The Elzinga Family have been raising grass fed cattle on Alderspring Ranch in the Pahsimeroi Valley of east central Idaho for over two decades. Through holistic and intensive grazing management practices they are regenerating their grazing land while producing healthy, high-quality beef. We caught up with the Elzinga's to learn more about their landscape, grazing practices and their Certified Organic and grass fed beef.
How did you get to where you are today? What’s your background, education, work experience in relation to food?
We both started as ecologists. Caryl earned a M.S. and a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on community plant ecology in wetland and riparian systems, and later worked in the natural range land and riparian systems of east central Idaho, first as a botanist/ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management and then in her own firm as a contracting ecologist. Glenn has a B.S. in Forestry and worked for the Forest Service and BLM as a forester for several years.
Over two decades ago, we decided to quit our steady 9-5’s and go into ranching thanks to a shared love for land and animals and desire to raise our seven daughters with those same values.
As the ranch has grown, so has our vision for wellness that goes beyond just cattle and land. For us, wellness describes the optimum functionality and connectivity of a web of life that starts with living soils and ends with the people that ultimately consume our beef. Today, we believe that grazing animals are critical parts of a working system, and that they must be brought back into agriculture if food is to continue to provide wellness.
Please provide a brief description of the ranch (acreage, landscape type, how long you’ve been in business, how many cattle, other animals):
Alderspring Ranch is located in the mountains of east central Idaho. The ranch consists of 1,700 acres of pasture in the Pahsimeroi Valley ,and a 46,000-acre rangeland allotment located on BLM and Forest Service land in the nearby mountains. In 2005, we certified the entire rangeland allotment as organic, making it currently the largest contiguous certified organic area in the continental U.S.
We currently graze about 600 head of cattle on the ranch (during the winter, we feed them hay), as well as a few too many horses (25 last we checked). There are also 5 dogs running around that are varying levels of useless, but we love them anyway!
How do you raise your cattle?
We raise and finish our cattle completely on grass on our organic pastures, both on the range and on the home ranch. They spend their whole lives on pasture, except when we take them into the corrals for a few hours to sort off finished animals every now and then. We practice “low stress stockmanship,” a form of cattle handling that involves working with the animals as quietly as possible and in a way that reduces any potential stress.
Tell us more about why you choose to produce 100% grass-fed and certified organic beef?
We were one of the early adopters of grass fed. On our initial website, we had to spend a lot of time educating customers on the benefits of grass fed. We believe that grass fed and organic husbandry of animals produces the best beef for the health of our customers while also restoring and regenerating lands. We chose to become certified as organic in 2005 because we were already practicing most of the attributes required in the organic certification. The standards for an organic certification matched our philosophy of husbandry and regenerative stewardship, and it seemed to be a logical next step to take.
You’ve used holistic grazing to improve the soil quality on your home ranch. Can you describe that process and how it promotes soil and ecosystem health?
A humble attitude and a desire to practice biomimicry of nature is foundational to holistic grazing. That has proven key to success below ground as well as above.
For us, holistic grazing encompasses 3 key principles. The first is to always maintain 100% plant cover even after a grazing event. This means leaving behind a lot more grass than is typical and recognizing that those leftovers are not wasted but are used to feed your soil.
The second principle is to change up your grazing timing and duration. This encourages diversity in permanent pastures rather than monocultures. For example, some plants are more susceptible to grazing at different times during the summer. If you always graze the same pasture at the same time for the same amount of time, you encourage monocultures because just a few plants will succeed under those conditions while others fail. By changing up timing and duration, you allow a greater diversity of plants to succeed.
The third principle is to recognize grazers (in our case, cattle) as nutrient cyclers. This means that you want to distribute manure that is produced by cattle in a way that benefits the plants. For example, when we feed hay in the winter, we select areas to feed where we believe additional nutrients are needed. The cattle gather by the hay and deposit manure there, and the leftover hay also serves to increase soil organic matter.
By using these practices, we have improved biodiversity below ground as well, and in the past 10 years have increased soil organic matter from 2% to nearly 7%. This in turn results in increased plant productivity, increased water retention (a huge benefit in our arid climate), and reduced irrigation costs.
You value biodiversity in your operation, can you expand on that principle?
We see ourselves and our cattle as part of a wild and intact ecosystem. By working with nature’s systems through controlled grazing, all the pieces of biodiversity begin to regenerate. For instance, with our 98% reduction in riparian use on our rangeland, we have seen beavers reappear on the landscape. When they recolonize, every piece of the ecosystem reboots and benefits. In short, by promoting biodiversity through controlled grazing, we can improve landscape resilience against disturbances.
Alderspring holds grazing allotments on public lands, what has the operation done to restore degraded riparian areas on these public lands?
Given our backgrounds in ecology, when we started grazing this allotment 15 years ago, our goal was to find a way to improve and restore the degraded areas of our rangeland. That process was much more challenging than we initially thought! When we first started, we would turn our cattle out in the spring and then day ride several days a week, herding them out of riparian zones and into the uplands. It simply wasn’t enough. After we left them, the cattle would gravitate—literally—back to the riparian zones, where we would dig them out again when we came back a few days later.
It wasn’t until we completely shifted our paradigm that we began to see results. Seven years ago, we started practicing “inherding,” a grazing methodology that connects regenerative grazing practices with ancient shepherding techniques. We simply live with our cattle on this landscape, 24/7, for the duration of the summer. Each day, a crew of “conservation riders” herds the cattle to the best grass while completely avoiding riparian areas or other key ecological areas. We water at tanks instead of in riparian areas so that we further avoid any riparian impacts. Any riparian impacts we have are impacts that we allow, either in carefully selected crossing zones or in areas that we choose to graze to mitigate weeds or to see if light grazing would benefit certain areas.
As a result, the vegetation and wildlife in our riparian areas has already shown massive regeneration (most of our data shows that plantlife has at least doubled in most areas). We are excited about the results of inherding so far and look forward to continued improvement in the coming years.
You graze over a large footprint, almost 48,000 acres. How do you manage interactions with predators?
In 2014, we lost 14 of our animals to wolf predation, despite riding 30-mile circles up to 5 days a week. After that discouraging summer, we reevaluated how we were approaching grazing in the high country. We had to find a way to coexist with our large canid neighbors.
We implemented the unique intensive grazing management model that we now call “inherding” in 2015, partly as a nonlethal means to restore our relationship with the large predators that make their home on the range. Our other goal, as we mentioned above, was to heal the land from a long history of mismanaged grazing.
With the inherding paradigm, range riding crews continually herd the cattle across the landscape. At night, cattle are penned near our camp where close human proximity serves as a deterrent to predators. Unlike in grazing seasons prior to 2015, cattle are never left to wander unsupervised; they are guided as a unified herd to predetermined grazing locations by range riders.
In the six seasons we have been practicing inherding, we have not lost a single animal to large predators. Continual human presence has proven an effective nonlethal deterrent to predation on our allotment.
What are your biggest challenges as a food producer in central Idaho?
There are three major difficulties that come to mind that we have always struggled with.
First, our remote location has always made it a challenge to connect with customers in person and to deliver our beef to them. Idaho Falls is 3 hours away from us and most would consider it small by city standards. Especially back when we began direct marketing our beef, there were very few people in Idaho who were willing or even able to pay more for grass fed beef. As a result, we had to find customers much further from home. We first started shipping our beef nationwide sixteen years ago to access a greater customer base. We’ve been shipping ever since. Though we have always been passionate about serving our local markets first, selling only locally simply hasn’t been a feasible option for us to due to our remote location.
The second challenge of living so remotely is the landscape itself. Our rangeland allotment borders the Frank Church River of No Return, the largest single wilderness area in the lower 48. The country we herd our cattle in is steep, rocky, and difficult to navigate. Directing the unified movement of several hundred head of cattle becomes challenging in tight canyons. We’ve learned over the years that it’s important to read the landscape, to look at a hillside and imagine how a herd of cattle might move over it. It is nearly impossible to push a group of cattle straight up or down a hill. The job becomes easier if you can work with the flow of the land and predict how animals move across it.
The third biggest challenge of raising beef here in central Idaho is the climate. We have a relatively short growing season and a long winter. It is rare that we manage to get in two hay crops while still growing enough winter stockpile grass. We’ve managed to hack this to a point by improving our soil productivity and grazing our cattle on the range so that the home pastures can be used to grow hay each summer. But it is still a challenge we contend with each year and is simply a part of living in this area.
Why is it so important for our community to support local farms and ranches?
As we mentioned before, 27 years ago there was no local market. If someone wasn’t able to sell online or ship as we did, it was difficult to survive as a small local producer. Recently, we are seeing a shift back towards buying from small scale and local producers. This is exciting because of the positive benefits of small-scale agriculture for the local economy and environment.
What change(s) would you like to see in central Idaho in terms of food?
We hope to see folks continue to reconnect with where their food comes from. In many ways, we are fortunate to be living in an age where it is possible for farmers and ranchers to direct market their products and connect with their customers online. The recent food insecurity associated with the pandemic was a wakeup call for producers and consumers alike. As a result, we have been observing an incredible movement in the past year as many small producers transition to direct-to-consumer business models, understanding the need for customers to have a reliable food source.
Although our hope is that the effects of the pandemic lessen in the coming year, we would like to see continued decentralization of our food system, with small producers marketing to a local customer base. There is still much to learn in this process of reconnecting consumers to producers, but the changes we have seen are very encouraging.
What do you love most about being a rancher?
We love the interconnectedness of ranching. We see how careful stewardship has a ripple effect across the entire system. As we have regenerated our land and our soils, we have seen an explosion in the diversity of forage we are able to grow. Our cattle assimilate the nutrients found in this diverse selection of forage, which makes them happy and healthy. And finally, prioritizing the wellbeing of our animals makes for better beef, nourishing the customers that depend on us for a source of protein they can trust.
Who are your food heroes?
Our customers are our food heroes! Some have been with us since the very beginning over 20 years ago, when we were selling our beef every weekend at the Boise Farmers Market. They have become our friends and our partners, and we literally would not be here on Alderspring Ranch without them. It is only with the support of people like our customers who have made the choice to “vote with their dollars” that small-scale producers like us exist at all.
What’s your favorite meal featuring Alderspring Beef?
We are going to have to go two different directions on this. Glenn loves a nice ribeye steak fried in butter in a cast iron skillet. For Caryl, it has always been the chuck roast, a hallmark of flavor and tenderness when broken down for several hours in the slow cooker. You can find recipes for both on our cooking blog, Meathacker (https://www.alderspring.com/meathacker/).
Where can people find your products?
They can shop online anytime at www.shopalderspring.com. Because we are a small business and only sell what we have finished right here on the ranch, we have limited stock in some items, especially steaks and our specialty products like chicken, lamb, and pork. We also offer our beef through Atkinsons Market (Hailey and Ketchum locations) and the Boise Co-op (Village and Downtown locations). Folks can also learn more about the ranch and our family by visiting our Instagram @alderspring_ranch and our Facebook page (Alderspring Ranch Grassfed Organic Beef) or by reading our main blog, Organic Beef Matters (https://www.alderspring.com/organic-beef-matters/).