We hang on and curse the conditions that brought it about.

Jaynes lynn
Emeritus Editor
Lynn Jaynes retired as an editor in 2023.

Instead of digging in the heels of resistance, a group of California ranchers decided to get out front early in the game and define sustainable with clear parameters and then provide a measurement tool.

From this commitment, the Ranching Sustainability Self-Assessment (RSA) was developed – a bottoms-up approach to a growing national concern.

With a grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board in 2008, a committee of ranchers began developing the first set of questions for the voluntary self-assessment. Since that time it has been revised several times and is considered a living document that will continue to grow.

Defining ranch sustainability

The mission statement of RSA is: To create and implement a voluntary self-assessment program in which we evaluate all aspects of our operations to ensure the sustainability of our production, lands and families.


To determine what we do well and find ways to ensure proper stewardship of ourselves, the animals and natural resources.

Several California ranch managers came together with not only cattleman skills but other professional skills as well. Some were also technical advisers to resource conservation districts, presidents of cattlemen’s associations, members of wildlife management committees, beef operation managers of university herds, conservation award winners and members of the California Rangeland Trust.

They invited extension research associates to join them, along with a ranch and water attorney, natural resource specialists and others.

RSA was modeled after the Central Coast Vineyard Team’s “Positive Points System” that had been used by California grape growers since 1998, which ultimately led that community to the development of a third-party sustainability certification program.

The confidential assessment was designed as a series of questions for ranchers to answer in several categories – livestock, soil and forage management; wildlife conservation; biodiversity; regulations; economics and diversification; relationships with family, employees and community; energy and monitoring; pest management; and water quality.

Ranch owners are then asked to have ranch managers, wives, other family members and employees take the same assessment independently as a jumping-off point for discussion and better communication.

Grading self-assessment

The goal is for individual operations to self-assess, provide feedback and submit data to a third party who can summarize the data. It can be used as a potential benefit for individual ranches and the industry at large.

The self-assessment recognizes existing efforts, helps operations identify areas of opportunity for improvement and encourages “action items.” It is designed as a non-regulatory approach for ranchers to shape the future of ranching on as much of their own terms as possible.

Questions are scored on a points basis from 1 to 7 (7 being the highest). Here are a few sample questions:

  • How high do you rate your success by the number of pounds per acre of beef sold?

  • How well do you calve in synchronization with your feed conditions?

  • How well do you monitor and record areas of your ranch at risk for erosion?

  • How well do you provide habitat enhancements such as nest boxes, bat boxes, raptor perches and water sources for wildlife during drought and other critical times?

  • How well do you follow label directions when using vaccines, medications and chemicals?

  • How active are you in trade organizations and other groups?

  • How diversified is your income, e.g., multi-species operation, rental property, hunting and agritourism?

  • How well do you monitor your rangeland using photographs?

  • How committed are you to the use of energy-efficient vehicles and power equipment?

  • How well do you monitor water quality, e.g., turbidity and temperature?

  • How committed are you to the use of fish in water troughs to control mosquitoes (e.g., to lessen risk of West Nile virus)?

  • How well do you implement practices to stabilize stream banks?

Implementing results

The San Luis Obispo Cattlemen’s Association receives the submitted assessments and maintains ultimate control of all personal information. Any identifying information is removed from the assessment, and the results are compiled by the local extension office.

Summaries of the data are made available to the industry members through newsletters and evaluated over time for individuals and the industry in general.

Although scores are subjective, individual ranch scores allow ranchers to compare their operation to their peers and track sustainability progress over time.

Chuck Pritchard from the Bar-B6 Ranch in Paso Robles says his family has completed the self-assessment. Pritchard says they are now in the process of implementing some of the recommendations they felt were necessary and positive based on the action items identified.

Pritchard says, “As a family operation, it is imperative that communications and long-range planning with input from all the partners is essential, and that regular scheduled meetings take place to be able to address the many issues that need to be discussed and acted upon.

It’s awfully easy to let things slide in the course of day-to-day operations, and having regularly scheduled meetings with even an agenda and minutes taken can be very useful.

We found that to rotate the lead person in these meetings also gives everyone the equal opportunity of leadership and buy-in.”

Pritchard says these assessment meetings shouldn’t be confused with regular discussions or meetings but should be held in addition to them, especially in regards to long-range planning. Pritchard holds assessment meetings quarterly with his team.

Steve Sinton from Avenales Ranch near San Luis Obispo completed the assessment and had his son complete it as well. He’s also planning on getting one of his sisters to complete it to compare their answers. Sinton says the assessment reinforced his desire for better communications and reduced his resistance to it.

Sinton says, “Our family just had a wide telephone conference that lasted about one-and-a-half hours, covering every aspect of our businesses. The meeting included three generations and was led by our son.”

Sinton, who helped develop the RSA, says, “The important thing for ranchers, and agency people who might consider promoting the RSA, is that it is a self-help tool, not a mandatory one. We ranchers are constantly advocating for more voluntary compliance approaches from the government and less regulation.

Well, here is a voluntary approach that, if it stimulates action, will improve our management practices and reduce any potential adverse environmental impacts. Any good land steward can improve in some aspect of the operation, but that won’t happen if we aren’t thinking about it.”

The response rate is still in the early phase. The program is being introduced through county and association workshops, “tailgates” and seminars.

While self-assessments have been completed and returned, program organizers say it is still too early to determine trends. Those completing the assessments thus far have rated the program as “good” to “excellent.”  end mark

If you’d like to get a copy of the RSA or want more information, visit the website Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources  or email Royce Larsen

PHOTO: The Sinton family, Avenales Ranch crew and U.S. Forest Service personnel annually drive first-calf heifers from the upper Salinas Valley watershed into the Machesna Wilderness in California (photo taken prior to the current drought). The Ranching Sustainability Analysis System is a crucial component of management decisions at Avenales Ranch. Photo courtesy of Steve Sinton.