In the 1980s, dolphin-safe tuna went from being a novel concept to an accepted practice in just a few years. Could predator-friendly beef be next?
Some Southwestern ranchers are asking that question. Among them is Will Holder, owner of Ervin’s Grassfed Beef. He ranches near Eagle Creek, Ariz., with his wife, Jan, and his two sons, Cleve and Clayton.
Before he arrived at that question, Mr. Holder had a change of heart about predators, which he can trace to a particular moment. Growing up on a ranch, he had learned early on to shoot any coyotes and lions he could. Then about 10 years ago, he was driving with a friend when a coyote crossed the road. Guns in hand, they leapt from the truck. Then it happened.
“It occurred to me that my great-grandfather had been doing this, my grandfather had been doing this, my father had been doing this, and now I was doing it,” Mr. Holder says. “But the coyotes are still here. And it’s a lot of fun, but it’s silly. It’s not an effective use of my time as a rancher.”
That realization started Mr. Holder on “a long learning curve”—he found out all he could about predators and their habits. “I’d talk to someone, then go out and watch. The animals will tell you what’s real and what’s not.”
What’s worked best for him—and he adds that he’s still figuring it out—is herding his cattle day by day and simply moving them away from predators. “If I see a lion track, I take the herd two ridges over. I just wait until the lion moves on. If I get real worried, I go out and stay with them. When you spend enough time with your cattle, you can sense when they’re nervous.” Keeping them bunched seems to be advantageous, too. “I’ve read it’s easier for a wolf to look at a couple of animals than 200,” he says.
He went from about 12 kills per year to four years with none. The added benefit has been increased utilization. “You can drive them to places they usually don’t go. Now we are increasing the size of our ranch by 50 percent.”
His meat company’s pledge is co-existence with predators. “Because of the dynamics of dealing with nature, we can’t just say, ‘We won’t kill predators,’” Mr. Holder says. “We’ll do everything we can to avoid getting into the situation to begin with, but if an animal is acting deviant or rabid, we’ll kill it. Coexisting means we have to exist, too.” In five years, none of the ranchers involved in Ervin’s has shot a predator.
Predator-friendly hasn’t yet taken hold like dolphin-safe tuna. “The problem is that predator-friendly sounds great, and people love to hear it, but it seems like people are so disconnected from the food chain, they don’t understand the predator-friendly concept. There’s a big learning curve for them.”
He hopes the necessary public education will take place, for the sake of all U.S. agriculture. “We can educate consumers that there’s more to U.S. agriculture than cheap food,” he says. “My deepest fear is that in 20 years, all our food will be coming out of Third World countries because producers here can’t keep up with inflation.”
That fear is part of his motivation to grow his company beyond his own family operation. He hopes to find operating capital to expand and sees an opportunity for other family ranchers: his organic, grass-fed carcasses earn about $400 better than the average and he can’t keep up with orders.
Perhaps that, and the realization that predators are here to stay, has tempered criticisms. “At first, people thought we had some weird philosophy, that we were out running naked with wolves,” Mr. Holder says. “Attitudes have changed a bit. Now they understand better—we just had to deal with predators.”