On the Hutchinson Organic Ranch, a healthy environment means healthy meat

Nebraska’s Sandhills are one of the country’s most fragile ecosystems. The remnants of large wind-blown sand dunes, the rolling hills are covered in a broad assortment of perennial grasses. With roots stretching as deep as 13 feet, the grasses anchor the dunes in place, creating an enchanted land of wildlife, natural springs, and bird life. Underneath it all, the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest underground water repositories in the world, feeds surface lakes, ponds, and flowing streams. Centuries ago, the sandhills were home to massive herds of bison, but today, it’s mostly cattle filling the role of large ruminants who graze, trample, and fertilize the grasslands. 

The Hutchinson family ranches in the Nebraska Sandhills, known for their perennial grasses that stabilize the ancient sand dunes and make excellent grazing land for cattle. (Photo courtesy Dave Hutchinson)

David Hutchinson and his family own one of the many ranches dotting the Sandhills. A member of the Panorama network almost since its beginning, Hutchinson, with his wife Sue, daughter Sarah Drenth, her husband Jared, and daughters Lexi and Stella, raises grass-fed and organic cattle, bison, goats, and sheep, along with chickens and even bees in a diverse ecosystem on 5,000 acres of organic pastures. For more than 40 years since the Hutchinsons bought the place, the grasslands on the ranch have never been irrigated, fertilized, or treated with any other chemicals. Hutchinson says it’s all about health – of the soil, the grasses, the water, the meat, and the people who live there. 

“It’s our lifestyle. We believe in it,” says Hutchinson. “We’ve learned along the way to improve things. It’s been quite a long journey. But we knew that it was healthy for you and healthy for the environment. We have more wildlife here than most places just because of the grass and the organic part of it.”

The Hutchinson family: Granddaughters Lexi and Stella, son-in-law Jared Drenth, daughter Sarah, and Dave and Sue Hutchinson. (Photo Wyatt DeVries)

Hutchinson is also a firm believer in the health benefits of grass-fed meat, with its conjugated linoleic acid, iron, Vitamin E, and other nutrients. In the past, he’s worked with Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston Price Foundation and best-selling author and journalist Jo Robinson to spread the word. But health is only part of it. “Not only is it healthy for you, but it tastes better, too,” says daughter Sarah Drenth. Hutchinson adds, “Our family motto is if it’s not grass-fed, it’s not gourmet.”

To keep the grasslands healthy and thriving, Hutchinson actively manages the herds. “We move them from one place to another every three to five days,” he says. “When you do that, it allows those roots to develop down to 13 feet.” With the high water table, the deep roots allow the plants to weather a lack of rain for days or weeks at a time. When moving the animals, he uses low stress management to keep them healthy. “When you take your time to do things, it always works out better for the animals—and for people, too.”

The family is happy to join Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Program. “The Audubon Society, they understand that you need that cycle of the hoofprint to break up the soil and keep the grass healthy, and then as the cattle eat the grass and produce manure, that fertilizes the soil. In other words, if you don’t have any cattle, you won’t have any wildlife,” says Hutchinson.

Drenth adds, “The birds are right there with our cattle and they move with them. They’re wild birds—we didn’t put them there.” The birds include pheasant, turkeys, eagles, and a wide variety of native songbirds. Because it’s on the Central Flyway, migratory birds like sandhill cranes and even whooping cranes sometimes make an appearance.

Panorama General Manager Kay Cornelius, Marshall Johnson of Audubon’s Conservation Ranching, and Dave Hutchinson admire the cattle on an early spring day. (Photo Wyatt DeVries)

As much of an idyllic paradise as Hutchinson’s ranch appears, the Sandhills themselves are facing increasing pressure from outside interests. Crop farming that sucks the aquifer dry, creates polluting chemical run-off, and destroys the precarious surface of the soil has become more common with the advent of center pivot irrigation. But possibly the biggest threat currently is that of wind farms and power transmission lines. 

“The utility company, they want to come in and ruin everything,” says Hutchinson. “If you take a big truck and come through the Sandhills, that footprint will be there for a hundred years. It’s very fragile, and they don’t understand that.” While the wind farm won’t be on his ranch, it will be close enough to cause concern, especially with the potential negative impact on the 17 artesian springs on the ranch. “We believe in the Sandhills,” he says, “so we’ve been fighting this. We want to keep the Sandhills pure for everybody.”

While keeping the Sandhills in their pristine state is critical, preserving the ranch is important, too. Drenth says she hopes they can keep it viable for her daughters. “The kids like it here, and they help out quite a bit.” With hard work and perseverance, the Hutchinsons stand a good chance of passing the ranch down through generations—cattle, bison, birds and all.

No Cows, No Grass, No Birds

How Panorama Organic and the National Audubon Society Are Working Together to Save All Three

Kay Cornelius, general manager of Panorama Organic, rancher Dave Hutchinson, and Marshall Johnson of Audubon Conservation Ranching visit Hutchinson’s Nebraska ranch in March, 2021.

What does a grazing cow have in common with a Western Meadowlark? Both the cow and the bird inhabit the  grasslands and prairies of the Western U.S., land that’s under assault from rampant development and the quest to create more farmland for row crops—among them corn, soy, field peas, and wheat. Grasslands are disappearing at the rate of more than a million acres a year, and that’s one reason Panorama Organic has joined the National  Audubon Society’s Conservation Ranching initiative. Soon, consumers all over the country will be able to find Audubon’s “Grazed on Bird Friendly Land” seal on packages of Panorama’s organic, grass-fed beef.

For 115 years, Audubon has been the voice for birds in the Western hemisphere. “We have an obligation to be innovative, to be open minded, and to always lead with science as it relates to the protection of birds,” says Marshall Johnson, vice-president of Conservation Ranching at Audubon. “Over the last 40 years, there has been no more imperiled species of birds than grassland birds, those songbirds found on rangelands, pastures, and grasslands throughout the United States. We recognized early on that partnership between Audubon and ranchers was mission critical to saving them.” 

According to Johnson, Western Meadowlark populations have declined by 57 percent since the 1970s, and other grassland species like Chestnut-Collared Longspurs, Bobolinks, and Dickcissels are also imperiled. He says the current trend toward plant-based diets and alternative meats is a destructive one for habitats. “Grasslands are being converted to support the growing popularity of plant-based diets, and we need balance. Well-managed ranches are the ultimate solution, not plowing up grassland and putting plants in their place.” 

Johnson points out that more than 90 percent of grassland birds live on cattle ranches. “We have a pretty simple kind of approach,” he says. “No cows, no grass, no birds.”

The fit between Panorama Organic and the National Audubon Society is a natural one. “There’s so much values alignment between how Audubon is going about this program and how Panorama has sustained and grown its brand and its following over the years,” says Johnson. “So bringing these two brands, approaches, and networks together really has been, from the outset, a win-win situation.” 

But why do birds matter, especially to ranchers? It’s all about a healthy ecosystem. “It’s a cascade effect,” says Johnson. “Birds go silent, and that’s an indication that we’re losing pollinators. That also says much about wildlife and biodiversity, as well as soil health. When we lose grasslands, we diminish the ability of soils to function at their highest ability. We release carbon out of the soils and into the atmosphere and we also degrade the ability of the soils to sequester, filter, and discharge water, as well as to recharge our aquifers, rivers, and streams. So birds are great indicator species of the bigger calamity that we’re in the midst of.”

Panorama Organic’s network of 34 ranches manages about a million acres across the Western U.S., all of it organic.  Land conservation has always been a cornerstone of the company’s philosophy. In addition to the already-stringent USDA Organic and Global Animal Partnership Step 4 animal welfare standards by which Panorama Organic ranchers operate, as part of the Audubon program each ranch will be following a specific habitat management plan developed in consultation with an Audubon rangeland ecologist. That plan includes protocols meant to enhance soil quality; increase species diversity in terms of the plant life that benefits pollinators, like bees and butterflies; and to  restore habitat for grassland birds and other animals. 

When a consumer sees the bird-friendly seal on a package of Panorama Organic meat, what does it mean? “When I think about the seal and what we’re wanting to communicate with it,” says Johnson, “it’s that not only were these practices and standards met, but a third-party verification through Food Alliance ensures that the standards and the expectations were met.” For the 48 million bird lovers in the U.S., buying Panorama Organic meat with the National Audubon Society’s seal allows them to use their purchasing power to vote their consciences and to support ranchers committed to not only supplying quality products, but to regenerating habitat for wildlife and restoring ecosystems, as well. 

Johnson says the National Audubon Society is proud to lend its name to livestock practices that sustain and restore habitat. “The Audubon brand has stood for environmental and eco-conscious policy, advocacy, and communities  for more than 115  years—I think there’s really nothing quite like that,” he says. “We come to this to change the narrative, change the reality on the ground as it relates to sustainable beef and bison production. I think there’s nothing quite like the Audubon brand, Audubon certification, and the Audubon name in this space at this time.” 

Panorama Organic’s long-term commitment to conservation offers consumers an opportunity to participate in a meaningful effort to solve some of the significant problems facing the planet without having to invest in an electric car or solar panels. While a package of organic, grass-fed beef may cost slightly more than the commodity alternative, it makes a difference. The next time you buy beef, look for the Panorama Organic label. The Bobolinks, Western Meadow-larks, and Chestnut-Collared Longspurs will thank you.