Grazing livestock to mimic how wildlife forages (or called Regenerative Agriculture or Regenerative Cattle Ranching) can prevent the erosion of topsoil, protect water quality and keep carbon out of the atmosphere, but it requires big changes in how the beef industry operates.
“Hop up, Jo,” said Savannah Barteau. Jolene, a border collie, leapt onto the back of the all-terrain vehicle behind Barteau and her 2-year-old son, Enzo, kicking up sand and water from the wash behind their ranch. The shallow creek will likely run dry in the next month, so neither Jolene nor Enzo had hesitated to splash around in the cool water.
Unlike the streams and riverbanks worn down by overgrazing elsewhere in the West, the health of the beautiful green belt surrounding the wash has only improved since their cattle have had the chance to access it, Barteau said. By nibbling on saplings and stomping down roots of other thirsty plants in the creek bed, the cattle help it carry the most water possible during the wet seasons.
Barteau is a member of the Date Creek Ranch family, operating just outside of Wickenburg, Arizona. She believes what makes their ranch stand apart from others is the way they love their animals, honor their land and most importantly, reduce their carbon footprint.
Phil Knight, Barteau’s grandfather-in-law, bought the property in 1966 and began grazing cattle in a way that nurtured and restored the soil and supported biodiversity. The family noticed that conserving the limited resources of the desert while practicing what’s come to be known as regenerative agriculture quickly brought back wild turkey and beavers to the area, and their pastures grew greener and fuller.
Barteau has seen first-hand how the 30,000-acre ranch’s 250 head of a variety of cattle breeds have become an integral part of the ecosystem they inhabit. Paying close attention to the health of the soil and forage is a huge part of her job.
Holistic, regenerative grazing management takes into account the entire ecosystem where cattle graze, making sure a sustainable balance is kept between the cattle, wildlife and the health of the land. These practices, unfortunately, are rare, and often do not extend to large-scale or factory farms. According to the Arizona Beef Council, there are about 7,000 cattle-raising farms and ranches in Arizona, but less than 1,300 of them report having a grazing management plan that would prevent cattle from overgrazing and move them around in a way that mimics the natural grazing of wildlife.
And not every ranch that claims to minimize their impacts on the land and climate are actually using such plans and practices with their cattle, as increasing demand for sustainable beef is also encouraging greenwashing that disguises the problems of livestock operations and gives local ranchers who are producing more environmentally-friendly beef a bad name.
The Barteau family is one of the cattle ranchers in Arizona who are pursuing regenerative agriculture and environmentally conscious grazing management, driven by philosophical ideals, the intensifying drought plaguing the Southwest, or both. More conservation organizations are offering education and resources to help ranchers meet their goals — like wanting to find a better grazing management plan or how to power ranches using only solar energy — in a manner that will slow soil erosion and create healthier pastures that will ultimately absorb more carbon than they release into the atmosphere.
A Question of Balance
Agriculture is the main way humans erode fertile topsoils, which can have detrimental effects on clean water, crops and native plant species.
Intensive cattle grazing left many American pastures and ranges bare and their soils stripped of nutrients. While most ranchers and farmers recognize the drawbacks of overgrazing grasslands, moving towards sustainability has proven difficult.
Just the infrastructure and operations to reduce erosions can cost tens of thousands of dollars and Arizona’s arid climate already makes raising cattle expensive. Many cattle ranchers have had to sell livestock to bring down feed costs during the ongoing drought. In addition to the fiscal barriers, there is a cultural hesitation to move towards sustainability, especially in older ranchers.
“Grazing was done in a way that definitely extracted as much as possible from the landscape,” said Cerissa Hoglander, the public lands director of the Grand Canyon Trust organization. Being in charge of the grazing permitting team around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, she has witnessed firsthand how high intensity grazing can hinder native plant species and cripple opportunities for more diverse plant life to flourish.
While healthy loam will absorb water and carbon dioxide, unhealthy soils fail to hold water and release carbon dioxide, eventually drying out enough to cause desertification. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted from the mindset that the fertility of America’s farmland was inexhaustible.
“We always have to be mindful of advancing climate change and how that’s directly impacting both species composition and what kinds of grasses are growing where,” Hoglander said. “Those are things we’re factoring into decisions about how and why the livestock graze.”
It can be thought of as an interconnected loop.
“When you have cattle kind of walking around, they’re peeing and pooping, they’re stepping on the soil, and so they’re creating heterogeneity in the soil,” said Elise Gornish, a University of Arizona ecological restoration specialist who notes how cattle and wildlife can increase diversity and fertility in the ground they walk on, if they don’t trample it too much or overgraze it.
“They’re increasing seed to soil contact, and they’re stepping on dead plant materials that are integrated back into the soil.”
When grass gets nibbled on, she said, it will come up with the nutrients to grow new leaves by expanding its fine root system, sequestering more carbon into the soil and allowing the forage to grow back more robustly. Hardier turf also better covers soil to prevent erosion.
Grasslands, especially in arid climates, are the most important terrain for sequestering carbon, Gornish said, but lots of these ecosystems don’t achieve their carbon absorbing potential because they aren’t visited by foraging animals.
“Grasses evolved to be grazed,” said Brett Blum, director of the Southern Arizona Experiment Station in the Santa Rita Mountains. “That’s part of their survival strategy.”
Having the right amount of grazing is critical, he added. “But there’s a point where obviously it’s far too much,” Blum said.
High-tech Solutions to Long-studied Problems
Founded in 1902 by Theodore Roosevelt, the Santa Rita Experimental Range — intended to examine the relationship between livestock grazing and the environment — is the longest studied rangeland in North America. Blum started working on the range as a field technician in 2008 and now manages five other research facilities as part of the University of Arizona’s land grant program.
His team is partnered with Vence, a virtual fencing program that tracks and directs when and how long cattle graze grasslands. Up to 500 head at a time will wear collars that monitor the individuals’ movements across the 52,000 acres of rangeland. When they approach ecologically sensitive or riparian areas, an invisible electric fence will push them away using either an auditory signal or a mild electric shock.
“We’re asking, what is it about the pastures that makes them want to be there?” Blum said. He believes that understanding the natural preferences and tendencies of cattle is an important first step in creating an effective grazing management plan that regenerates the soil, strengthens the forage and brings back wildlife.
Technology like this could also limit the spread of invasive species like buffel grass, which greens up and is at its most nutritious during Arizona’s monsoon. In theory, virtual fencing could direct cattle to deliberately overgraze buffel grass, exhausting its reproductivity over time to help native plants thrive. The Vence project is still in its beginning stages, but Blum said robust ecological monitoring is the key to developing a holistic management plan for such a complex and delicate process.
“There is no steady state, but the better we understand these systems, the better we can make a management plan that will benefit the ecosystem,” Blum said. There is no one size fits all for grazing, he said, each rancher’s land will bring new challenges and new ways of operating.
Soil erosion rates have decreased in the past century due to conservation programs, new laws and a demand for sustainably sourced foods — both among ranchers and consumers — but some scientists still worry that the nation is headed towards another Dust Bowl. Soil erosion and desertification continue to reduce global agricultural revenue by tens of billions of dollars each year.
Mimicking Wildlife to Save Soil
One foundational goal of regenerative agriculture is topsoil rehabilitation. Among cattle ranchers, the most tried and true regenerative practice is rotational grazing, when large pastures are divided into smaller zones, called paddocks, which cattle are cycled through to prevent overgrazing.
It can take anywhere from 6 months to several years for livestock to cycle through all the paddocks and return to the first, with grasslands in more arid climates requiring more time off between visits from grazing animals to allow them to completely regenerate. At Date Creek Ranch, the Barteaus move their cattle through 52 different paddocks.
“We do know that improving grazing practices, so increasing the amount of rest that the range receives as well as moving the cattle more frequently, actually improves resilience of the range,” said Alexis Bonogofsky of the World Wildlife Fund’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative. ”When we are experiencing severe drought, those grasslands are actually more resilient and more productive.”
But an estimated 70 percent of U.S. cows are at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), according to a 2019 USDA report. Oftentimes, these facilities will have thousands of acres of completely barren land to prevent cattle from grazing so they eat the grains intended to rapidly fatten them. Livestock in general account for about 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and somewhere between two and six percent of that is from beef cows, but ranchers using regenerative practices believe they can reduce the animals impact on the climate with the method they use to graze them.
“Our whole focus is integrating the cattle into the ecosystem rather than using the resources as an input into growing cattle,” said Alexander Khan, who runs the holistic management and beef business of Moon River Beef in Perkinsville, Ariz. At his family’s ranch, cattle are moved in a way that mimics natural grazing patterns of wildlife like bison and elk. Across their 15,000 acres, the cattle will spend no more than 60 days in each paddock.
Khan says that most ranchers’ goal is to not only raise animals, but also to pass their ranch on to the next generation of their family. Like Date Creek Ranch, Moon River Beef also finishes their cattle on the same grass they were raised with on the pastures and they are harvested on site to avoid causing the animals undue stress.
“If there’s going to be anything to pass on, we need to maintain it in a healthy and vibrant and biodiverse condition,” he said.
In Bonogofsky’s experience, most conservation organizations and local cattle ranchers, as opposed to most industrial CAFOs, have a shared goal: take care of the landscape.
“I think maybe people have an idea that cattle ranching and conservation can’t coexist, but it is very possible and it’s happening up here,” Bonogofsky said.
Soil health specialists at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that mimicking wildlife grazing patterns is a key factor to nutrient cycling, which promotes healthy landscapes and helps make them resilient to the changing climate. In fact, the absence of cattle in previously grazed grasslands can allow forage to grow old, reducing the reproductive capability and nutritional value of the grasses.
Livestock play a critical role in fostering a healthy environment when sustainable and holistic regenerative grazing is achieved, said Terry Cosby, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service chief. Department researchers believe ranchers should be ready to adapt their management strategies to the impacts of climate change, like prolonged droughts and floods.
“Our work with these producers on grazing lands is part of a broader strategy to address climate change through voluntary conservation,” Cosby said.
Barteau, previously a vegetarian, said her whole perception of cattle’s impact on land changed when she saw how her family’s ranch operated. The way that their livestock were not viewed as dollars and cents, but rather as a part of the ecosystem that provides for them, was something she didn’t realize was obtainable in the field.
“The focus of our ranch is not necessarily providing beef,” she said. “It is healing the land in a way that gives us nutritious beef to sell.”
WRITTEN BY: Emma Peterson | Inside Climate News
Emma Peterson is an Arizona-based intern at Inside Climate News. Emma will be graduating in the fall with a master’s degree in investigative journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She went to the University of Arizona for undergrad and received a bachelor’s degree in global journalism and a minor in natural resources. She has experience in the water treatment industry and special interests in western ecosystems and toxicology.
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