Peter Allen wants to bury a fence.
Tucked within the rolling landscape of the driftless region, on a farm outside of Viola, Wisconsin, a barbed wire fence runs along the spine of a ridge separating a strip of pasture from the valley below. The noticeable three-foot drop between the fence and the field is the result of years of soil washing away while the field was being used as conventional cropland.
“When we got here, this soil was in really bad shape; it hardly grew anything and there was no topsoil left, it was all just sand subsoil,” Peter Allen recalls in a January 2018 episode of the television show “Outdoor Wisconsin.” “So we immediately brought the animals in, […] planted about 30 different species of native prairie grasses and flowers and then a bunch of trees in rows, and then we ran chickens here behind them. And now, just two years later, this is some of the best forage we have on the farm, right where we ran the chickens through.”
As Allen’s animals—cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens—graze the forage, they return nutrients and organic matter to the land, slowly rebuilding what’s been lost—adding between a quarter of an inch to an inch of soil per year, he says, and slowly restoring the savannah ecosystem once native to the area, a mix of trees and prairie. The livestock are key to this process, providing the cornerstone to a farming system that now yields perennial fruits and nuts, annual crops like corn, and pastured beef, pork, and chicken.
Allen isn’t the only who sees great potential in integrating animals back to the land. In 2013, Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist and former rancher, delivered a TED Talk in which he argued that in order to reverse the process of degraded grasslands turning into desert, we must look to the thing we think caused the problem in the first place: livestock.
Systematically grazing large herds of livestock for defined periods of time across the land creates the necessary conditions for grasses to grow again, Savory argues. In turn, restored grasslands have the potential to sequester enough carbon to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from the animals—and perhaps more.
Savory’s theory flies in the face of the contemporary understanding of overgrazing, ecological restoration of grasslands, and climate change. After his TED Talk, science writers claimed Allan’s hypothesis was “dead wrong”, and that his method would not only fail to yield the results he claimed, but could do more harm than good in the battle to curb climate change. Others came to Savory’s defense, citing studies supporting his method and critiquing the studies referenced by his opposition.
While the academic debate over Savory’s method rages on, beginning and veteran farmers throughout the U.S. have been quietly turning to managed livestock grazing to rebuild their soil, cut costs, and keep their businesses afloat. The system, known as regenerative agriculture, is gaining momentum as practitioners see positive results, and turning the heads of conventional farmers struggling through an era of falling commodity crop prices and rising fuel and chemical costs.
When not tending his own 25-acre farm in Wadena County, Minnesota, Kent Solberg works as the livestock and grazing specialist at the Sustainable Farming Association (SFA), educating fellow farmers about regenerative agriculture and supporting them as they transition from conventional crops or livestock to an integrated system.
Reversing the damage to soil health caused by decades of conventional farming is no easy task. Since the rise of industrialized agriculture in the 1950s, conventional crop farming has systematically caused the desertification of fields. The standard practice—tilling the soil annually, planting corn and soybeans, using herbicides and pesticides—diminishes the soil’s biodiversity, organic matter density, and ability to take in and retain water. It leads to topsoil erosion and releases carbon into the atmosphere that would otherwise have been sequestered belowground.
Regenerative agriculture attempts to restore soil health through the application of five principles, Solberg says: Keep the ground covered. Keep a living root in the soil. Build diversity into your system (particularly plant diversity). Minimize disturbance, specifically through tillage. Integrate livestock.
Christian Myrah, co-founder and head distiller at RockFilter Distillery in Spring Grove, Minnesota, also runs his family’s 350-acre organic farm using regenerative agricultural practices. “The fact that we have livestock actually helps our crop operation,” he says. “[…] We can put cover crops in our fields and then put livestock in there to eat the cover crops, and then they’re recycling those nutrients for us back in the ground.”
Cover crops do more than just offer high-quality forage for livestock. They supply the soil with nitrogen, carbon, and organic matter via root systems, and create a robust environment for microorganisms to convert dead root matter into soil—all of which are necessary to grow healthy cash crops. “As a number of the producers I’ve worked with for several years like to say, ‘If you have crops and livestock, this stuff’s a no-brainer,’” Solberg says.
To create more opportunities for farmers to participate in regenerative agriculture, SFA and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture created the Cropland Grazing Exchange, “basically an interactive Craigslist” connecting farmers who want to integrate livestock into their cropland without keeping the animals permanently and people who have livestock and are willing to bring them to nearby grazing opportunities, explains Solberg. He also advises farmers to use tools like SmartMix, a cover-crop calculator, to help them determine an ideal mix of cover crops for their farm.
It takes about three to five years of regenerative agriculture practices to rebuild soil health, but producers who stick with it are seeing great results, Solberg says. “Producers who have been very serious about this [have seen] yields […] equal or exceeding 10-year county averages—not just the averages of that year—year in and year out.”
The model has successfully scaled up from small farms like those of Solberg, Allen, and Myrah, to farms as large as Dave Brandt’s 1,150-acres in Ohio and Rick Bieber’s 10,000 acres of crop fields and range in South Dakota.
Critics argue that adding more livestock to the landscape will add to the problem of climate change, citing estimates that livestock production already accounts for between 14.5 and 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. They also question whether the restored soil has the potential to sequester enough carbon to offset such emissions.
Transferring carbon into the soil through cover crops and keeping it there through no-till farming isn’t the only way regenerative farms lower greenhouse gas emissions. They also reduce the need for chemicals and fertilizers, which in turn decreases the use of the fossil fuels needed to manufacture and spread said chemicals. Regenerative practices also benefit water quality by lessening soil erosion and agricultural runoff, thus building a more resilient system to cope with extreme climatic events, or even trade wars.
But as Myrah points out, a sustainable farming solution isn’t sustainable if it’s not profitable. Especially for smaller operations, the pressure to stay financially viable mounts each year. “There’s a lot of stories out there […] of farms that have pretty much folded up,” Solberg says. “In fact, I just came out of a meeting where a person who watches the financial side of agriculture very closely said we’re going to see a lot more farms, unless they’re willing to change, go by the wayside in the next year or two.”
One solution for this could be farmers planting cash crops such as peas, sorghum, and sunflowers as cover crops, boosting their annual income. Moreover, the reduced fuel and chemical inputs from using regenerative agriculture increases the per-acre return on investment.
For farmers like Solberg, Myrah, and Allen, regenerative agriculture practices, including integrating livestock, hold the key to achieving their long-term goals, whether that’s passing their farms on to the next generation—or building enough soil to bury a fence.