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Ranching Like an Economist: It’s All About the Soil

Scott River Ranch specializes in grass-fed, holistically managed cattle.

BY ALLIE HYMAS

Dawn creeps over hills overlooking the alpine pasture of the Marble Mountain Wilderness in California’s far north. Gareth Plank reins his horse alongside a mooing herd of red and black angus, their snorts and chuffing breath hang in the frigid air as a silent, gentle snowfall coats the hillside.


On the same morning three thousand miles away in New York City, the Twin Towers — where Gareth had served at a top-level firm as a financial securities analyst — lay crumbled. Only three years before September 11, 2001, Gareth had left the financial sector to live out the dream he’d held since he was ten years old: to buy a ranch and raise cattle with his family.

Tucked on the edge of the Klamath National Forest in California’s far North, Scott River Ranch occupies six square miles of verdant, lush pasture where Gareth and Millie Plank raise grass-fed, holistically managed cattle. “There’s no place better on the planet to raise cattle than Scott Valley,” Gareth Plank says. The climatic shifts and harsh winters in this area west of Yreka tends to produce more hardiness and vigor in grasses and animals. “There’s better TDN and crude protein in our grasses because of the contrasts in climate, we tend to have less pests because of our winters,” he says. In a state known for water conflict and scarcity, 740,000 acre feet of water flow through Scott Valley each year. Plank says, “Farmers and ranchers use about 5% of it, about 40,000 acre feet. Where on the planet can you find that?” Livestock and hay make up the primary agricultural operations in this valley. “We can’t grow melons here: it’s a 120 day growing season, but we can grow great grass.”

Plank has owned and operated Scott River Ranch for twenty two years. “When I first started out I was growing cattle, and then thought I was growing grass. Now I believe I am growing soil. The soil is really what creates the dynamic complexity of flavor.”

Rather than seeing the individual components of his operation as siloed elements, Plank takes an integrated view: producing delicious, well-marbled meat at Scott River Ranch happens to the benefit of the local ecosystem and the Plank family, rather than at their expense. 

Before purchasing the ranch, Plank absorbed the writings of Allan Savory and the Holistic Management approach. Known for its instructions on biological monitoring and planned grazing, many readers might not know that Holistic Management encompasses more than just grass management. Longtime friend of the Planks, agricultural educator and co-founder of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, Spencer Smith, points out that an integrative mindset like Plank’s is really what Holistic Management is all about. “The grazing aspect is the part of holistic management that gets the most attention because it’s so different and it does provide such profound ecological results, but if you don’t pace that within your financial realities it won’t work. We need to bring financial realities, social equities and ecological benefits up together in order to be in business for the long term. Gareth is really conscious of that and the work that he does is proof that you can improve all things simultaneously.”

Gareth Plank owns and operates Scott River Ranch.

Dirt Roads via Wall Street

“From my earliest memory, I knew I wanted to be a rancher.” Plank says. In his early years Plank worked for ranchers around his community in the San Joaquin Valley who became much more than employers, having a profound impact on him — not only as a future career choice but also as the kind of person he wanted to become. “I’ve met a couple of presidents and dined with senators, but the people who’ve left me the most inspired were always farmers and ranchers.”

Plank committed to spending his early life working in another field to save up for a ranch. “I was resolute from an early age that by the time I turned 40 I wanted to be ranching.” Plank says. “The happiest I’ve always been is playing in the dirt.”

Before acquiring the beautiful acreage in Scott Valley that would become Scott River Ranch in 1998, he built a successful career in the financial sector as a senior securities analyst. His experiences on Wall Street consulting on investments for foreign governments, Fortune 500 companies and the United States Government offered Plank a big-picture approach and long-term pragmatism that drew him towards the principles of regenerative agriculture. “There’s a certain amount of sobriety that comes from being an analyst. My experience with markets and government policy reminds me to keep painfully alert and stay sober: I know I’m not going to change the world instantly.” Plank’s analytical skill set also helps him unpack both the business, science and visionary aspects that make small family farms successful. “My profession as a financial analyst made me pretty nerdy: getting excited about numbers and trends is part of my DNA.”

Plank carried with him the lens of an economist as he approached his second career in ranching. “Gareth is good at assessing capital improvements for reaping long-term financial benefits,” Smith says, “Like his irrigation system, which wasn’t cheap to put in; however, it’s creating irrigation efficiencies in wet years and dry years that will increase the amount of forage production on the farm that with time and good grazing can increase the amount of livestock and cash crops that can come off the ranch. That all together is part of a healthy business model.”

Plank sees a lot of parallels between investment mistakes in the recent market crashes and the increasing instability of practices in industrial agriculture. “Going back to my experience on Wall Street: I observed extremely smart people doing very stupid things because we are creatures of habit.” But he says we shouldn’t demonize the people following these farming trends, it’s just human nature to want to streamline farming and automate our way out of the daily problem-solving that filled our agrarian ancestors’ daily hours. “On the farm it’s natural to do anything we can to avoid extra work. [The brain is] a super big, expensive organ, so we want to find ways not to use those calories — that’s just evolutionary biology.”

Rather than ranching with formulaic, one-size-fits-all approaches that have characterized the short-cut taking of modern agriculture, Plank has seen better outcomes on his farm through hands-on observation: picking through the dirt to find insect species, sitting out by the riparian zone watching for incoming wildlife, running a hand over the glossy coat of a steer. “If you’re relying too much on apps and tests, you stop observing with your eyes. You go out and look at the coat of your animal — you can tell if it’s stressed and you can learn to observe what it needs.”

Both an extensive knowledge of the Holistic Management strategy and an intimate connection with his own land have been critical for creating the mental grid with which Plank measures the data he’s observing every day. “The first thing I want to do is get out of the way of Mother Nature. That’s hard because we’re control freaks.”

Converting to Organic

While still exploring the principles of Holistic Management, Scott River Ranch wasn’t certified organic until 2003. The turning point came when Mad Cow was discovered in Washington shortly after the ranch had sent a group of cattle to be sold. “When 50% of your income comes in one check and the market is off because of an event, you know you’re doing something wrong! Usually people don’t change until the rug is pulled out from under them.” Plank says participating in the commodity market is a matter of personal preference. “There are people doing a wonderful job, making nice livings. But for myself I recognized that I wasn’t smart enough to work with [agribusiness,] they have far too many resources.” 

Plank not only looked to the organic market for more stability, but also for the social wellbeing of his family on the farm. “I increasingly recognized that [my previous methods] we unsustainable. I observed my small children running around barefoot in the fields and playing by the creek, then I looked at the label of what I was spraying.” While the EPA designates certain herbicides and pesticides as safe after a 48-hour period, Plank felt uncomfortable putting these synthetic chemicals where his children were playing. “If it’s not good enough for my children, I don’t want it for my livestock or land either. The truth is petrochemical industry is not our friend.” Plank believes that the extensive litigation in the mid ‘90s over the tobacco industry’s false claims will be completely eclipsed by a future reckoning with the petrochemical industry’s longstanding minimization of its negative impacts. “We are biochemical beings that live on hormones, so what is the cost of being continuously exposed to a hormones and nerve agents?”

While convinced of the health and ecological benefits of following organic principles, Plank cautions farmers considering the switch to think economically while phasing in organic. “For example, when we converted to organic we had planted wheat, and we lost approximately a hundred thousand dollars on that crop because we could not spray it. So it cost us about a hundred thousand dollars to convert that field to organic to get a 2-3% premium. That’s expensive. In retrospect I should have kept that wheat field conventional and then later converted it into pasture and not taken a loss that year on the wheat harvest.” Over a process of five years, Plank certified Scott River Ranch in sections via Oregon Tilth. “I’m sure you’ve read Don Quixote, you know, Cervantes?” Plank says, “It feels like chasing windmills sometimes: organic should not be labelled, the other food should be labelled.”

Despite the high costs for a marginal premium, Plank believes organic principles have greatly benefitted Scott River Ranch. “We’re raising more cattle here on an organic basis than we were on a conventional basis. We’re running 100 fat steers, 200 moms and another 100 yearlings out there. We used to run 60-80 head here. There were absolutely short term losses, but now we’re running more cattle, producing more feed.”

Calving Naturally to Minimize Losses

“We calve when the deer have their fawns,” Plank says. “Why would you want to fight with Mother Nature? There’s a reason why the elk and the deer are born now: we’re told to calve during what’s known as ‘spring calving’ which for us is during the January blizzard and February blizzard, but that’s to have a calf available when the market is higher.”

Plank points out that calving based on market preferences means higher mortality in the harsh January and February conditions. “Getting up in the morning the first thing I want to do is check for catastrophe, you know: make sure all the animals are standing, but then I want to slow down, observe and get out the way of what the mothers are doing for their calves.”

Plank’s strategy for natural, gentler calving is to purchase bulls that had a low birthweight: this is a trait they will pass on to their offspring. In his experience, the need for intervention is more of a signal that management isn’t going right. “It’s considered unmanly not to pull calves: you’re supposed to be out there in the rain, the snow, the blizzard. Why? About 5 years ago we got a bad bull and had to pull a lot of calves, but in 10 years, outside of that one bad year, have pulled maybe two calves. The calves we have now are between 55-60lbs at birth instead of the typical 110-120lbs but their wean weight is the same.” 

Large birth weights have often been correlated with favorable market weights, but Plank says that this just isn’t true. Additionally, a 120lb calf could paralyze a mother cow or the calf, traumatized from a difficult birth, might lay on the ground for hours and become too weak to access colostrum during the critical window for the calf’s survival. Inversely, a calf genetically predisposed to be born at 55lbs will be born quickly and can suckle immediately, fortifying its chances of survival. Plank has had consistent success in getting calves of this birth-size to grow out. “There’s no relationship between birth weight and adult weight: low birth weight is a genetic trait.”

Grazing Economics

The typical practice of grazing down to four inches isn’t a norm at Scott River Ranch. “I want 60% of my dry matter left in the pasture when the cattle move to the next paddock. Your water retention plummets when you graze down to four inches. We found that in conventional haying, if you give a butch haircut the top 5-6 inches of soil are immediately dry, hot: where do your earthworms go? Where do your dung beetles go? They’re either dead or disappear.” 

Using electronet fencing, the cattle move every day at Scott River Ranch both to limit animal impact and to break down the life cycle of the fly. The watering systems are carefully configured around the ranch to accommodate an ever-changing sequence of paddocks.

Diversity is a critical element of Plank’s philosophy. “When I went to Nepal in the ’80s I had never seen so many different kinds of potatoes, all different kinds of textures and uses —and when a blight would come through and wipe out one potato crop, there were 50 other varieties that weren’t affected.” The pastures at Scott River Ranch have dozens of naturally occurring varieties of forage to offer his cattle. “When it comes to forage we’d like to see 15-20 different species out there and the reason for that is different climates, different rain environments, different species do better depending on the year.” Plank says. This also helps manage invasive and inedible species with the power of diversity. “Each year is a weed du jour!” He also points out that it’s more helpful nutritionally to plant a diverse offering for his cattle. “You need dozens of different species out there for metabolic health. If you don’t have a good smoragsboard out there, they’re probably not going to be as healthy.

Part of the grazing strategy for building up a beef’s frame and musculature involves being strategic about the composition of carbs and proteins in the forage species of any given pastures. “We finish the animals on the highest legume concentration for putting on more intramuscular fat.” The fact that Plank runs a terminal ranch, rather than selling 6-month-old steers on the commodity market, means he is invested in having not only the steer’s weight at market perfection but also the flavor, marbling characteristics and texture. “The industry is working against itself: the cattleman at the front end wants a big body, the butcher at the other end wants good marbling, but they’re fighting each other. When you’re a terminal rancher you don’t want high live weight, you want high dead weight.” 

Plank is interested in pasture cropping, but still prefers to allow the ecosystem of the ranch to call its own shots. “What I really want are the native grasses that reside in the soil that this landscape has evolved for.” During a drought one year, 70% of the ranch’s lushest pasture on Horn Lane died out and yet without reseeding, chiseling or disking the pasture was able to restore itself naturally. “We’re watching our diversity explode without our interceding: we’re getting our timothys, or different types of brome, plantain out there —things that we didn’t even plant are emerging because of the Holistic Management methods.” 

Preserving the Land is Preserving Ranching

While the economic interests of ranching and ecological interest of the land may seem disparate in some circles, Scott River Ranch offers an exemplary approach, not only for maintaining the beautiful wilderness habitat of a diverse riparian and forest zone, but also in creating economic value in these conservation efforts. 

Placing smooth wire on the bottom of his fences allows wildlife to move freely from the uplands to the riparian zone. “That’s been part of our integrative pest management.” Plank says. “It harbors beneficial insects, raptors and allows the deer and elk to have more cover.”

With the ranch’s fish ladder system for Salmon and Steelhead, Plank was able to benefit fish populations while securing his access to a critical water source and getting paid by conservation resources for providing a service. Smith explains the triple-bottom-line approach that helps farmers and ranchers reframe ecological considerations the way Plank does. “The Scott River is a sensitive watershed with a high conservation value when it comes to fish, and many ranchers might see that as an obstacle. Or you can look at that obstacle as an opportunity to create ecosystem services that will have financial dividends as well as ecological benefits.” 

When considering how Gareth Plank’s mindset has inspired him, Spencer Smith says “he’s one of those early adopters: a forward thinking person who creates opportunities for others within Scott Valley, increasing economical and social dividends while improving biological results.” For all his skills at analysis and integrative systems management, Plank’s motivation for running Scott River Ranch is pretty simple: “This is the best beef you’ll ever eat.” Producing a delicious end-product for his family and customers is both an intricately impactful act and a simple joy.