There they were, two under-30 Asian-American women, at the Grassfed Exchange—the largest grassfed beef grazing conference in the country—in an industry that is mostly male, white, and older than 50.
“Are you girls lost?” one rancher joked when Christine Su, ’08, MS/MBA ’15, and her then-cofounder Jennifer Tsau, MS ’15, passed out flyers to market PastureMap, their innovative grazing management software.
The women took in stride the curious stares, and soon the duo had their first paying customers. Over the past two years, PastureMap has gradually built up 1,400 users from the Midwest to New Zealand to Argentina. Today the startup has six staff, ranging from web developers to a fifth-generation cattle rancher.
“Ranchers are my heroes,” says Su, CEO of PastureMap, by which she means a particular kind of rancher: those who actively manage their grasslands and cultivate soil and ecosystem health. “The ones practicing grazing management call themselves the positive deviants. Ranchers raising grassfed beef have been seen as the oddballs among cattlemen, but in recent years the movement has gained traction.”
In environmentalist circles, a debate is waged about whether a person can care about climate change and still eat a hamburger. Some vegans would say no. Grassfed beef producers would say yes.
Research by the National Trust, a United Kingdom conservation organization, backs up the ranchers. According to the 2012 study, while the greenhouse gas emissions from grassfed and conventional cattle farms are very similar, the ability of a well-managed grass pasture to absorb carbon from the atmosphere is enormous. Research indicates that carbon sequestration from pastures could reduce their net emissions by up to 94 percent, showing that grazing cattle on grass could be a strategic way to slow down climate change. Another advantage is that healthier and more abundant grazing land eliminates the need for ranchers to purchase fodder, along with all of the implied energy burden that accompanies the raising, harvesting, and transporting of these products.
So why is this approach outside of the mainstream ranching industry? Because it’s hard work. Managing grasslands well requires careful observation and lots of arithmetic. These farmers are in an intricate dance with their land, treating the pasture as equal partners in their operation, the terra firmathat the whole cattle business stands on.
This is where PastureMap hopes to make a difference. By streamlining the process of managing pastureland, more ranchers may adopt these practices, making beef more sustainable and profitable.
Most pasture-based cattle ranchers use an approach that essentially consists of a pen, paper, and walking the perimeter of their pastures to assess available grass inventory. At the start of the growing season, they sketch out a Gantt chart of their cattle rotation and pin it to the barn door, and then check each paddock regularly to make sure the animals don’t overgraze the grasses before they switch to new pastures. This rotation usually follows the best practices set by the Holistic Management Institute, the leading authority on the art and science of raising pastured cattle. But after the first heavy rainfall or a lasting drought, their estimates can quickly become out of date.
PastureMap simplifies the process. On their smart phones, ranchers can easily tap cow icons on a map to log herd moves, take notes, snap a photo of the grass, and sync it all to the cloud through the app within seconds.
“We do a lot of the math that was a hassle for ranchers,” says Su.
Using the tool, ranchers can calculate figures such as recovery days for that particular paddock, stock density, the number of “animal days” per acre, and maximum and minimum grazing periods. The app then codes a map of the paddocks in red, yellow, and green, depending on the readiness for grazing. And this summer PastureMap began devising a way to tier the software depending on the size of a ranch, given that some of their clients have 40 cows and some have thousands.
Su says while at the Stanford Graduate School of Business she took a class from Professor Steve Blank, who insisted you have to talk to 100 customers before designing a product for them. Her startup has kept this client-focused approach. An Innovation Transfer grant from the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy gave PastureMap early access to clients so the team could build a tool that meets the real-life needs of ranchers.
“To expect our cowboys to have the same tech-savviness as our scientists would be like asking our scientists to go and lasso steers,” says Kevin Watt of the TomKat Ranch, an early partner and client. He says PastureMap has been transformative for the ranch and his team is excited about how efficiently they are able to manage their land. “It’s saved so many hours.”