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Agriculture & the West

To restore western lands, regenerative ranchers keep cattle on the move

This practice is embedded in some ranches around the West, but it only spreads in fits and starts.

Short-term stay In this 2020 photo, Glenn Elzinga, right, Annie Elzinga, left, and employee Jake Taylor use hot wire, powered by solar chargers, to confine cattle at night in a pen adjacent to the conservation riders’ camp. MELANIE ELZINGA

By Felicity Barringer and Ian Max Stevenson and Nicole Blanchard, The Idaho Statesman

LODGE GRASS, MT —  After jouncing around the deep gullies that cows and water have carved into her 8,000-acre ranch, Mickey Steward got out of her ATV on a ridge and knelt down close to the soil. The 72-year-old pointed at the snakeweed, a plant indicative of overgrazing, scattered across the land she recently bought. She picked a small blade of grass near her knee, grabbing it closer and closer to the root, until none was left. The idea was to show the damage cattle can inflict. 

During the height of the growing season, Steward moves her cattle after they spend 12 hours in each of the paddocks she creates with easily moved electric fences. Over a few weeks as the growing season ebbs, the quick rotation then turns into a three-day window. When it ends, cows can stay in each paddock much longer. “If you take even the slightest step towards managing your grazing,” she added, “you greatly improve the quality and quantity of your forage.” 

Mickey Steward at Seacross Ranch in Montana. Alexis Bonogovsky

Steward’s management of the cattle on Seacross Ranch is a microcosm of the changes, now called regenerative ranching,  that began at least two decades ago and are now embedded in ranching in the West. “What is regenerative?” said Bill Milton, whose ranch near Roundup is 140 miles northwest of Steward’s. “The notion is still a bit of a moving target. For us, it’s trying to create the marriage between livestock production and grass production.”

Some ranchers in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and other western states have shifted their focus onto their cattle’s impact on soil and grass, looking for ways to mend decades of overuse that have depleted the western landscape. Different approaches to grazing — and, later, to marketing the beef — divide ranchers the way doctrines divide religious orders, Steward said. Complicating matters, adherents’ fervent claims about the benefits of the practice are largely unsubstantiated by scientists.

“What is regenerative? The notion is still a bit of a moving target. For us, it’s trying to create the marriage between livestock production and grass production.”

Bill Milton, rancher

Nonetheless, state and federal agencies increasingly support sustainable efforts by pumping tens of millions of dollars into regenerative practices. But there is no set definition for “regenerative ranching,” nothing concrete to dictate the number of pastures to use or the time at which cows should be rotated. That allows for flexibility, but it also makes room for a wide range of producers to claim they have sustainable practices, despite a lack of conclusive evidence of regenerative ranching’s benefits. 

Meanwhile, the science about cattle’s contribution to climate-changing gases, particularly methane, is unambiguous. Some proponents worry that agribusiness will exploit the growing attention on the environmental impacts of industries like ranching. With no agreed-on definition, there’s also no standard to certify that beef came from a regenerative operation. Already, companies like McDonald’s, Walmart and PepsiCo have adopted the term.

“People are putting pretty on a pig, bigtime,” said Glenn Elzinga, whose family owns the Alderspring Ranch near Salmon, Idaho.

Cattle from the Elzinga family’s Alderspring Ranch graze in Central Idaho. Alderspring Ranch

Mimicking the age-old habits of bison on the landscape

Regenerative ranching usually refers to a practice called adaptive multi-paddock grazing. The idea is to mimic the habits of native bison and other grazing animals that moved regularly to escape predators. It involves slicing a field into small pastures, through which livestock are moved on a schedule. It  is also intended to prevent cattle from repeatedly chewing the juiciest plants down to the nub, instead forcing them to graze an area moderately before moving on and allowing time for grazed paddocks to recover. 

Pasture size, stock density, and grazing days are adapted to what is best for the soil and grass each time it is grazed. Years of experimentation, of trial and error, of new institutes supporting the  practice and of government support, have created an archipelago of western ranches firmly in the regenerative camp, though acceptance is hardly universal. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the National Resources Conservation Service, has been giving tens of millions of dollars annually to support regenerative programs. And federal agencies have shown growing efforts to fund the practice. The NRCS distributed more than $5 million in Idaho last fiscal year for projects on grazing lands, higher than the previous year’s distribution of $3.7 million, spokesperson Mindi Rambo said.  In Montana, the NRCS distributed more than $18 million for grazing conservation in the same period, up from $16.5 million the year before, according to a spokesperson, Tasha Gibby.

The federal grants are supplemented by support from dozens of non-profit organizations. Nonprofits large and small are working with ranchers interested in adopting regenerative practices. Among them are the World Wildlife Fund, the Noble Research Institute, the Nature Conservancy, Sustainable Northwest, and many others. All of the 80 ranches WWF works with are eligible for grants to help defray the cost of rotational grazing; not all have applied.

Whatever their convictions about grazing practices, most ranchers “consider themselves to be stewards of the land,” said Brett Wilder, an assistant professor of farm business management at the University of idaho. “People have been talking about soil health and sustainability and ranching for years and years and years.” But, he added “It’s gotten a lot more traction recently.” 

It’s still a limited practice, with less than half of cattle operations using it, according to a study published by the USDA. Even fewer, as little as two percent, do the kind of intensive, frequent rotation performed by ranchers like Steward, Elzinga’s family at the Alderspring Ranch, Wendy Pratt near Blackfoot, Idaho, Gage Iverson in Winnett, Montana and two ranchers near Roundup, Montana — Bill Milton and Steve Charter. 

“So much of agriculture is slow to change,” said Mark Biaggi, who uses the new principles to manage the TomKat ranch in Pescadero, California, which is an educational and research operation owned by Kat Taylor and her husband, the billionaire investor and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer. For multigenerational ranchers, “this is not just a job. This is a family legacy,” Biaggi said. He noted, “The economic margins … can be extremely small and change can bring risk, including risk of losing the family ranch.”

Moving cattle frequently may boost profits

Alderspring Ranch cattle graze in the understory of open Douglas fir forest at the Forest Service Hat Creek Range. The Elzinga family, which owns Alderspring, will graze this spot for only a few minutes once every three to six years. Melanie Elzinga

Elzinga said that he and his wife had been impacted in their youth by agricultural pesticides and herbicides, so introducing alternative practices has long been a priority. “My wife and I had a passion for the land but we had problems with traditional agriculture,” he said.

In the early 2010s, after Alderspring Ranch lost cattle to wolves, it sent range riders to camp alongside the cattle. Elzinga said the riders also stopped cattle from overgrazing and kept the herds moving across the landscape. These days he keeps his herd constantly moving, Elzinga said. It will graze a two-acre area for about two-and-a-half minutes before moving through. The cattle don’t return to that spot for two to three years. In some places where the rangeland is drier and more brittle, they don’t return for seven years.

Elzinga said his ranch’s tactic — to keep cattle moving while eating, so the herd is always grazing and putting on weight — is part of a simple formula. If his herd gains one pound per day for 100 days in the summer, he can turn a $100,000 profit, and he touted the microorganisms his cattle introduce through their manure, saliva and urine as beneficial to his rangeland.

Gage Iverson, in Winnett, Montana, has a different, if complementary, set of metrics explaining the financial benefit he receives from his work moving his cattle, balancing the labor costs of moving his cattle throughout the year with his savings in hay purchases. As he explains in this recent TikTok post, if his labor is valued at $250 a day and he moves cattle every other day all year, that expense is more than made up for by avoiding the cost of hay to feed cows inside in the winter. 

@dovetail_grazer

I do provide supplemental protein during the winter months, but thats a drop in the bucket compared to substitute feeding

♬ original sound – Gage Iverson

Resting the grass produces more ounces of forage per square yard, Iverson said, effectively expanding the grazing days on his ranch, which was first homesteaded in the early 20th century by “my grandpa’s grandpa,” an immigrant from Norway. Like Iverson, Wendy Pratt explained that by shortening grazing periods on pastures, her ranch has lengthened the number of days cattle can graze. It has helped them gain weight and stay in better condition through the winter, she said. 

Can cattle management really improve the ecosystem?

Setting up temporary fencing at Milton Ranch in Montana. Alexis Bonogovsky

Ranchers also argue that a cow’s way of trampling grasses into the soil can introduce organic matter that is helpful to other plants, while also providing better insulation from harsh winter temperatures and sequestering carbon — a process in which more carbon is injected into the soil. In turn, Pratt thinks those changes help keep the soil healthy and leave benefits for wildlife. Iverson said that since he moved to regenerative practices, “I’m seeing an explosion of birds. I’ve started seeing things I’m not used to seeing.”

Despite advocates’ belief in regenerative ranching’s ecological benefits, as reflected in this article,  some comparisons of traditional practices with regenerative ones identify little landscape benefit. 

A major recent USDA report noted that  

Many articles in the farm press and extension publications promote rotational grazing as leading to higher productivity, higher profits, and better environmental outcomes…. However, these articles are often based on testimony from practitioners, are regionally specific, and make conclusions that are not well supported in the experimental research on grazing systems.

Rotational Grazing Adoption by Cow-Calf Operations, Christine Whitt and Steven Wallander, USDA Economic Research Service, Nov. 2022

As the U.S. looks to slash its carbon emissions, proponents of regeneration have also focused on whether carbon sequestration could help remove climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But a 2017 study led by an Oxford researcher found that improving management of rangelands has inconsequential effects on the climate, noting that any sequestration is “substantially outweighed” by the emissions generated by cattle. A July 2023 article in Science magazine came to similar conclusions.

Logan Thompson, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Kansas State University, said that researchers have also fixated on methane because the heat-trapping gas is the predominant pollutant in the industry. Eighty percent of those methane emissions come from cattle grazing, while the remainder comes from confined feedlots, he said. His research has found that in Alabama, multi-paddock grazing reduced methane output by 15 percent to 20 percent. No comparable study has been done in the West.

“We don’t really know where the science will lead us,” Thompson added. “A lot of focus has been put on carbon sequestration, and overall it’s such a variable thing to measure that it’s very easy for people to reach divergent outcomes.”

An ecological plus or a marketing strategy?

For some environmentalists, research on regenerative practices showed evidence that it is little more than a marketing strategy for an industry that has been linked to spreading invasive grasses — which reduce soil carbon — and squeezing out native species like deer and elk. “There is no way to improve a western ecosystem by adding cattle or sheep,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project.

He would rather see USDA funds used to acquire grazing permits from willing sellers and permanently close swaths of land in the West to livestock grazing. “That would achieve a much bigger positive impact on carbon sequestration and provide more climate benefit than chasing the mirage of rotational grazing,” he said. 

“There is no way to improve a western ecosystem by adding cattle or sheep.”

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project

The sparse data on the impact of regenerative ranching is prompting both ranchers like Steward and Elzinga, as well as some new companies, to try to slowly fill in the gaps by analyzing the soils in different areas. Ranchers hope those analyses will help them determine the environmental benefits of their approach.

Regardless of Iverson and Pratt’s calculations about economic benefits, the first thing ranchers must consider is that the initial cost of adopting grazing plans that incorporate constant movement across a ranch’s fields can be considerable. Continually moving both cattle and fences are labor-intensive activities, and additional costs could include adding wells, pipelines and tanks to make sure cows have water in every paddock.

In some instances, modern technology could make regenerative practices more feasible, lessening the need for extensive fencing, even if the latest electrified fences are easier to handle. Researchers at the University of Idaho are studying how to effectively control cattle using electronic collars and geofences. Jim Sprinkle, a researcher with the university near Salmon, Idaho, said he’s working on another study to examine whether similar technology could be implemented with ear tags instead of collars. 

New technology may help the practice spread

Walkie-talkies, left, and electric fencing in use at Alderspring Ranch. Alderspring Ranch

Technology — like better electric fences and ear tags — can help cut down the cost of moving cattle. Technology can also help ranchers figure out what fields are in trouble. 

But without that streamlining tech in their hands, ranchers may see investing in additional fencing, manpower or irrigation systems as a risk without an assured reward. Agriculture Department programs have helped pay the bills for infrastructure, and more federal money is on the way for  ranchers, allocated in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. 

Alexis Bonogofsky, who heads a World Wildlife Fund program working with 80 ranches covering 800,000 acres in eastern Montana, western South Dakota, and Nebraska, said the common perception of traditional ranching practices envisions a regular layout of pastures. “You would have larger pastures. Here’s the winter pasture, here’s the spring pasture, here’s the calving pasture. That would never change.”

Now, she said, “more people are making the pastures smaller, moving the cows more frequently, and changing the rotation; the same place isn’t getting grazed at the same time each year.” Over the past decades, dozens of ranches began to change their grazing schedules. But not all. “Every ranch is different,” she said.  “Every ranch’s economics, every ranch’s capacity of making the changes, is different.”

Steve Charter, a rancher near Roundup, Montana. Felicity Barringer

“If you’ve moving the cows every three days, it requires infrastructure, time, and knowledge,” said Steve Charter, a rancher near Roundup, Montana, who has been working with regenerative methods for years. “We don’t want to get to the point of saying, ‘This is what works and we should do this.’ “ He added, “the challenge is doing this to see if it works.”

“People want it to be really straightforward and it’s just not,” Bonogofsky said. “We’re working on a timescale that’s decades, especially in the arid and semi-arid West.” Her job, she said, is “sometimes to translate between people in agriculture and people not in agriculture, and moderate people’s expectations…. We know these practices are good for the land, for people’s businesses, for wildlife. But the actual implementation gets a little bit messy.”

 

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Felicity Barringer is the editor and lead writer of & the West; Ian Stevenson and Nicole Blanchard are reporters for the Idaho Statesman. A version of this story appeared in the Statesman.

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