change how livestock graze, reduce emissions

Understanding Ag farmers learn about regenerative grazing.

Photo courtesy of Understanding Ag.

When Gabe Brown first started regenerative farming over 25 years ago, he wasn’t trying to solve climate change.

“I was just trying to keep the banker at bay and feed my family,” Brown told Slice Mag.

Brown grew up in Bismarck, ND, and attended college to become an agricultural professor. Then he married his high school sweetheart, whose family owned a farm. The young couple moved home to help out on the farm, which used conventional farming methods for the time. After eight years, Brown bought part of the farm from his in-laws.

From 1995 to 1998, Brown’s farm in North Dakota experienced recurring natural disasters: three years of hail and a year of drought. Brown had to figure out how to make his land profitable. He also had no money to spend on fertilizers and chemicals.

“It put me on a learning path. And I really became a student of nature and of ecosystems and how natural ecosystems function,” Brown told Slice Mag.

Today, Brown runs his 6,000-acre farm near Bismarck with regenerative practices and helps run a consulting firm, Understanding Ag, that consults with farmers who manage 32 million acres in North America.

Gabe Brown got into regenerative farming two and a half decades ago as a way to save his farm.

Photo courtesy of Gabe Brown

While Brown had no intention of fighting climate change, regenerative livestock grazing is a way to capture carbon dioxide, a critical part of limiting global warming. Cattle grazing on land eat plants that have absorbed carbon dioxide from the air. After grazing, the cows don’t graze on the land for a long time, giving the roots a chance to grow a new layer of leaves and sequester more carbon.

Dan Probert, an Oregon rancher and the marketing director for the cattle ranching collective Country Natural Beef, explains that regenerative ranching involves moving cattle from one paddock to another on a regular basis, almost daily. The cattle eat the grass in the pasture where they graze, mow it low and then move on. Every paddock they’ve cut has a significant amount of time to rest and recover so it can regrow.

“Those cattle are bunched up, they’re kept pretty close together, and then sometimes they’re moved twice in one day. And then that land is left to rest and recover for a whole year before the animals are back,” Probert told Slice Mag.

This process sequesters more carbon than feeding cows typical monocultural crops like maize, because those crops are annuals and grow quite slowly, not performing photosynthesis when lying fallow.

Dan Probert monitors the soil on his Oregon farm.

Photo courtesy of Dan Probert

The amount of carbon captured with regenerative grazing practices varies considerably depending on how well a farmer grazes the livestock and how diverse the plant species are in the land being grazed. But the range is between 2.5 and 7.5 tons of carbon per hectare per year, according to Allen Williams, the founder of Understanding Ag.

By comparison, southern pine forests, which have received some attention as a carbon sink, will capture 1.4 to two tons of carbon per hectare per year.

The collective Probert works for, Country Natural Beef, is working with the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest and a grant from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust to more accurately quantify the carbon impact of regenerative livestock farming by taking soil samples and comparing carbon content now. with samples that will be taken in three to five years.

A philosophy of land management, not a recipe

Regenerative farming is a philosophy about farming and raising livestock, more than a specific recipe, explains Bobby Gill of the Savory Institute, a nonprofit in the space. The practice is based on the work of Allan Savory, a leader in the field who began his work in Zimbabwe in the 1960s.

“He’s been beating this drum and developing these methods for decades now. And often times, he was the only person beating this drum,” Gill told Slice Mag.

Savory’s revolutionary message was that farmers should prioritize soil health and allow livestock to graze in a way that mimics natural patterns.

The group does not emphasize the environmental aspects of livestock raising, which activists often criticize.

“Someone who is a fifth-generation farmer…it sucks to be called a flyover state or to have people point the finger at them saying, ‘Climate change is because of you: it’s your fault ‘ said Gill. “It’s important to engage in these conversations with empathy and understanding.”

Instead, Savory Institute talks to farmers about regenerative farming as a way to run a profitable farm, provide for their families, and be proud of their land.

Savory is no longer seen as a cooking freak. Founded in 2009, the Savory Institute currently has 54 centers around the world that have trained 14,000 people and influenced the management of more than 42 million acres of land.

When Will Harris started regenerative farming in Georgia, he wasn’t trying to solve climate change either. He didn’t even know the climate was changing.

Harris is the fourth generation of his family to manage his 2,300-acre Georgia ranch, White Oak Pastures, and has some perspective on recent farming history.

White Oak Pastures board of directors: Front Row, left to right: Jean Turn, Jodi Benoit, Will Harris, Jenni Harris, Amber Harris. Back row, left to right: John Benoit, Brian Sapp.

White Oak Meadows

In the years following World War II, agriculture became highly industrialized, Harris told Slice Mag.

“Europe was starving. There was a huge demand for cheap, plentiful and safe food,” Harris said. “The industrialization, commoditization, centralization really did that… it made food obscenely cheap and wastefully abundant, and very boring, very, very consistent.”

Factory farming brought monoculture farming, where only one product is grown on a plot of land. It also entailed the use of chemical fertilizers, tillage, pesticides, animal hormone implants, sub-therapeutic antibiotics in animals, and large equipment.

Harris didn’t like any of that. He was fine financially, he said, but he didn’t like the practices that had become industry standard.

White Oak Pastures, which is grown using regenerative farming practices, is on the left. The land on the right is worked using conventional industrial practices.

“I had just become disenchanted with the excesses of that agricultural system. I just started moving away from it. I did this simply by not using the technological ‘products’ I didn’t like and doing the things I did.” “I wasn’t purposely moving my farm into anything. I was just moving away from what was off-putting to me.”

The change was not free. It takes Harris two years to raise a 1,100-pound cow, while an industrial-practice farmer can grow a 1,400-pound animal in 18 months, Harris said. But the quality of his meat is better and he can charge demanding customers more.

Its margins have shrunk as international farmers join the “grass-fed” game and slide into markets as “American” by taking even a small step in the US production process, Harris said, but the value of his land is not included in the price of a steak.

“You don’t measure the degradation of that non-depreciating asset on your balance sheet,” Harris said.

“As a practitioner of 25 years of regenerative land management, I can tell you with authority that you cannot regenerate degraded, abandoned land without the impact of animals.”

In addition, his two daughters and their husbands have returned to the farm, a stark contrast to many other farming families whose children leave for other occupations.

“I can assure you quite well that if I had continued to farm industrially, my daughters would not have chosen to come back.”

Good for business

While it may take longer to bring cows to maturity using regenerative ranching, the practice can help farmers use land more efficiently.

“My ranch might have had 1,000 animals five years ago, and now we have 1,200 animals on the same land base,” Probert told Slice Mag.

There aren’t many initial costs to move a farm to a regenerative grazing paradigm, other than that, as Williams points out, the training is tax-deductible for farmers.

But farmers usually don’t know that.

“They have the wrong perception that this is going to be expensive and that they are going to take a big financial hit in the first few years. But that is absolutely not true,” Williams said. Once farmers start implementing regenerative grazing, they don’t have to buy synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, so their input costs go down, Williams said.

Educating other farmers about the benefits of regenerative grazing and farming has become a matter of its own.

A sixth-generation family farmer with farms in both Mississippi and Alabama, Williams taught academia at both Louisiana Tech University and Mississippi State University for 15 years before transitioning to teaching regenerative grazing and farming to farmers in the United States. field – literally.

Allen Williams (left), a sixth-generation family farmer and co-founder of Understanding Ag, teaching another farmer about regenerative grazing.

“You can’t implement what you don’t know. So there has to be someone to teach you and train you,” Williams told Slice Mag.

Spreading the word about regenerative grazing means putting yourself in the spotlight, a place some farmers are uncomfortable with, Probert said.

Probert takes the lead for the farming collective he is a part of because he knows it is critical to the survival of his industry.

“We can’t live on an island here. We’re 100 ranches on six and a half million acres. And we rely heavily on Portland and San Francisco and Seattle and Los Angeles to market our products,” Probert said.

“So we’re constantly working to bridge this gap between urban and rural areas. And we know we can’t hide here. We need to find a way to tell our story and make people feel good about the food they eat. “