impact responsible marketing and sourcing decisions. Because if farmers and ranchers are not in these conversations, especially in conversations about sustainability, the decisions food companies make may not be feasible for us to carry out.

So, USFRA wants to ensure that the best minds in food, agriculture, science and technology create solutions together that will result in environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Langert: What do you think is most misunderstood in all these conversations?

Johnston: My biggest frustration is that people don't understand how a cow works, its positive role in the environment and what a cow does for our soil health. And when you look at lifecycle assessments of the beef industry, rarely do they include any of the carbon sequestering power of soils. And even though beef cattle take up room, they provide value to nonarable lands. It's land that's either marginal or completely not farmable. It's forest or the sand hills or the desert, which is where we ranch.

Langert: So, you really ranch on a desert?

Johnston: Yes, we are in a high mountain desert in New Mexico. We have 15 inches of rain a year or less, and we're at about 6,000 feet.

Langert: How do the cows eat?

Johnston: We have grass, but the climate is so dry that the growth is limited. We have 850 cows on 85 sections, which are about 52,000 acres. That's a large area. So, our stocking rates — the number of animals to an area for a given length of time — are very low. In other parts of the world, you could have that many cows on 2,000 acres. That would decimate our ranch extremely quickly.

We also raise breeds of cattle that do well here. We've found that Waygu-cross calves do great here, and their mothers do great here as well. Cattle can live anywhere because they're ruminants and very adaptable. And sometimes, folks don't understand that we're not taking agricultural cropland out of commission by raising cattle. Their grazing is part of the lifecycle of the grasses and soils.

We are keeping the soils healthy on something like 750 million acres in the United States, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cattle are doing their part to keep rangelands healthy because rangelands have evolved to be grazed. They play a vital role in our rangeland ecosystem.

Langert: So how does the use of antibiotics work?

Johnston: My husband or the ranch manager decides when an animal needs to be treated. We very rarely use antibiotics because we have a very healthy cowherd. We had some recent trouble with pneumonia after weaning because the weather was a little abnormal and very wet, which is unusual for our area. So, when an animal is sick, we treat it because we care about their well-being. I think before this pneumonia episode last fall, we treated less than 10 animals in five years.

Langert: Can you explain more about what is put into a cow? Critics claim cattle are getting antibiotics left and right.

Johnston: Well, we do vaccinate. That is something that is often confused with antibiotic use. It's just like in humans. We give vaccines against viruses that we know we can prevent. Our veterinarian comes out every year and assesses our ranch and animal health standards. We have a vaccine protocol that is approved by our veterinarian. We use antibiotics when necessary to treat an animal, but we always use the best antibiotic we can, and use per label directions.

Langert: Speaking as a sustainability officer for U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and for beef, what provokes this disconnect between agriculture and consumers?

Johnston: Part of the problem is the internet. A number of people who make bold statements about today’s farming and ranching sometimes have no basis in agriculture or have never met a farmer or rancher. Likewise, some food retailers who are in charge of sustainability have no background in agriculture and have never seen a farm or ranch in real life.

And that's the problem. The problem is that less than 2 percent of our population is involved in production agriculture. And while that shows we're productive and efficient, it also means a lot of people are unfamiliar with how their food is grown. We're in a place now where there are whole organizations and a lot of money aimed at eliminating animal agriculture.

I don't care what people eat. I do not care if you're a vegan, if you're a vegetarian or if you prefer an organic diet. All I care about is that people are getting accurate, unbiased information, directly from the farmer or rancher. That’s one of the reasons why I started my blog, Cow Country. And there’s so many other farm and ranch moms like myself that blog and are active on social media, so seek them out.

Langert: Is eating less beef going to save the planet?

Johnston: What's sometimes unsettling to me is that going meatless will not save the planet because the folks making those claims usually don't account for where we're going to get our protein or our micronutrients, or how we are going to keep our rangelands healthy.

What it comes down to is: You're a person, and I'm a person too. If I can do something small that’s going to make a big impact, I'm probably going to do it. But when people say, "Stop eating meat. Everything will be fine," it’s simply not true. No, you need to stop driving your car. You need to stop consuming so much stuff. We all need to consume less in general.

But it's really hard as a cattle rancher to watch people make claims without understanding what would happen if they took our cattle away. We would have a dust bowl, and it would be environmentally devastating.