For the past several years my husband Mark and I have been “developing a Devon herd of cattle”, if we were to speak in marketing terms. But to what end?

Beautiful deep, red cattle, gentle, needing little feed to stay fat and healthy, they are pleasurable to observe in the field. Yes, they are an ancient breed, and we can pride ourselves on preserving the treasure of former cattle breeders in continuing to breed Devon. However, sooner or later, these lovely Devon will seriously over-populate our ranch if left to breed as they wish. They will overgraze the land, many will starve, males will be injured in battles over increasingly smaller territory, females will fail to reproduce due to lack of adequate feed, and after a large die-off, the cycle will start again.

In the meantime, the lack of available foodstuffs due to too many cattle will negatively affect all the wild animals which also live on this ranch, and currently coexist with our herd. Sandhill cranes would leave, since the ponds and streambanks will be trampled by cattle, and no grass will remain tall enough to hide their young. Kildeer, experts at nesting even in working corrals visited frequently by cattle, might remain. Eagles, good at scavenging afterbirths during calving, might continue to visit, but since the cattle would eat all the grasses and willows on the stream in their search for food, few fish would remain in the sun heated water in other times of the year. Beavers, competitors with cattle for willows and streamside vegetation, would lose. Gophers, badgers, jackrabbits and coyotes? They might survive up to a point, until there was no grass left, then a large die-off of everything would restart the clock, leaving room for new “colonists” from more fertile lands. The table of smaller animals and plants would continue in much the same manner, eat, be eaten, reproduce or not, continue or not.

What ties all these beings together inseparably, along with the human “managers”? (Or rightly, Nature the manager.) The need to eat on a daily basis.

So, back to the Devon. In order for our current system to maintain even a semblance of balance, we humans must direct the number of the cattle, and to do that sustainably we must either pass the problem of overpopulation on to someone else, or take responsibility for the herd ourselves.

Mark and I have taken the latter direction, and, like more and more ranchers around the country, take responsibility for our herd from pre-conception to the final pound of burger from a carcass. “The industrialization of agriculture, by concentration and separation, overthrows the restraints inherent in the diversity and balance of healthy ecosystems and farms.” (Bringing It to the Table,Wendell Berry, 2009). In taking on this commitment, we find daily that a view of the whole- the ranch, its wildlife, its plant and soil communities, its cattle, must be ever present in our decision making.

Difficult? Yes. Rewarding? Also yes. For, in taking on a cattle herd, Mark and I, along with our two young sons Riley and Kiril, are taking on a deep responsibility for many, many lives. We must consider not only our own livelihood, but that of the wild inhabitants, of our cattle, and of every person or animal who eats the meat we produce.

At no point can we pass off responsibility to someone else. Not to leasors of our pasture who might overgraze in an effort to gain maximum production for their cattle in a given year. Not to a cattle buyer who missed the infected foot on the steer, but bought him anyway and passed him on. Not to the meat inspector, or the butcher, who missed the diseased liver (as the filter for the body, a liver “tells all” about an animal’s health) and passed the animal on into frozen packages of beef. Not to the grocery store who let the meat thaw, refroze it, and sold it as fresh. Every step of the way is ours, every potential mistake is ours. We live within “the restraints inherent in the diversity and balance of healthy ecosystems and farms.”

In a culture filled with irresponsibility towards Nature and self, this choice of life for our family often seems constricting. It’s difficult to leave for the impromptu day or week or month of vacation. Sleeping in on a Saturday seldom exists. We can’t be rude to a customer if we did not sleep well the night before because of worrying about the seemingly infinite list of spring chores, or the newly weaned calves that mooed all night, or the eagle that just ate our favorite laying hen. Yet, as we open our home and our lives to more and more new friends, as we include young people in our operation, we are reminded of the importance of our ranch, and of farming in general.

We are producing food, and everyone must eat food to exist.

Our ranch is home to a broader variety of animals (and more individuals) than lived here when we started. Our fields are improving in soil life, and in the diversity of perennial species that feed our cattle and the wildlife here. Our cattle live their lives within a family structure, uncrowded and foraging for themselves, spending only the last hour in a trailer on the way to the butcher and a quick passing. We are increasing the sustainably raised, Montana grown, genetic pool of cattle for other ranchers to access as fuel prices rise, and sustainability becomes a true issue of national daily concern. We provide flavorful, healthy food for ourselves and our community. Eaters of our beef come back, wanting more.

Animals, ranch, community, gain health from a system such as this one, and the best part is that this system is fully reproducible. Every family farmer provides these same services. Farmers provide the fullest available connection to the land, a connection which services conservatives, liberals, agnostics, the deeply religious, the young and the old. When we eat from our land, the land is in us and of us, and we are part of it, and at our end we can feed it again.

Do we each Know our Farmer?