What is Regenerative Agriculture?
With its focus on renewing soil and working within, rather than against, natural systems, regenerative agriculture is more than a sustainable way to farm. It can heal the damage caused by industrial agriculture and build a food system that’s better for people, animals and the environment.
The industrial food system is devastating to the environment, to communities and to people. While there are many different ways to talk about more sustainable alternatives, regenerative agriculture is one of the most popular terms used to talk about an ideal food system. Although a growing number of operations are using the word regenerative to describe their practices — including big agribusinesses who use it to market industrially grown products — the farming techniques generally included under the umbrella term regenerative agriculture come from the traditional knowledge of Indigenous people and small farmers around the world.
Regenerative agriculture is a recognition that simply stopping the destructive practices of industrial agriculture isn’t enough: agriculture must also actively heal land that has been damaged by years of industrial crop and livestock production. This includes a special focus on soil, which quickly erodes under poor land management. But regenerative agriculture isn’t just one way to farm, and it encompasses a variety of farming methods that produce food in a way that works with and builds up the surrounding ecosystem. Focusing on soil and adopting regenerative methods can have immense ecological benefits. With its capacity to lower greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and its potential to make farms more resilient against the stresses of climate change, moving towards regenerative agriculture is a necessity in the face of a warming climate.
While these techniques prioritize environmental sustainability by building up soil and fostering biodiversity, shifting to a more regenerative food system requires prioritizing food justice and restructuring farm policy to reduce corporate influence and bring local control to food systems.
Similar to the human gut biome, healthy soil depends upon a thriving community of healthy bacteria, fungi, and microbes to remain balanced. Microorganisms give the soil structure and help it to retain more water. Plants with healthy soil become more nutrient-rich, drought-tolerant, and resistant to pests. Meanwhile, these plants store carbon in their long, thriving roots.
Cattle play a vital role in soil health. Their hooves gently stir and aerate the soil; gentle nibbling triggers plants to absorb more carbon into their roots; fresh manure spreads seeds and contributes to the vibrant microbial communities in the soil. Through carefully planned grazing that mimics the patterns of wild animal herds, ranchers ensure the land is not overgrazed, while producing healthier crops with improved yields.
Problem: Today, we rely heavily on conventional agriculture, which is built upon a model of extraction. According to the Scientific American, the causes of soil destruction include chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming. On average the US loses 545 million TONS of topsoil each year due to corn, and 5.8 TONS of topsoil are LOST PER ACRE. The UN conducted a soil survey that came up with a shocking discovery, if current rates of degradation continue, all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years.
Solution: Mother nature, left to herself, is adaptive, resilient, and regenerative. Regenerative agriculture has a mindset of looking at mother nature as a system, that holistically promotes working together to improve as a whole. Cattle have always been a part of that system. Herds of bison once roamed the land freely, grazing and moving as the forages were chewed down. Rotational grazing mimics this type of interaction with the land, by allowing the plants and soil time to rest and regenerate, but still having the positive impacts of animals grazing (manure as fertilizer and hoof action to stir up seeds).
Clean water is one of the top environmental priorities worldwide, impacting human health, biodiversity, and survival. How we farm matters. Healthier soil means healthier waterways. Regenerative farming practices benefit water quality and quantity by reducing chemical pesticide pollution impacting our ground and surface water. In turn, this reduces harmful algae blooms and drinking water pollution. Like a sponge, healthy soil holds 20 times its weight in water — meaning less runoff to contaminate waterways and improved groundwater recharge that makes farms and ranches more resilient to flood and drought cycles. Regenerative agriculture strategies like cover cropping and reduced tillage further improve the watershed system.
Problem: Close to 40% (over 600 gallons per day per person in the U.S.) of freshwater withdrawal coming from diversion for farm irrigation and livestock use making water and soil undeniably connected. With the Mississippi River in our backyard, the impact on watershed has become detrimental and we are watching it unfold right in front of our eyes. Draining 31 U.S. states and parts of Canada, the Mississippi River meanders southward and picks up contaminants like sediment, mercury, fertilizers, and pesticides. Pollution from fertilizers, sewage treatment plants, and industrial facilities combine to create a Dead Zone in the Gulf. Since the 1970s, the Dead Zone has grown to the size of Connecticut (about 5,500 square miles).
Solution: By using regenerative agriculture we are able to increase the soil’s water holding capacity, making water more readily available during dry spells and sequester more water, faster in times of flood. When soils are at their best, they are able to filter water and decrease runoff, which then improves water quality in several bodies of fresh water, like the Mississippi River. According to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, every 1% of organic matter in the soil holds an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre, per rain event. If we did this math on 500 acres x 20,000 gallons of water = 10,000,000 gallons saved! Using this method of practice, we are able to keep soil, nutrients, and pesticides out of the waterway.
Global climate change can be observed in many ways – glacial shrinking, rising sea levels, increased flooding and wildfires, coastal erosion, and declining water reserves. U.S. soil has the potential to withdraw 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Further, author and environmentalist Paul Hawken lists regenerative agriculture as “by far the single greatest solution to the climate crisis,” among 100 other proposals.
Problem: It will come as no surprise, that climate change is an ever-pressing issue challenging human and natural life sustainability on Earth. The global climate solution is not possible without addressing the impact of agriculture which contributes upwards of 1/3 of the global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. With a lack of tangible, capable solutions to address the severity and urgent time crunch to the problem, not only do we need to severely reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere, but we also need to start utilizing the carbon that already exists. Soil destruction creates a vicious cycle, in which less carbon is stored, the world gets hotter, and the land is further degraded.
Solution: Photosynthesis. According to Green America, the idea behind regenerative agriculture is relatively straightforward: excess carbon in the atmosphere is bad because of its role in climate change, and carbon in the soil is good because of its role as a fertilizer. Regenerative agriculture is a set of tools and practices that pulls carbon from the air and transfers it underground—storing carbon and re(storing) agricultural soils. Our grazing process consists of the rule of thirds: graze a third, trample a third and leave a third. This promotes photosynthesis in the plant by forcing it to regrow, because once a plant is fully grown, it goes dormant and the photosynthetic process does not occur.
The proliferation of bird, bee, and insect populations plays a central role in supporting pollination, nutrient cycling, and feeding beneficial creatures that promote plant diversity and healthier ecosystems. One study estimates we have lost a staggering 76 percent of insect biomass in 27 years.
Regenerative organic agriculture encourages biodiversity by producing a rich blend of microorganisms, plants, and animals on the farm. Healthier soils mean stronger crops, and stronger crops mean less reliance on chemical pesticides.
Problem: There has been an ever-growing rivalry between agriculture and the environment. The problem is, that the environment is losing. Agriculture and food production is increasing, forcing production against nature. When putting a focus on the demand for producing food, it takes away from the great opportunity of having them work together for the better good of the people and the planet.
Solution: When farming in a way such as regenerative agriculture, the system functions more like a natural ecosystem rather than a monoculture field. Regenerative agriculture involves creating a system that has multiple species of insects, pollinators, forages, and birds that work together to naturally improve the ecosystem.
The mainstream conventional farming approach separates livestock from the land. Animals fatten up on grain, while much of the soil is devoted to corn production in order to make the feed. Fossil fuels are required to raise and harvest feed, as well as spread manure. Corn plants absorb minerals from the soil – primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, but also boron, copper, iron, manganese, potassium, and zinc. Continually replanting corn strips the soil, rendering it nearly useless over time.
Regenerative agriculture links cattle and crops. The animals help feed the plants — while the plants, in turn, feed the animals. Responsible, sustainable ranching encourages plant growth and nutrient re-population with natural fertilizer. The cattle eat pest bugs and unwelcome weeds, while less land is devoted to feed production.
'Properly managed grazing, if applied on 25% of our crop and grasslands, would mitigate the entire carbon footprint of North American agriculture.'
---Montana Ranch and Cattle Company
Problem: Savory Institute claims, 1/3 of the Earth’s land surface is grasslands, and of that 1/3, seventy percent are facing desertification. On top of wreaking havoc on our land, the UN FAO’s estimate if nothing is done there will be only 60 years left to farm due to the current rate of soil degradation, and globally it will cost approximately $24,000,000,000,000 (Trillion) by 2050 to maintain poor land. And even if we do maintain the poor land, the food will not contain the nutrition we need.
Solution: Research shows properly managed lands are both ecologically and economically beneficial for humans and nature. Regenerative agriculture holistic management is broken up into four parts, Planned Grazing, Land Planning, Financial Planning, and Ecological Monitoring. We have proven by properly managing the land and grazing we can regenerate topsoil, reverse desertification and gain all the benefits of doing such.
While containing animals in pens may be easier for farmers to manage, it is not the ideal condition for animals. Animals fed a grain-heavy diet end up with accumulated, undigested starch fermenting in the colon, increasing acidity conducive to E. coli bacterial colonies. The cramped conditions and close proximity to their own dung further propagate disease among the herd — and potentially in the human food supply.
In nature, cattle space themselves out, grazing in field and forest. A fresh supply of hay and grass keeps harmful gut microbes at bay without the need for veterinary intervention. The welfare of the animals can be plainly seen by the fact that animals in pastured systems tend to become ill less often and do not require antibiotics to treat disease. Research conducted at Ohio State University found that regenerative farms had lower cow and calf mortality rates than conventional farms, while accommodating more cattle per acre.
Problem: It is a growing concern for individuals to know where their food comes from, and how it is grown or raised. While it is important to be mindful of your own food practices, it is also important to stay informed about the treatment of all people, land, and animals involved in the production.
Solution: Regenerative agriculture stands on the grounds of raising animals in a humane way. They are raised in pasture settings where they can express their natural behaviors and not experience the pain and discomfort of a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation). Raising cattle in a respectful way is our responsibility and simultaneously contributes to healthy soil, which creates high-quality nutrient-dense forages.
Health and Wellness
Regenerative agriculture boosts the health and wellness of the human species in so many ways. Countless studies support the nutritional benefits of raising herds on grass, rather than grain.
Grass-fed beef is lower in overall fat and saturated fat, while containing two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. These “good fats” reduce blood pressure and regulate the heartbeat, while reducing the risk of obesity, cancer, asthma, and depression. Pasture animals also contain three to five times more Conjugated Linoleic Acids, which defend against cancer, atherosclerosis, and arthritis. Vitamin E is yet another nutrient in greater supply with grass-fed meat, helping humans combat heart disease and cancer.
Problem: Nutrition is at the root of good health. Without steady, nutritious food, humans simply cannot live, learn, fight disease or lead fruitful lives. Health and wellness are key in thriving on a day to day basis.
Solution: Most people are unaware that cattle are designed to eat diverse forages, not grain. Their uniquely designed ruminant digestive systems are able to turn nutrients from grass and forage into nutrient-dense meat. For us, it all starts with regenerating the soil. Focusing on building healthy soil leads to diverse grasslands, more micro-nutrients in the plants and grass that the cattle consume, ultimately creating nutrient-dense meat that everyone can feel good about eating.
On a macro-level, regenerative agriculture positively impacts rural communities. The trend has encouraged a new generation of farmers and ranchers to get into a sustainable family business. Ranching is a more profitable venture with less money spent on feed, farm equipment, pesticides, and veterinary care. Cooperative communities share knowledge and aggregate their market power to ensure greater profits for all.
Regenerative farms are environmentally responsible, socially accountable, and interconnected with the communities they serve, hiring locally and undertaking philanthropic projects in their own backyards.
Problem: Scientists expect climate change to increase the number of both droughts and extreme precipitation events. Both of these impacts, in turn, reduce agricultural productivity and further aggravate climate change—droughts reduce vegetation growth, which limits carbon sequestration; extreme precipitation worsens erosion, which causes soil carbon stocks to be lost. The NCA points out, rural communities bear the brunt of these changes.
Solution: Thousand Hills understands the importance of supporting the rural economy. That is why we work with over 50 family farms to source our grass-fed cattle. We work to make sure that our producers can grow as we grow and can maintain the quality of cattle that they provide on a consistent basis. Some of our many ways include offering competitive compensation and individual consultation assisting them in understanding ways to get the most out of the land and animals that they are raising. Without rural economies, we have no product.
The methods and tools used in regenerative agriculture not only restore the soil, but restore local communities as well. Evidence can be seen in China’s Loess Plateau during the 1990s, where government investment in regenerative agriculture restored 4 million hectares of over-cultivated, dusty land to ecological balance, improving food security by lifting 2.5 million people out of poverty. Similarly, farmer Yacouba Sawadogo transformed 62-acres of barren scrub-land in Burkina Faso into a lush forested farm. The spread of these practices has provided food security to millions of Africans over the last 20 years.
Problem: According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Among the great challenges the world faces is how to ensure that a growing global population – projected to rise to around 10 billion by 2050 – has enough quality food to meet their nutritional needs for a healthy life.” For a planet experiencing crippling climate change and resources to grow the amount of nutritional food needed, the problem of food scarcity is an urgent one.
Solution: With US soil degrading at an alarming rate due to our heavy reliance on conventional agriculture, it is important that we make a change in the way we produce our food. Thousand Hills practices regenerative agriculture, which focuses largely on healthy soil and sequestering carbon, in return creating more nutrient-dense cattle that are higher in both Omega-3 fatty acids and CLA’s. We are able to produce Grass Fed Beef that allows you to feel good, by doing good, all because of regenerative agriculture.
Carbon Farming, a farming method that reduces Greenhouse Gas emissions or captures and holds carbon in vegetation and soils. It is managing land, water, plants, and animals to gain the benefits of Regenerative Agriculture.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
The amount of carbon in our atmosphere is at an all-time high. It is warming our earth at an alarming rate and crippling our climate. However, in our soil, it is having the opposite effect. Because of long-term tilling, overgrazing, erosion, and chemical use, our soils have lost up to 80% of its carbon.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
By moving carbon down from the atmosphere into the soil we will be able to help combat climate change! Soil is fueled by carbon molecules, which in return those microorganisms feed all the plants, those plants feed the animals, that then feed us.Grass-fed beef can play an important role in carbon farming when properly managed. The issue is that not all grass fed beef produced with the same practices. Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed teams up with Renegades who practice regenerative agriculture on their farms, helping to create healthy soils and diverse forage for the animals.