The author is the director of producer relations at Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Okla.

Building soil health requires an intentional and long-term commitment.

So, what is regenerative ranching?

Noble Research Institute has defined it as the process of restoring degraded grazing lands using practices based on ecological principles. In essence, regenerative ranching is managing grazing lands to enhance the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy cycle, and community dynamics within our ranches by applying practices that adhere to the six soil health principles.

1. Know your context

This principle has often been stated, but the Understanding Ag LLC founders added it to the front of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) list of five soil health principles. Context is always important. It considers climate, past management, original pre-European settlement state, current and recent conditions, regional history, the skills and abilities of the people operating the land, and the property’s resources.

Most producers have some understanding of the context based on current conditions, but the historical record is often overlooked. Almost all grazing lands are in a degraded state compared to pre-settlement. We do not have to settle on a stewardship goal of “sustaining or conserving” what we currently have; we can actually improve the soil. Knowing the historical context elevates a stewardship goal to a target that is both measurable and achievable through regenerative management.

2. Keep the soil covered

Most ranchers with a stewardship goal strive to do this, even with grazed croplands. The more arid the country, the more difficult this is to achieve; however, most producers with a conservation or stewardship ethic leave more residual after grazing events, allow for more plants and litter cover between existing plants, allow for recovery of grazed pastures by providing more rest or deferment, and actively manage stock numbers. Regardless of grazing land use (native range, introduced pasture, or grazed cropland), regenerative ranchers strive to minimize the amount of bare ground.

3. Minimize disturbance

Disturbance comes in many forms, including tillage, mowing, haying, fertilizing, chemical applications, fire, and grazing. As we have come to realize the negative effects of erosion, grazing land managers have reduced tillage activities, adopted no-till cropping, or turned cropland into perennial pasture. However, many farmers and ranchers don’t realize the impact of grazing and routine practices on pastures.

Ideally, to minimize disturbance, pastures should be grazed for short periods of time with individual grass plants being defoliated once per grazing event and then allowed to fully recover before being grazed again. Grazing management needs to be adaptive to balance the needs of plant recovery and livestock performance.

Using fertilizers and chemicals on grazing lands impacts nontarget life above and below the soil. Routine use of both adversely affects soil organisms that could work with plants to build healthier and more productive soil. Reducing, and when possible eliminating, the routine need for fertilizer and chemicals is an objective of regenerative ranching. Most producers would like to reduce these two costly inputs, and regenerative ranching can help them achieve this.

4. Maintain living plants/roots

Perennials, which have living and functioning roots during both growing and dormant seasons, have a distinct advantage over annuals. Most ranchers and farmers with grazing livestock typically rely on perennial pasture and have converted the most marginal croplands to perennial pastures. Actively growing roots provide opportunity for soil organisms to develop symbiotic relationships with the plants in which nutrients are exchanged and soil structure is built. The more actively growing roots growing within the soil, the more rapidly soil health, organic matter, and structure can be enhanced.

5. Enhance diversity

Native range usually has a distinct diversity advantage over introduced pastures and grazed croplands, which are usually managed as monocultures. Good-condition native pastures are naturally diverse with a mixture of grasses, forbs, and woody species; perennials and annuals; and usually warm-season and cool-season forages. Location often determines the mix.

Diverse annual crop mixtures are most effective when planted in grazed croplands, especially if double-cropped (cool-season and warm-season mixtures) to provide multiseason grazing. It is more challenging to manage for diversity in introduced pastures because traditional, costly management strives to maintain them as monocultures. Interseeding or overseeding introduced pastures with a mixture of annual forages can create needed diversity to begin regenerative efforts to improve soil health and soil biology.

Depending on the soil metrics, some fertility may be needed at a minimal rate until the soil biology can sustain adequate plant growth. In addition, the mixture of annuals interseeded into perennial, introduced pastures usually extends the grazing season on these pastures. Interseeding may initially come as an added expense, but greater diversity can become a cost-effective benefit to the livestock and the soil organisms if pastures are managed appropriately and planted with forages that can be used by grazing livestock.

Diversity is not limited to plants in regenerative ranching. It also includes multispecies grazing. Adding different livestock to the operation requires some infrastructure additions in most cases, but more importantly, it requires a mindset change. With improving soil health, enhanced diversity will be observed in plant and animal species, including wildlife, birds, insects, and soil organisms

6. Properly integrate livestock

The grazing management aspect of “properly” integrating livestock can be difficult for those adopting regenerative ranching. The challenge becomes how to properly apply grazing management to fit the context of the operation while rebuilding soils. Effective grazing is adaptive, flexible, varying in intensity and stock density, and intentional.

Plant rest and recovery periods need to be managed and planned. Grazing events should be short, usually less than three to four days in a given area, typically with the ability to move cattle daily or multiple times a day. Allow some pastures to accumulate peak production before being grazed with the highest stock density possible, moving livestock to fresh forage at least daily. This allows livestock to graze the highest quality material and trample the rest on the surface to feed the soil organisms.

It is with the higher stock density grazing that manure and urine are more evenly deposited across grazed areas, providing additional nutrients to the soil and soil organisms. In addition, grazing multiple species of livestock — cattle, sheep, and goats for starters, if the grazing lands have the forages to complement these livestock — is desirable in regenerative ranching. Different livestock can be added in stages to provide benefits to the land and additional revenue streams.

Concerns of time and infrastructure costs limit adoption. However, adoption of regenerative practices is made easier if the farmer or rancher begins by making use of what is already present and committing to one easy-to-manage area.

Start small

The bottom line is regenerative ranching doesn’t have to be difficult to adopt. The transition to regenerative does not have to be an “all or nothing” approach. Most progressive producers with a land stewardship ethic are doing much of what regenerative ranchers are doing. The full adoption of regenerative ranching requires starting where one can fully commit to an area within their operation and apply practices in alignment with the soil health principles.

If you’re still questioning whether regenerative ranching is worthy of consideration, ask yourself these questions: Is your operation more financially sound today than 10 years ago? Are your soils considerably more productive with less inputs today than they were 10 years ago? Is your operation able to add a son or daughter to the operation, and would you be excited to have them join the operation if it could?

If you answered “no” to any or all of these questions, you might consider regenerative ranching because those producers are answering “yes” to the same questions.

This article appeared in the Aug/Sept 2021 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 6.

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