Ranching Operations

What Is Regenerative Agriculture?

Black angus cow standing in a green field surrounded by trees.

Despite being in existence since the dawn of civilization, “regenerative agriculture” has been able to circumvent all of our attempts to nail down its exact definition. Researchers have even conducted studies of other studies to try to define the term (true story, here’s an example). And still, there’s no concrete answer to the question “What is regenerative ag.?”. Instead, we’ve found regenerative agriculture to be best described as a “soil-first” mindset. 

What I mean is that all of the principles differentiating regenerative agriculture from commercial agriculture are aimed at one thing: building and maintaining soil health. So, of course, that begets a second question “What are the principles of regenerative ag?”. 

The 5 Principles of Regenerative Ag: 

Regenerative agricultural practices are governed by 5 key principles (sometimes 6 depending on who you’re asking). According to Ross Bronson, Redd Summit’s Ag-Risk Consultant who has a wealth of hands-on experience in regenerative practices, the 5 principles are as follows:  

1. Reducing Soil Disturbance

When we’re discussing minimizing or eliminating soil disturbance, we’re not saying that your soil has to sit completely untouched. Instead, the idea is to limit or completely avoid disturbance caused by mechanical, physical, or synthetic chemical means.

For many producers, this involves no-till practices, reducing chemical disturbance through pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and creating a landscape where erosion is controlled. 

2. Keeping Roots In The Ground

This principle generally applies to farming operations that have an off-season after harvesting. The idea here is that having roots in the ground controls erosion, keeping your soil on your ground rather than being carried off by water or wind. 

3. Keeping The Ground Covered

Keeping your ground covered (whether you’re doing it with a standing forage canopy, straw, or trampled grasses and leaves) is firstly aimed at shading your soil from the sun to keep its temperature down and maintain its microbiome. A secondary benefit of ground cover is that, like roots, it minimizes the impact of erosion caused by wind and rain. 

4. Diversifying Plant Species 

Different plant species do different things for the soil. Some are nitrogen fixers, some improve water infiltration into the ground due to their large root systems, and others attract pollinators. Ross likes to say that monocultures (an operation that only grows one plant), are a one-way ticket to a high fertilizer bill, and I’d have to agree. Plus, diversifying our plant species helps us accomplish principles 1,2 and 3!

5. Integrating Grazing Animals

For many, grazing animals are the key to making this whole “regenerative agriculture” thing work. They lay down forage for ground cover, clear forage to enable more growth, and rough up the ground letting water infiltrate the soil. Not to mention they’re like the Roomba of fertilizer spreaders!

Why is Regenerative Agriculture Important? 

Now that I’ve inundated you with the “how” let’s discuss the “why”. Regenerative agricultural practices, as you may have already guessed from its principles, can have enormous economic and ecological benefits for food producers and their surrounding communities.

Economical benefits

  • Cost reduction

A regenerative operation that follows principle 1, reducing soil disturbance, is not purchasing synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, etc. And, because this operation isn’t purchasing synthetic chemical inputs, it doesn’t need to use its equipment to spread them or till the soil, thereby reducing fuel costs and maybe even maintenance costs (albeit probably not significantly, but it’s worth mentioning). 

Cost reductions, even those that seem small, add up season over season and year over year, consequentially widening the profit margin of regenerative operations. 

  • Financial security 

Another benefit of a regenerative operation is that, by following its principles, you end up diversifying your revenue streams by default. Whether it’s through harvesting your cover crops or implementing companion grazing animal systems, you’re placing your eggs (profit potential) into multiple baskets, not just one. One minor or major disaster is then much less likely to completely decimate your finances. 

  • Increased Crop Yield 

In 2022, the University of Sydney, Australia, conducted a study to identify the potential of regenerative agricultural techniques to improve farmscape function. They found that regenerative practices improve these 5 indicators of healthy soil, which ultimately influence the potential for higher crop yields, and consequently, your potential for higher profits: 

  1. Soil pH Level: 

Soil pH levels directly impact the nutrient availability to your plants; limited nutrient availability means limited growth for your crops, and therefore limited yield. The use of cover crops, diverse crop rotations, reduced chemical inputs, and minimal tilling can help maintain balanced and healthy soil Ph levels over time.

  1. Soil Bulk Density: 

The bulk density of your soil refers to its level of compaction. Low soil bulk density means that your soil is not highly compacted, allowing for better root penetration and water infiltration, which can contribute to higher crop yields as well.

  1. Soil Aggregate Stability

Aggregate stability is tied to your soil’s structure. By maintaining your soil structure through regenerative practices (low/no-tilling, cover cropping, livestock grazing), you’re improving its structure, making it less prone to erosion and improving its ability to absorb and retain water, meaning you’ll be resilient during drought or flooding. 

  1. Nutrient Profiles: 

Balanced nutrient profiles in the soil, including essential macronutrients and micronutrients, are crucial for supporting plant growth and maximizing your crop yields. Essentially every principle of regenerative ag. contributes to better nutrient profiles, but diverse crop rotations and animal integration are the major players here. 

  1. Soil Organic Matter:

Regenerative practices are known to increase the levels of organic matter (matter that contains carbon) present in soil, which is associated with improved structure, water retention, and nutrient availability - all of which can lead to higher crop yields. The presence of carbon within the soil also has plenty of ecological benefits, which we’ll discuss further in the section below. 

Ecological benefits 

  1. Carbon Sequestration

As we learned in 5th grade science class, soil is one of our most important carbon sinks. Plants that exist within the soil pull carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and convert it into energy, expelling oxygen as a by-product. “Soil” is composed of that broken-down plant matter, so in turn can store, or “sequester” much of the carbon that the decomposing plants took in while they were alive. 

What does this have to do with regenerative agriculture? Well, by diversifying your crop rotation, utilizing ground cover, reducing disturbances, integrating grazing animals, and ensuring you always have roots in the ground (AKA you constantly have plants pulling carbon out of the air) you’re increasing the amount of carbon both taken in and stored in your soil. 

Here’s our next question: why does that matter for the ecosystem? This question can stir some debate, especially when we’re discussing agricultural practices, so for my sake and yours – let’s lean on the facts. 

Carbon dioxide is considered a “greenhouse gas”, and an excess amount of it in our atmosphere can trap the sun’s heat, causing the global climate to warm up, and likely leading to more extreme weather patterns (drought, flooding, harsh winters, brutal summers, etc.). Regenerative agricultural practices enable farming and ranching operations to pull excess carbon dioxide from our atmosphere at a significant rate and store it within the soil indefinitely, which can benefit not only the local ecosystem surrounding these operations but that of the entire globe. No pressure though, right?

  1. Soil Resiliency

Increasing the level of organic matter in your soil has benefits that go beyond controlling greenhouse gas emissions. As we mentioned above, a healthy amount of organic matter is associated with improved soil structure, higher rates of water absorption and retention, and nutrient availability. 

All of this translates to an ecosystem more resilient to harsher conditions. For instance, a healthy amount of water retained in your soil will make your crops resistant to the effects of drought, and can even reduce your risk of wildfires. On the flip side, soil that has a higher capacity to absorb water will also be more resilient during flood conditions – it’s a win-win for regenerative producers. 

  1. Improved Biodiversity

Regenerative agricultural practices support biodiversity both above and below ground. A diversified crop rotation attracts richer bird, insect, and wildlife populations, whereas reducing or eliminating tilling and synthetic chemical inputs, while integrating grazing livestock enables the soil microbiome to grow undisturbed.

  1. Reduced water pollution

Reducing synthetic chemical inputs and improving your soil structure makes your land less prone to erosion and damaging run-off. This helps us avoid algal blooms, like those that caused the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Regenerative Agriculture and Climate Change 

Here we go, the elephant in the room. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the buzz surrounding regenerative agriculture and its growing popularity among the climate change crowd. I’m not going to sit here and tell you my opinion, and I’m certainly not going to tell you how to run your operation, but I will say this: ranchers and farmers now have the opportunity to flip the narrative. 

Where producers are typically being blamed for as much as ⅕ of greenhouse gas emissions on this planet, you now have the opportunity to be credited with removing those gasses from the atmosphere at a staggering rate, while giving your operation a leg-up financially and benefitting your local and global ecosystem. 

Review Of Regenerative Ag Techniques and Practices 

A point that I think isn’t made enough when discussing regenerative principles, is that regenerative farming and ranching is not “all or nothing”. If you implement any of the following techniques or practices on your operation or otherwise adhere to any of regenerative ag.’s principles, you’re creating a regenerative system – and in doing so, you can benefit your operation financially and our planet’s ecosystem as a whole.

  • Cover cropping 
  • Intensive rotational grazing
  • No-till farming
  • Composting
  • Reduced fossil-fuel-based inputs (this includes pesticides) 
  • Agroforestry 
  • Conservation buffers, like hedgerows and riparian buffers 


What is regenerative agriculture vs. sustainable agriculture?

There’s no clear distinction between “sustainable agriculture” and “regenerative agriculture”, but while all regenerative practices are sustainable, not all sustainable practices are considered regenerative. For an agricultural operation to be sustainable, it simply needs to be farming in sustainable ways to meet society’s food and textile needs without compromising the ability of current and future generations to meet their needs. For an agricultural operation to be “regenerative” it needs to follow the principles of regenerative agriculture. 

Can regenerative ag. reverse climate change? 

Regenerative agricultural practices aid in carbon sequestration and the removal of carbon from our atmosphere, a leading cause of rapid global warming. Whether or not it has the potential to completely “reverse” climate change is undetermined. 

Can regenerative ag. restore lost biodiversity? 

Yes, by following the principles of regenerative agriculture you can restore biodiversity to your land and rebuild the microbiome within your soil. 

How does regenerative agriculture differ from commercial agriculture? 

Commercial agriculture focuses on producing agricultural products for sale in the market, rather than focusing on building a regenerative loop and resilient system on an agricultural operation.

Post Author
Subscribe to Newsletter
By subscribing you agree to with our Terms & Conditions.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Share Now
Copy URL
X Button for closing text bubble
Message bubble icon
Chat with us!
Small Redd Summit logo with no text.
We’ll have an agent call or
text you in the next few minutes.
Office hours are M-F, 9AM - 5PM. If you’re submitting a request outside of office hours, we'll reach you the next business day.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Jess McCartney
See what we can we do for your ranch? Chat with us!
X Button for closing text bubble