Regenerative Farming Trailblazers: How Reintegrating Livestock and Restoring Soils Can Lead to More Resilient Farms

March 29, 2018 | 4:26 pm
Farmer using diverse cover crops and animal grazing to build soil health.Photo: USDA/Ron Nichols
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

Across the United States, more farmers are finding that practices that have worked in the past are no longer cutting it. Persistent low prices for common crops (especially corn) paired with high production costs (for example, expensive equipment and fertilizers) have made it hard to stay afloat. At the same time agriculture has also moved increasingly toward systems dominated by a few annual crops—typically corn and soybeans—often with fields left bare between growing seasons. This trend has degraded core resources like soil and water, endangering the long-term viability of many farms.

Faced with growing pressures, some farmers are exploring their options, including testing regenerative farming practices that can rebuild soil health, conserve water, improve water quality, and more. For example, farmers are diversifying their crops and animals, implementing more complex crop rotations, and protecting soil year-round by using cover crops. Such changes come with both challenges and opportunities.

Overcoming the obstacles of regenerative farms, and a role for ruminants

Adding regenerative practices to farms can be great on many levels, but they aren’t always easy, at least under current conditions. For example, oats can improve crop rotations, but there’s not much demand for them, and farmers don’t want to plant something they can’t sell. Cover crops are good for soils, but farmers experience barriers to adopting them, such as costs, market forces, and risks of reduced yields. Getting grass back on land is fantastic for soil health, clean water, and more, but today’s trends are toward a loss rather than gain in grasslands.

Interestingly, one way to make regenerative farming more manageable, is to (re)integrate livestock. As I’ve written, livestock—when managed with best practices—can help turn challenges of regenerative agriculture into solutions, enabling a more self-reliant farming system. For instance, livestock can eat the oats, cover crops, and grass that protect the soil. In turn, the livestock’s manure can reduce reliance on costly alternatives while also building soil health.

But can such changes add up to meaningful benefits for farmers and the environment? Our recent analysis suggested that the answer to this question is yes. We found that several regenerative scenarios could translate to reduced soil erosion, fertilizer loss, and pollution, as well as increased soil organic matter, resilience to extreme weather, and potentially even more profits for farmers. But while these number-crunching exercises were hopeful, it’s important to also explore what’s happening on the ground. So, don’t take it from me—take it from the soil health heroes.

Tales from regenerative trailblazers

Fortunately for regenerative agriculture, farmers across the country are already pioneering promising paths forward, applying innovative practices and seeing results (I mentioned a few on World Soil Day). These land stewards are showing that there are ways to transform agriculture acre-by-acre that can support their livelihoods while also building soils, protecting water, and more. We recently connected with a handful of those who are leading the way on diverse and integrated farms, and their stories are insightful and inspiring.

Integrating regenerative agriculture and livestock can be a smart path to more profits

Take Del Ficke, a fifth-generation farmer from Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, for example. In Ficke’s words, “Regenerative farming is a no-brainer. Most of the soil in the country is on life support and it’ll only respond to synthetic chemicals…” However, as he has shown on his own farm, regenerative agriculture can turn things around. By adopting cover crops, reintegrating livestock, and using livestock to fertilize fields, Ficke estimates that the organic matter in his soils has increased substantially, reaching 4 percent or more, in some places. This is great news for the long-term health of his farm, as well as for other farmers looking to follow in his footsteps.

Not only that, but Ficke was able to transition his operation from the large scale to a smaller scale while improving his bottom line. As he puts it, “I used to farm 7,000 acres. Now I’m less than 700 acres, but 70 percent more profitable.” In other words, he has accrued more profits, but requires less land.

Benefits from state-to-state, and farm-to-sea

Over 100 miles away, Seth Watkins of Clarinda, Iowa is also finding that similar practices are good for business, even in the state that leads the nation in corn and soybean production. Over time, Watkins, a fourth-generation farmer, has diversified his farm and integrated livestock. While he primarily raises cattle, he also grows corn, hay and oats.

Watkins observes that “A lot of the way we farm now depletes soil organic matter. Having cattle on my land means I can utilize the diversified cropping system I have that builds health and ensures the long-term productivity of my land.” Watkins sees his crops feeding his cattle and his cattle’s manure feeding his crops. And because he saves money on “inputs” (fertilizer, feed, and antibiotics) he sees more profits.

Watkins has also found that the benefits of his practices go far beyond his farm. By creating a farming system that includes cover crops and crop rotations, he reduces water pollution on his farm and contributes to better water quality downstream—all the way to the Gulf of Mexico (which suffers from pollution-driven dead zones every year). Thus, innovations that happen just acre-by-acre, and drop by drop, can matter in a big way.

Cooperation and clear cost-effectiveness are two keys to getting more farmers on board

While regenerative farming can make a difference acre-by-acre, reaping more benefits is only going to be possible if these practices pick up more traction. For example, even as cover crop adoption rates break records, cover crops are still relatively rare. According to Jon Nelson, who grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, growing momentum around such practices will require more than just a few good examples. “To me, it’s intuitive but it takes cooperation,” said Nelson, citing the importance of colleagues, including extension agents, who can exchange ideas and help each other out.

Nelson, who now has a farm and cattle feeding operation in Lake Preston, South Dakota, noted the importance of this type of support in facilitating his own transition from a cash crop farm to a more integrated one. As a result of his success, he saw a drastic increase in organic matter (~25%) in just 3 years, and Nelson’s farm now offers another example of what can work well: “Cash crop and grazing—these two systems can be symbiotic. Our goal is the cattle to work for us, rather than us working for cattle.”

But making best practices spread, and continuing to improve them, will require more research and effective communication (as many scientists agree). As Nelson aptly noted, “If we can prove that diversified farming is more profitable than the traditional monocrop model, then this method of farming will take hold.”

Getting farmers’ feet wet

Despite the success stories, many farmers are still hesitant to adopt regenerative practices, let alone think about scaling them up. As fifth-generation Nebraskan farmer Graham Christensen noted, “By nature, farmers are conservative with making changes on their farms, but they’re also willing to adapt in order to do what is best for their family and farm—farmers are innovators. We need to get our feet wet before we go all in. Getting folks started in utilizing regenerative practices, whether it’s converting their land to cover crops or applying improved rotational grazing or implementing agroforestry—is a good way for people to better understand the tremendous benefits to the soil, and therefore the pocketbook.”

Certainly, even small changes in the right direction can make a meaningful difference and are worth celebrating. Christensen, for one, has successfully convinced his parents to adopt regenerative practices on small portions of their farm, giving them a better understanding for the many “value-adds” that these can provide. Over time, as farmers and scientists continue to improve methods and measurements, these initial experiments will become a foundation for larger change.

Farmers are transforming agriculture to benefit us all: Let’s support them

With the growing stresses on farms and natural resources today, there’s a lot at stake. As Nelson put it, “I don’t want a piece of land that 100 years from now it’s completely depleted and top soil is gone and it ends up fueling another Dust Bowl. In the US, I don’t think we’re real far away from that in some areas. I want to do everything I can to prevent that.” The good news is, there is growing evidence that diversified farms—of many shapes and sizes—can benefit both farmers and the environment. And this all comes down to some basics: “Working with Mother Nature, instead of against it, is the cheapest way to build a viable business,” says Watkins.

While several obstacles stand in the way, the upcoming farm bill provides numerous opportunities to support those who steward the land. For example, education and technical assistance for regenerative practices could be bolstered, crop insurance could be better designed to incentivize healthy soil practices, and research support for agroecology could be strengthened.

But the task of advocating for these advances can’t be left entirely to farmers: “We can’t do it by ourselves,” noted Christensen. Fortunately, even small progress can trigger a big impact down the line. As Ficke mentioned, “It’s a ripple effect. Money will follow the sustainability. Sometimes it takes a long time if the soil is very depleted. But you see family coming back as more people get involved on the farm, and that’s how you build community.”