By Tom Parker
“What if we could create a new system?” Missouri rancher and farmer Cody Holmes asked members of the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition during their annual convention in early December. His question wasn’t merely rhetorical. Holmes had asked himself the same question a thousand times, but answers remained elusive. When it finally arrived, the answer was so unorthodox and unconventional that it forced him to question everything he had learned or been taught. It was also wildly successful. For simplicity he called his method “thinking outside the box,” though he preferred the phrase, creating a new paradigm.
Holmes’ paradigm envisioned a system where the most important animals on the farm weren’t cows or sheep or pigs but microorganisms in the soil, where farmers could stop buying herbicides and pesticides and expensive farm equipment and turn those expenditures into profit, where the fatted calf would lie down beside the equally fatted pig or sheep or goat (or chicken, for that matter), where farmers and ranchers would at last realize that what they produced wasn’t animals or plants or produce, but sunshine, and all of it, every acre and paddock and spring and perennial creek latticed with high tensile electrical wire—not to restrict, but to herd.
More than an archetype, his paradigm was supported by proven, reproducible examples and fueled by desperation. Like a great many other farmers and ranchers, he arrived at a crossroads where profit didn’t exceed expenses, where his dreams of becoming a successful livestock producer teetered on the brink of financial failure. The math just didn’t add up, he said, and he blamed it squarely on himself.
The problem was, it wasn’t working for a lot of other farmers, either. In his dairy state, farmers were getting out by the droves. It wasn’t because they didn’t like farming, Holmes said, but because they didn’t like losing money.
“We’re at a place in agriculture where nobody’s making money,” he said. “We’ve been taught that bigger is better—a 1,500-pound cow is better than an 800-pound cow—but it’s not true. We’ve created an enormous infrastructure for people to make money, yet farm profits have fallen dramatically. We went in the wrong direction.”
And then he heard of Allan Savory. During the 1960s while researching degradation and desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems, Savory designed what he called a “holistic” approach to grassland management. Savory is now president and founder of the Savory Institute, and was awarded the Banksia International Award for global environmental work.
It didn’t pass the sniff test. If anything, Holmes thought, it sounded like a religious cult. But the more he read Savory’s writings, the more he understood that the reason he was losing money wasn’t because the business was inherently unprofitable but because he was doing everything backward.
“It was an epiphany,” he said. “It opened my eyes, and since then they keep opening wider and wider. Savory showed me something the universe wouldn’t dream of showing me.”
In a nutshell, he said, there are three forms of money: mineral, solar and paper. Mineral dollars—moving livestock around with their inevitable byproducts adding carbon to the soil—is a resource that can used without depletion. Solar dollars equate to photosynthesis—grass and plants as solar collectors—thus infinitely renewable. Paper dollars, based on human creativity and financial transactions, are utterly unstable. “If we start using paper dollars before the other two,” he said, “we’re in trouble.”
When Holmes focused more on the first two types of money, the third followed close behind. But shifting into the holistic approach required a complete turnaround in thinking, not just about the traditional livestock business model but in the type of animals required to capture more mineral and solar dollars.
“Cowboys were always taught to hate sheep,” he said, “But adding sheep to the mix isn’t competition, it’s complementary.” They also produce twice as many offspring as cows in half the time.
The introduction of goats cleared unwanted weeds and forbs better than any herbicide, and their feces and urine helped fertilize the soil. He then added pigs and chickens to the herd. He chose multiple species, not because he thought they were cute, but because the farm needed them to eat different types of vegetation, he said.
He segregated his 1,100-acre ranch into 150 different paddocks, each bordered with temporary electrical fence. The herd is kept together as one mass and rotated from pasture to paddock each day. It sounds like a lot of work but isn’t.
“It’s the most important job done every single day,” he said, “and it takes about eight minutes. We give them about an acre or an acre and a half. People think the most important thing we’re doing is feeding our cattle. Actually, it’s the least important.”
The cattle (plus the rest of the menagerie) trample down about 70 percent of the grass, but they only eat about 30 percent of it, he said. And they poop all over the place, he added, thereby creating an extremely rich nutrient bed filled with microorganisms and dung beetles.
“The goal is to maximize forage production,” he said. “In spring when grass is growing fast, we move fast, and when grass is growing slow, we move slow. Why would we want to slow the cattle down? To let the land rest. These are basic things, we all know them.”
Rotational grazing, he said, is much more beneficial than burning. “In all these years, I’ve never seen a situation where burning was effective,” he said. “Moving animals through these paddocks will do what burning is supposed to do, but it will increase microorganisms instead of kill them.”
The change in his pastures has been staggering, he said. He has identified 97 different species of edible plants in his paddocks, and not one of them was planted.
“When we improve the density of forage, the more plants we get per acre,” he said. “I only have one thing for sale: sunshine. The more sunshine I can collect, the more potential income I can collect.”
Not only is it regenerating his soil and his ranch, he said, he’s able to run three to four times more cattle than the state average, and he’s nowhere near capacity yet.
Holmes uses interns throughout the year, housing them in old farmhouses while teaching them the trade. Most are young people or young families who want to leave the city or return to farming, he said. The interns serve two functions—they solve labor problems during peak seasons, and they learn sustainable farming methods that could be replicated with a few acres and a small number of livestock or vegetable crops. It’s also a way for retiring farmers to mentor beginning farmers, or possibly even take over their operations.
“This can put a lot of people back on the farms,” he said. “I think we need six million more farmers right now.”
Holmes has successfully marketed his ranch as an agribusiness and has now branched off into a food hub supplying 30 grocery stores plus home delivery from his 10 acres of organic fruits and vegetables. Learning the business side hasn’t been easy, he said, but it has been necessary, and it’s one reason why so many farms and ranches fail.
“We have to learn how to farm again, and how to be businessmen and businesswomen,” Holmes said. “Most of us don’t have experience running a company. I’m learning every single day. Don’t give up, no matter how hard it is.”
His first piece of advice: Remember the three R’s: try to never buy things that rust, rot or cannot reproduce. “We have to think seriously before signing on the dotted line,” he said. “It’s good for the John Deere dealer, not so good for us.”
Taken together in a whole, Holmes’ new paradigm is Savory’s holistic management writ large upon the rocky Missouri soil. The system can work for anyone, he said, but the results won’t happen overnight. Patience, planning and determination are needed, but more important is a complete change in thinking.
“We have to change the system,” Holmes said. “We have to move away from monoculture and industrial agriculture. Consumers aren’t waiting—they’re demanding that farmers pull up their bootstraps and stop providing stuff they don’t want. Put on your overalls and look for the opportunity.”