By Lori Leonard Reyman
DTN/The Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
Jack and Beverly Sparrowks' California cattle operation is a perfect example of how it's not only possible, but practical, to protect land while profiting from it.
"This is a really pretty area and a very productive agricultural region," Beverly Sparrowk said. But this normally lush territory has suffered since 2011, often under a D4, or "exceptional" drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor's most intense ranking. For Beverly and husband, Jack, a consistent supply of water and green feed are their chief concerns.
"Some of what we do seems to fall into the category of conservation. In reality, it's also good business practice," Jack said. "It would be difficult to be successful in ranching for long without practicing conservation. We're in the cattle business, it's what we do; taking care of the resources we use is just part of our business."
The Sparrowks live near Clements, California, and lease about 28,000 acres of rolling grassland in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They also lease a ranch near San Francisco and own ranches in the Sierra Valley and southern Oregon. For the most part, their Angus and Angus-cross cows graze in California in the winter months and go north to Oregon for the summer.
The Sparrowks were regional winners of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP). Neither come from a ranching family. Jack has been in the cattle business since 1964, when he graduated from California Polytechnic State University and started trading cattle on the Mexican border. Beverly grew up in Colorado, attended LaMar Community College and loved horses as a girl. "My sisters and I had to beg and plead with our parents to let us buy a horse," she recalled. "We had to pay for her ourselves -- $100."
With the benefit of lessons Jack learned from Phil Stadtler, the legendary cattle trader on the border, and the tips Beverly gained from a creek-management seminar at an NCBA meeting years ago, Sparrowk Livestock today is a highly successful working ranch paired with a strong conservation ethic.
RESTORATION AND HABITAT
With the assistance of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) plus other private and public programs, the family installed rock check dams and re-established willows along 10 miles of one stream. They joined programs to control the invasive juniper, a serious threat to native grasses and wildlife. Grazing areas have been deferred for nesting ground birds. And off-stream water systems are filled by solar-powered pumps.
The creek-restoration seminar Beverly attended spurred her to take steps to reverse the degradation she saw on their own creeks. "I went home after the conference and started looking at our creeks, and thought, wow, there's a lot we could do here. We started out on the Oregon ranch," she recounted.
"We started trying to do some things with grazing management," she said. "We created pastures so the cattle could be on the creek seasonally and then be off of it to protect the banks. And we've planted willows, a lot of willows."
As a result of the changes, water quality and quantity improved, Beverly explained. "The streams, instead of being deep and wide streams, are beginning to become deep, narrow streams. But not deep banks. That's our goal."
Murphy Creek runs through the home ranch in California. Years ago, the salmon would run up that creek, but a dam on Sparrowk land, uncontrolled Himalayan blackberry bushes and sedimentation all along the stream choked off the salmon run.
"We didn't know how to fix it, but we worked with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, and they knew," Beverly said.
Before anything could be done, though, neighbors along Murphy Creek would need to be involved. Intent on making sure the fish passage-improvement project moved forward, Beverly went to work.
"We invited all the landowners over for dinner and talked about the creek, and it turned into a major project," she said.
The Sparrowks removed the dam on their ranch, and several entities -- including the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the CALFED Watershed Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation -- worked with the landowners to restore the spawning and rearing habitat for the salmon. The project enhanced riparian (stream bank) vegetation for the benefit of migrant songbirds, and it improved waterflow.
The Sparrowks have also put conservation easements on two of their ranches. "When we put the easement on the Sierra Valley ranch, that was the first major conservation easement on a big ranch there, and it inspired quite a few of the neighbors to put conservation easements on their ranches," Beverly said.
The Sierra Valley is historic ranch country, but because of its proximity to Reno, Nevada, many larger ranches are being broken up and developed into ranchettes of 5 to 40 acres. "We didn't want to see the ranch broken up, so we sold the development rights and put a conservation easement on it," Beverly explained. Two years later, they also put a conservation easement on their Oregon ranch, not because it was threatened by development but for environmental reasons. Through their work, 24,500 acres are now protected.
"There wasn't a lot of development pressure on the Oregon ranch, but there were a lot of unique conservation values, including threatened species like lampreys (jawless fish). That was the first conservation easement held by the [Northwest] Rangeland Trust," Beverly said. The Sparrowks are quick to point out theirs is just one operation among many devoted to conserving ranch resources.
"Most ranchers today look at their land and try to figure out what's best for the operation and the environment, and what they can do to improve things and enhance wildlife habitat," Beverly added. "There are so many tools available, and most ranchers have a relationship with their local NRCS and get involved in various programs and cost-shares that are available."
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