Tolani Lake ranchers turn to grass farming

TOLANI LAKE, Ariz. — A dozen members of the Tolani Lake Livestock and Water Users Association are starting to think of themselves more as grass farmers than cattle ranchers.

Ranchers recognize that the heart of a successful livestock operation is the health of their range, especially under persistent challenges of drought and a warming climate.

Over a hot weekend in late-August, the Tolani Lake Livestock and Water Users Association hosted back-to-back workshops in Tolani Lake, Arizona, to share with local ranchers about cattle nutrition and evaluating range conditions.

On the first day of the workshop, ranchers learned how to evaluate range condition by measuring ground cover and available forage. The second day covered the basics of cattle nutrition including tips for supplementing the nutrients typically missing in this Tolani Lake area of the Navajo Nation.

The workshops are part of an ongoing series supported by First Nations Development Institute, a national NGO working for healthy Native American communities. First Nations partnered with the association in 2017, and provided its most recent $20,000 grant to support the current workshop series on range health best practices and cattle nutrition plus grass-fed beef certification for local ranches, and an educational tour of the University of Arizona Food Products Lab to learn essentials of producing quality beef for market.

Over the past decade, the Association has worked on water development and has developing a water system that supplements an increasingly scarce surface water supplies across the region. They are expanding the system as they go – the system currently pumps well water from Leupp, Arizona to serve 14 area ranches through roughly 40 miles of waterline.

The Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) has been an essential partner on the water side of their work.

Felix Nez, NRCS District Conservationist, out of Holbrook has worked closely with regional producers and chapters to develop needed conservation plans that allow producers to access NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding and technical resources to design and build these projects.

The mission of NRCS is to help producers conserve natural resources as they improve their operations, so the water system is a perfect fit. Ranchers use water as a management tool to move their herds, turning sources on and off to distribute grazing where forage is available and away from areas that need rest.

With the help of strategic partners Tolani Lake ranchers are making the best of the challenges that many ranchers are facing across Navajo Nation. Turning their eyes first to the water and then the grass is the way this group of ranchers is adapting to current challenges and a changing future.

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