Are Regenerative Practices Really Applicable in Arid Regions?

The topic of regenerative agriculture can elicit strong emotions. So, before you turn away, hear me out!

Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Oklahoma defines regenerative agriculture as “the process of restoring degraded soils using practices based on ecological principles”. Simply put, it is a soil-first mentality. Not that you all need to become dirt farmers, but if you look at your land as an ecosystem that starts with the soil, you will begin to understand. What do your cows eat? Where does that grass grow and get its nutrients? So, doesn’t it seem understandable that at least some consideration should be given to the ground?

Many positive outcomes are beginning to be documented as more educational and research institutions take interest in regenerative agricultural practices. However, if you are like me, it seems that the regions where there are widespread regenerative practices being implemented are those with higher annual precipitation and more forgiving landscapes and forages. So, how is regenerative agriculture applicable to those who live in the arid regions of our country?

Let’s lay some groundwork first. There are six principles of regenerative agriculture. Let’s discuss them shortly one by one.

the 6 Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

1) Context

Where is your ranch located? What is your growing season like? What does your infrastructure look like? There are so many different variables that are part of your ranch’s context that will influence how you choose to implement regenerative practices. Intensive grazing is a great example. I recently spent an hour with a former CEO of a large ranching operation in the west. He told me a story of dividing his 5,000-acre pasture into two 2,500-acre pastures. He said the coffee shop talk was about how he was implementing intensive grazing! Now, this is not intensive grazing to me, but the context was that he was doubling his pastures so that he could better manage his forage. In other areas, you could never get away with such large pastures, your forage would mature much too fast and may become unpalatable to your livestock. Context really drives how you practice regenerative agriculture.

2) Reduce Disturbance

Disturbance of a landscape can be through mechanical, physical, or chemical means. The short discussion is about trying to implement no-till practices, minimizing chemical disturbance, and creating a landscape where erosion is controlled.

Black drawing of a tree with large branches sprouting from the top and growing the same as roots.

3) Keep Roots in the Ground

Roots anchor the soil and help to reduce erosion. How many times have you driven past a field in the spring and seen the silt pile where runoff collected, and sediment was deposited? This is generally more applicable to farming operations where cover crops can help keep a root in the ground during off season.

4) Keep the Ground Covered

Ground cover can be accomplished in different ways. It may be by keeping a standing forage canopy to help shade the soil and minimize the effects of erosion from runoff or rain impact. Another way may be through litter. Litter is ground cover that is laid down or has fallen to the ground. Examples of this are trampled grasses, leaves or pine needles, or even applied litter like straw.

5) Diversity of Plant Species

Different plant species have different effects on your rangeland. Some improve water infiltration through larger roots systems; others put nutrients back into the soil that other plants have taken out. Monocultures are a quick way to create a high fertilizer bill! Most ranching enterprises have diversity since the landscapes they manage are often too large for justifiable species management.

6) Animal Integration

A true regenerative system will integrate animals. Animals are useful to lay down forage for ground cover, rough up the soil to create space for water to collect, and to harvest forages to allow for new growth.

So, what about your ranch?

Most ranchers by nature of their operating systems are already implementing many of these principles. For me, management for soils in arid climates comes down to the way in which we manage our livestock across the landscape, and our forage harvesting practices. I would like to boil these principles down into a few simple ideas that will allow for ranchers in more arid climates to harness some of the benefits of regenerative agriculture.

Black and white drawing of cows grazing.

Conservative Grazing management

So many people get hung up on intensive grazing being a key part of a regenerative system. While there are benefits to higher pounds of animal per acre, the key point is to make sure you have a grazing management plan. Grazing with a purpose will make you more aware of what is going on across your rangeland. This grazing plan should incorporate goals of standing forage that will be left behind after you move livestock, estimations of time to be spent in each pasture, and flexibility in that timing. In addition, proper rest periods are a key component.

For ranchers who have federal leases, management of those rangelands can be very challenging. However, I am optimistic that management of BLM and Forest Service leases will get better through policy changes and new livestock management devices like virtual fencing.

One of the biggest challenges to applying regenerative practices is the ability to manage forages adaptively, especially when that means leaving pastures adequate rest, or coming off pastures earlier than expected, in times when forage is in short supply.  Sometimes it feels like there is no other option than to leave the animals out. I remember shortly after I bought my cattle in Colorado, our area entered a D4 drought. I hadn’t heard of the Pasture Rangeland and Forage (PRF) program and didn’t receive significant assistance from the FSA programs. It felt like there was no option but to leave my cattle out on a rangeland that was suffering already!

This is where PRF is valuable for so many producers. Had I known about PRF and had a policy in place I would have felt much more comfortable pulling my cattle off the range and feeding them hay or finding a lease pasture somewhere. Both of those options were unavailable to me due to lack of funds.

Hay, or Graze?

Purists would say that a tractor should never touch a field, that all forage should be grazed, and hay purchased. I don’t agree, but I don’t disagree either. Again, it boils down to context. Those of you in colder climates need that forage on hand and, in years like this, the purchase of hay is not necessarily offset by the increased carrying capacity of irrigated hay ground. For some of you, the shipping costs of trucking hay into your remote properties is also a downside to this concept.

Mabel the cow black and white drawing from the neck up.

There are a few practices that pertain to haying that can be implemented. If possible, cut your stubble higher. Leaving six inches will provide the ground cover necessary to help cool the soil and lessen erosion. If leaving stubble height longer is not possible due to the equipment you are using, try to plan for adequate regrowth after your last cutting of the season.

Most of you already graze your hay meadows in the fall. Put together a grazing plan for these meadows. Hay ground often doesn’t get the litter cover and lay down of grasses that rangelands do, so managing in a way that promotes ground cover is beneficial.

Should you do it?

There are many tangible benefits that come from a regenerative mentality and implementing the principles that fit into your operating system. Guarding your soils will have long-term positive effects on your water retention and your plants’ nutrient cycling. This promotes better forage growth and rangeland health which lead to more sustained forage production even in times of drought. Another key point about conservative grazing management is that you can use your residual forage as a standing bank of grass. Remember that D4 drought I referred to? Thanks to the owner’s grazing practices for years, there was enough standing forage to get those cows through without significant range damage.

While tangible outcomes are a great part of regenerative practices, I think one of the key parts that benefits the ranching industry is the story that it tells. What other industries can put carbon back into the soil? In addition, the carbon credit industry is slowly becoming more measurable and will offer additional revenues to those who are implementing these practices. Agriculture gets an unfounded finger pointed at it in the discussion about climate change. While there are those who may need to rethink their practices, we can also be a part of the solution!

Regenerative agriculture is here to stay. The principles associated with it are not universally applicable; however, there are ways that these practices can be implemented on each operation. In the arid regions of this country, forages are often less forgiving than those in higher precipitation areas. Those grasses and landscapes can still benefit from rest and proper management practices that keep the soil covered and allow the microbiome to thrive, increasing water retention and the plants’ nutrient cycle.

Ross Bronson

Ross was born to a dairyman in Southeast Idaho. Although his family left the dairy when he was young, his father instilled in him the values of agriculture and a love for its way of life. Ross has a Master's Degree in Ranch Management from the King Ranch Institute and has consulted for many ranches on issues such as precipitation data collection, marketing strategies for calves, cost of gain vs. marginal incremental value of fed cattle, regenerative practices for ranches, and range management and grazing strategies. Ross is excited to have found a way to continue helping ranches identify the needs of their operations and the tools necessary to address those needs.

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