Dung beetles and beef cows:

Alejandro Carrillo, a holistic ranch operator from Chihuahua, Mexico, talked to the 2020 Farm and Food Forum about his holistic approach to managing his grazing land. The Ranchero Las Damas is 180 miles south of El Paso in the high desert. 

There are not very many people, save the lab coat and microscope types, who have an ongoing and personal relationship with dung beetles. But 52-year-old Alejandro Carrillo loves his beetles. He has no idea exactly how many of these creatures live on his 25,000-acre ranch near Chihuahua, Mexico. 

“There are a lot of them,” he says, “If you look at one cow pie there might be a hundred.” He has 600 head of cattle on the place and they all eat, drink, and poop all day long. You do the math. 

So big deal, the man has a lot of dung beetles. 

Actually it is a big deal. Dung beetles are on their way to becoming the rock stars of range land management. A large population of Phanaeus vindex or dung beetles do several things for range land, especially in arid regions like the Southwestern US and Mexico. The most important is setting up a nitrogen cycle that promotes range grass growth and health, even with minimal water. 

“We only get an average of 6 inches of rain per year,” says the man who holds a computer science degree and spent several years as a software engineer in the US. In 2002, his father asked him to come back and take over management of the ranch. So he did. 

The Carrillo outfit is called the Las Damas (The Ladies) Ranch. It had been purchased by his father in the late 1980s. What the younger Carrillo came back to in ‘02 was 39 square miles of arid, nearly barren desert land. The land was under constant drought. Mesquite was taking over, the carrying capacity was likely in the two or three cows per section range. His task was to figure out how to create a situation where the ranch could efficiently raise a profitable herd. He began his learning process. 

In 2005 Carrillo met Elco Blanco Madrid, a holistic management educator. Madrid and holistic practitioner Jesus Almeida were conducting classes on holistic land management, a sort of yoga for cow pastures. Carrillo attended some classes and decided that what Madrid was espousing might just fit his project at Las Damas.

“They were talking about ‘wholes’ and how we needed to consider each and every part of the ranch (as a whole),” says Carrillo. He said that they needed to look at the ranch, the soil, the neighbors and employees and not just the cattle. “We found that it was best if we fit into nature, not fit it to us.”

Carrillo’s education didn’t stop with the classes. He visited cattle ranches in the US as well as in countries, like Australia and India. What he learned was that he would have to flip 180 degrees on some of the old school ranching techniques. And it all has to do with fitting the operation to the nature of the habitat. Carrillo puts it this way: “We need to mimic what nature does, not fight nature.” 

This past weekend Carrillo was one of the most popular speakers at the Farm and Food Forum in Montrose. The forum is an annual event, designed to provide the kind of education for producers and consumers that Carrillo got 15 years ago. About 250 area producers and consumers attended. 

So what’s the secret of holistic range management? 

Carrillo told his audience in Montrose (almost stepping into heretical territory) that the carrying capacity of the land is determined by water and not by grass. In his hour long presentation, the vaquero from Chihuahua explained that first they had to figure out how to grow range grass on six inches of rain per year. The lead component in that equation was water — for the cows, not the grass. 

The stocking rate for the land improves when you set up the ranch to keep the herd together and give them water. The cows eat and drink and do their cow pie thing. If the cattle are fenced in, on a smaller piece of land, their plant nutrient-laden excrement tends to populate the soil rather quickly. That’s when Alajandro’s besties, the beetles, go to work. 

“The beetles eat the dung and it also becomes attached to them. The beetles burrow into the ground taking the wet dung with them,” says Carrillo. 

That process does a couple of things. It carries moisture in the dung into the soil, sometimes as much as two feet deep. The manure nutrients get combined with the soil. And a whole microbial community is born and (as in the Las Damas case) now sustained. The grass starts to grow. And, when the little rain they do get falls, the grass really grows. The seed was always there and the Holistic rancher gave it what it needed to bloom. 

Did the Carrillos use any other fertilizer? Did they plant grass seed?

“Nothing,” Carrillo says. “And it did not take long.” 

In his presentation, Carrillo shows pictures of himself standing among shoulder high range grass. He also shows before and after images where mesquite was the dominant vegetation with the grass taking over. “Healthy range grass will actually push mesquite and cactus out of the area,” he says.

The initial procedures to set up the ranch involved positioning water troughs and other containers on different sections of the property. They ran pipes from some wells to those impounds. The water was used by the cattle for drinking. No pumped water is used for grass irrigation. The Las Damas hands then erected single wire electric fences to delineate the 55 pastures into which the land was divided. 

The next step was to set up a rotation plan to put the cows on different parts of the ranch on a regular basis. “Depending on the time of year and the weather, we may move the stock as often as every day,” says Carrillo. 

How long did it take to get results?

“It was right away,” says the rancher. “We saw improvement in the soil and the lands very quickly.” He knows that answer because part of the program is constant and detailed monitoring. 

“We watch everything closely,” he says. “That is the number one thing to do. Then we make adjustments.” 

Carrillo says the adjustment may be the number of cows in a paddock or how long a piece of ground is rested. Some of the grazing land gets rested for more than a year sometimes. 

Carrillo says that his original investment in pipes, water stations, and the fencing has long since been paid for.  

“My cost of doing business is very low,” he says. He is currently running 600 cows on the ranch, which he says could carry more stock. He spends no money on irrigation, fertilizer, mowing or baling. 

His neighbors, whose land still looks like that barren desert, are taking notice. But then so have a lot of others, like the Audubon Society, which now recognizes the Las Damas outfit as being a prime bird habitat, to the point it now provides assistance in the fencing and other infrastructure. That is a far cry from where they were a dozen years ago, when Carrillo was trying to convince them that he had grass important to birds. 

Like a lot of other livestock producers, Carrillo sees himself as a conservationist as well as a rancher. And it is paying off. His profits are the best in his country, and there are birds, mule deer, and maybe a million or more dung beetles calling Las Damas home.    

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