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Regenerative Ranch Practices

It’s been a very long, snowy winter with deep snow blanketing the ground from November until basically now. The sun is shining a glimmer of hope and temps are finally above freezing on the ranch. Maybe Spring has found Wyoming?

Last year, we started some Regenerative Ag projects on the ranch, and with the snow melting I’m really encouraged to say that we are already seeing results!

If you’re new here, let’s do a quick recap to fill you in:

After 30 years of hardship, heartache and hard work, our family was able to purchase a ranch with some farm ground in Lodge Grass, MT on the Crow Reservation. While we still operate predominantly on private leases and National Forest, this ranch is an absolute dream come true and has given us some stability with a good sized home base for our cattle, family, and operation. This ranch/farm had previously endured 3 generations of conventional farming. It had also been 20+ years since animal livestock had grazed the land. It was no shock when we tested the soils of each pasture and field, that the ground had given all it had to give and was thirsty for nutrients. While we respect tradition and the way things have been done, there’s a lot of new science out there on land management and regenerative agriculture that is extremely interesting. So, the regenerative projects, or experiments, began!

Regenerating Home Base

#1 Cover Crops

We began by adding cover crops to our traditional crop fields after the harvest season. Cover crops are defined by Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education as “...A plant that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, increase biodiversity and bring a host of other benefits...”

Cathryn showing the fall cover crop residue after a long, snowy winter.

After much research, Trent and Mallory decided on a fall cover crop called The Producer, which is a blend of Purple Top Turnip, Common Vetch, Radish, Flax and Oats, intended for late season grazing. While the early and persistent snow cover kept us from actually grazing those meadows, the residue that the plants left behind will still be an added benefit for the soil. Maybe next year we will get to graze it and return some manure and urea to the soil!

#2 Rotational Grazing

The animals on our ranch don’t have access to all the pastures, all the

time. Research has shown that ranching operations that mimics nature’s dense animal herds, who graze an area intensely, then leave that area to rest and literally move on to greener pastures have happier soils that feed more crucial microbes in the ground, sequester more carbon from the air, retain more water in the ground AND produce more foliage at a higher nutrient density to feed more animals. So that’s what we are trying to do! It requires more work, moving animals more frequently and often setting up an electric fence but we believe it’s worth it!

To make great beef, you have to take great care of your cattle. To take great care of your cattle means taking great care of your land.

#3 Weed Management

Years of hard use and lack of grazing left a lot of barren soil and allowed some pesky weeds to thrive in patches. With our operation being “organically minded”, instead of killing those weeds with pesticides… We are crazy people who bought sheep! Because… What's a little more work, right?

The sheep are being used in conjunction with our grazing cattle and horses. Except, there is a rhythm! Cattle and horses graze a section first, munching mostly on the native grasses that are naturally sweeter and therefore more desirable, often leaving the undesirable/unpalatable weeds behind them. Cue the sheep! While the sheep would prefer to eat the sweet grasses, they also can eat and thrive on weeds, just like goats. So we send them in to graze a section after the cows and they clean up the weed patches before they have a chance to seed out and reproduce. They also leave behind a slightly different manure and urea to feed the microbes in the soil.

#4 Natural Fertilizers

What a perfect segue into natural fertilizers! First natural fertilizer is- you

guessed it- animal excrement! Manure and urea from animals, particularly grazing animals, is crucial for healthy grasslands. Because whether you believe in creation or evolution, grasslands and ruminants were made to go together. Ruminant animals like deer, elk, bison and cattle who graze in dense herds mow the grass down and leave behind dense amounts of excrement. Pruning grasses by way of eating them allows room for new grasses to grow and the manure and urine left behind feeds the microbes that feed the new grasses. This is when I start singing “It’s the circle of life!” lol.

We’ve also been taking the blood from our USDA meat processing plant and turning it into fertilizer for our ranch. Since I’ve already quoted The Lion King, I might as well quote it again. “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass, and so we are all connected in the great circle of life.” -Mufasa, The Lion King

Streaks of dark green from were blood fertilizer has been used in the hay meadows. Can you see it?

Blood is very high in naturally occurring nitrogen, as well as other vitamins and minerals and the grass LOVES it! You can see strips of darker green, thicker grasses in the pastures we’ve poured it. Although man made fertilizers also contain nitrogen, new research is showing that they only cause a temporary spike of fertility that over time leads to more soil depletion, according to the book Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman. So, natural fertilizers it is! Our family is in this for the long haul and for the legacy. We are 6 generations in and would like to see it last at least 6 generations more!

#5 From Crops to Perennials

This was a tough decision to make and was made partially for the land, partially for our sanity. Farming crops like wheat and corn tends to be a much more lucrative adventure than ranching- weather depending. But at the end of the day, our family is stretched to the limit with cattle drives, ranching, Truly \ Beef and our meat processing plant. The thought of adding a humongous planting season every year (which also hits right around the time we are calving) was just too much. It also means more “taking” from the soil in the form of crops and less “returning” to the soil in the form of grazing/excrement. So after much deliberation, we decided to turn some of our crop ground into perennial grasses that can be used for hay and grazed by the cows, horses and sheep. I feel a sigh of relief just by typing this lol.

These newly perennial fields will take a few years to fully mature into substantial hay production. What’s great about hay production is that there is no such thing as having too much hay! Hay can either be stored and saved for several years to feed during harsh winters OR excess hay can be sold to others searching for winter feed.

It used to be a common belief that you didn’t want livestock on your hay meadows because they would damage your fields and decimate your hay production, but new studies show that to be the opposite! Our plan with these fields is to grow our hay enough for 1-2 cuttings and then let the cattle, horses and sheep graze the regrowth in the fall after harvest. Thus, returning more natural fertilizer to the soil, adding natural cloven hoof aeration and ultimately increasing future production and nutrient density of our hay fields.

#6 Bale Grazing

Bale grazing is a new regenerative method to feeding hay in the winter time. Normally, hay is fed daily and is either forked out or unrolled in daily rations for the cattle to munch on in large spaces. Bale grazing, on the other hand, is setting out a week's worth of bales in a concentrated section of pasture for the cattle to graze freely. Once the cattle have consumed that section of hay, they are moved to the next concentrated section of pasture containing a week’s worth of hay and graze there. It’s essentially a winter version of cell grazing. This concentrates the litter left behind from excess hay (which protects bare soil and holds in moisture), manure and urea (which contain essential vitamins, minerals and fertilizer), and concentrates the cloven hoof action that aerates the soil (which helps mix in seeds and nutrients). All the studies we read said that it could take up to three years to see the difference in our pastures and fields! We chose to experiment and do this in the hay fields and crop fields that had the lowest soil scores. I’m so excited to say that we are already seeing a visibly noticeable difference this spring as the grass is coming up!

And from a labor standpoint, it was wonderful! The whole family would gather together for one big day of setting out bales and that was it. It gave us time to do our health check, complete other projects around the ranch, go to church and even relax!

Trent explains the visible results we are already seeing after bale grazing for one winter.

Most of these projects are long term investments into the land. We were not expecting to see immediate results, but how encouraging it has been to see progress already! Should we be shocked? My heart says no. Because all “regenerative agriculture” is doing is mimicking the brilliance of nature. The science is neat, but there’s a creator out there who created the rules we play by. I’m just excited to learn, get my hands into the soil and help create Truly \ Beef the way God intended.

As always, thank you for reading! Feel free to add questions or comments below.




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