Don’t let the fact that G-C Ranch is located in Texas discount it from being able to provide wisdom for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. (They were named the Environmental Stewardship Award Program winners this year by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.)

Located north of Dallas, the operation is committed to improving ranching practices in ways that nurture the environment. The Ellis family focuses on maintaining biodiversity, natural habitat and clean waterways. The ranch uses an adaptive multi-paddock strategy that rotates cattle through 58 permanently fenced pastures. The family also strives to keep carbon stored in the soil by minimizing disturbance.

That’s where their good example is good for all. At a Cattle Chat at this year’s CattleCon, Dr. Jeff Goodwin of Texas A&M University presented “Real World Benefits of Managing for Improved Soil Health” – with the implication that those benefits could be monetary in nature. He used G-C Ranch as a case study.

“I know everybody’s excited to talk about dirt,” Goodwin joked, “but what is soil health? It’s very simple: It’s the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system. We see it as just a medium for growing crops. We need to change the lens with which we view soil.”

As producers, we see grass – we don’t see the soil. What everyone sees is the forages, Goodwin said, “which is an absolute reflection of what’s happening underground.”

Conventional practices often lead to high input costs, such as when producers feel they need to fertilize their pastures, purchase hay for winter feeding, etc.

When thinking of managing landscapes and managing for healthy soils, farmers will often hear people talk about less-than-conventional practices, saying things like “You need to plant cover crops. You need to move your cows every day and increase your stock density. You need to do ‘this’ practice.”

Goodwin disagreed. “That’s the last thing you need to do,” he stated. “The first thing you need to do is understand that those practices help us influence these ecosystem processes. When we need to use an amendment or an herbicide or increase stock density, we’re usually treating a symptom of one of these broken processes: the water cycle, energy flow, the nutrient cycle or community dynamics (the right plants on the right soil at the right time).”

Incremental shifts key for good soil health

Letting pastures rest – so that you don’t see bare earth – is an important component of soil health. Photo by Enrico Villamaino

He added that good soil health principles – know your context, minimize soil disturbance, increase diversity, maintain living roots, keep the soil covered, properly integrate livestock – have been preached for a long time.

Yes, cover crops can be beneficial. They can increase land flexibility, increase a producer’s cost recovery, increased acres grazed rather than hayed and decrease dependence on synthetic inputs.

However, “cover crop success takes a while,” Goodwin said. “It’s a process.” Since soil under conventional management is highly dependent on added inputs, it takes a while for it to get back to its normal processes.

That’s true of combining herds as well. Doing so increases stock densities and increases grazing distribution, which means pastures can grow through longer rest periods.

Letting pastures do what they did before conventional management started helps soil too. Diversity increases opportunity in every facet of life, Goodwin noted, adding that some forbs are high in protein – you don’t need to spray them.

Keys to G-C Ranch Success

Goodwin also shared the Ellis family’s top three tips for success:

  • Plan in pencil – Prioritize adaptability and flexibility – but be sure to write your plans down
  • Prioritize principles over practices
  • Use a bottom-up approach – focus on decisions that impact profit per acre rather than profit per head

“Incremental shifts are key – take your wins when you get them,” Goodwin said.

The Cattle Chat on soil health was sponsored by the National Grazing Lands Coalition. The Nat GLC is a producer-led and driven organization made up of producer board members representing 13 member organizations; a network of nationwide state coalitions; an advocate for producer needs; and a resource for education and networking.

Nat GLC can help you define your principles and design practices for good soil health. Learn more about them at

by Enrico Villamaino