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.