Why Regenerative Farming Works and Regenerative Ranching Fails

Livestock barn, adjacent to Gifford Pinchot National Forest lands. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

“Regenerative agriculture” is a trending concept these days. But what does it mean? The buzzword “regenerative” gets bandied about by all sorts of agricultural operations, lobby groups, and would-be thought leaders. However, with no agreed-upon definition, it’s become the latest version of ‘natural’ or ‘sustainable’ – claimed by many, but achieved by few.

The dominant paradigm in American farming is mass production of single-crop monocultures, where every square foot of arable land is tilled to plant a single variety of annual plant that dies after harvest and then expose the soil to dessication, erosion, impoverishment, and wind drift. This practice relies heavily on the use of on chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides, and includes the frequent use of genetically-modified crops to withstand the poor growing conditions. The system is efficient on an industrial scale, but it creates ecological deserts of no value to native wildlife, hemorrhages soil nutrients into streams and rivers (creating a massive oceanic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico), and minimizes the capacity for carbon storage in the soil.

In contrast, truly regenerative farming minimizes soil disturbance by retaining ground cover between rows of primary crops, often using nitrogen-fixing species that add nutrients to the soil. Instead of planting a single crop as far as the eye can see, multiple crops are planted together, creating a simple and non-native but ecologically more diverse natural system that offers native birds, mammals, and pollinators a better chance to find suitable habitat. Sometimes regenerative agriculture involves perennial plant species, which over years can invest resources in developing deeper and weightier root systems, sequestering more carbon in the soil. These regenerative farming methods might not approach the carbon storage of the native perennial grasslands and shrublands that originally inhabited the lands they occupy, but they’re a major improvement over corporate mega-farms. Given the billions of humans on the planet and the futility of feeding them all on hunting and gathering from native ecosystems, regenerative farming is an important step toward sustainability.

However, regenerative ranching is a far more suspect proposition. In ranching, the conversation got hijacked decades ago by a charlatan named Allan Savory, peddling a just-so story that high-intensity, short duration grazing by cattle and other livestock was an improvement over traditional passive methods of livestock management. He claimed that you could triple livestock numbers while increasing grass production, a claim that was debunked scientifically by credible range scientists. It was a beguiling notion to struggling ranchers supposedly rooted in large herds of wild herbivores that once coursed over native grasslands, foraging and trampling intensively and then moving on, sometimes not returning to the same spot for years at a time. But unlike native high-mobility herbivory, the “Savory Method” typically relies on fencing off the landscape into small pastures, and rotating the livestock very small pastures repeatedly during the growing season.

For decades scientific studies have evaluated various methods of rotational grazing (which always involve some level of increased fencing) with unmanaged, dispersed grazing under comparable stocking rates. The findings strongly suggest that both rotational and dispersed grazing get pretty much the same results.

In the arid western United States, livestock grazing suffers from massive sustainability problems that render ‘regenerative grazing’ ecologically unattainable. For centuries, domestic breeds of cattle were selectively bred were selectively bred to graze in the lush, highly productive meadows of northern Europe. When dropped off in arid lands, they congregate along the thin green strips of riparian habitat bordering rivers and streams, destroying these oases of biodiversity and trampling the streams into shallow, muddy trickles of fecal coliform. Add this to the chronic overstocking of western rangelands. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service authorize the ranchers who lease public lands for grazing to remove 45 to 60 percent of the annual forage production in the same pastures, year after year. This officially-sanctioned level of overgrazing destroys native perennial grasses and robs native wildlife of the food and habitat they need to survive. If you read the authoritative textbook on western livestock husbandry Range Management: Principles and Practices by New Mexico State University professor Jerry Holechek – you’ll find out that 30% forage removal by livestock is the maximum that western grasslands and shrubsteppes. Deserts can sustain a much lower percentage of use, and only on wet years. Most desert lands should not be grazed by herds of domestic livestock year after year. And rotational grazing solves none of these problems.

When overgrazing is sufficiently severe to eliminate the native grasses and fragile biological soil crusts that are nature’s defense against invasive weeds, massive infestations of foreign annual plants like cheatgrass and medusahead wildrye often result. These invaders are symptomatic of overgrazing – in healthy natural systems, these weeds are only able to achieve very low densities, because healthy native grasses are superior competitors as adults. But once livestock denude the land of its natural plant cover – which frequently happens during the droughts that are more typical in the West than years with abundant rainfall – invasive weeds are lurking, ready to fill the void. Cheatgrass has been around in the West since the 1800s, but is expanding rapidly over the past several decades. The damaging effects of overgrazing accumulate over time as soil is lost, native plant communities are replaced with less productive invasive species and livestock numbers are stubbornly maintained during droughts. Add to that the fact that the typical domestic cow of today is generally 150-250 pounds larger than when the agencies originally set stocking rates and that climate change is leading to hotter, dryer growing conditions and the picture is even worse.

Cheatgrass is an annual weed with shallow roots that die with the plant every summer, surrendering their carbon to the atmosphere. So when cheatgrass takes over, fueling ever-bigger fires that eliminate fire-intolerant shrubs like sagebrush, it ultimately establishes a monoculture that minimizes the carbon storage of soils while destroying habitat values for native plants and wildlife.

Moreover, the fences that Savory-style grazing needs are a major problem for native wildlife, blocking migrations of native herbivores and killing low-flying birds like sage grouse in startling numbers. Further cross-fencing the public lands will only kill more low-flying sage grouse and set up more roadblocks to wildlife migrations. That’s not regenerative, it’s not sustainable, and the only thing it achieves is increasing the damage to already-stressed native ecosystems.

Ironically, the livestock lobby groups the wonders of regenerative ranching the loudest are typically those representing the ranchers who are the least regenerative, the least sustainable, and the most destructive. While small family ranchers might prefer to graze at lower densities (for fatter cows and higher profits), too many livestock operations con public lands are competing for too little grass. Federal range managers are spread too thin and can’t monitor all the lands leased for grazing to determine land health trends every year, or even every decade. In the nine decades since the passage of Taylor Grazing Act, which was intended to restore public ranges, we have made precious little progress on most ranges, and have lost ground in the southwest. Federal agencies have shown precious little willpower to say ‘no’ to unsustainable levels of livestock grazing, particularly when pressured by hostile county commissioners, state legislators, and congressional representatives who are beholden to the agriculture industries and see federal public lands as a resource to be strip-mined for profit, rather than as living ecosystems worthy of careful stewardship.

The reality is that the only way to improve land health, soil regeneration, and even livestock weight gain is to significantly reduce the overall intensity of livestock grazing on the land. But fewer cattle, fewer domestic sheep, and fewer ranches mean diminishing power, prestige, and political influence for the livestock lobby, which is why they’re fighting hard to prevent such truly-regenerative grazing reforms on western public lands. Just like their parents and grandparents they risk the destruction of western rangelands rather than cede any shrinkage to the power and disproportionate influence they continue to wield. Healthy lands and wildlife populations are the collateral damage of their privilege.

Ecological regeneration on western public lands can be achieved by phasing out non-native cattle and sheep, and let the original, ecologically-appropriate herbivores (like bison, elk, and mule deer) repopulate the habitats that have become degraded cattle pastures. Ending domestic livestock grazing offers the best opportunity to restore native plants communities, restore and improve soils, and maximize carbon storage in western steppes and grasslands. True, this takes the ‘agriculture’ out of the regenerative equation, but this is the key to providing truly sustainable local human communities future. Perhaps it’s time for federal managers to start practicing this brand of regenerative land management.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.