How Now Brown Cow?

“That’s what the bison did,” Mr. Isaacs, a cow-calf rancher said. “They’d come in a million at a time, stomp it all down and move on to fresh pasture. And they wouldn’t come back until it was time to graze again.”

                                                                                ~ Henry Fountain

Farming has always been about managing the soil, keeping it healthy and productive. Many places are blessed with soils excellent for farming, but they can become less productive over time, requiring extensive chemical fertilizer addition, crop rotation or other practices. New approaches are being tested.

Science writer Henry Fountain reports, “There are no clear-cut definitions of the terms, but regenerative farming techniques include minimal or no tilling of soil, rotating crops, planting crops to cover and benefit the soil after the main crop is harvested, and greater use of compost rather than chemical fertilizers.”

On the other hand, many places are unsuitable for farming but can make excellent grazing range. But then many of the problems, and possible solutions, that plague farming also apply to grasslands. Fountain notes, “regenerative grazing means closely managing where and for how long animals forage, unlike a more conventional approach in which animals are left to graze the same pasture more or less continuously. Ranchers also rely more on their animals’ manure to help keep their pastures healthy.”

As a kid in Texas, I often accompanied my father and brother out to ranches owned by my lawyer father’s clients. Back then, ranchers generally just let the cattle out into a pasture that could be hundreds of acres in rolling hills, gulches and mesquite. It was hard, if not impossible, to monitor each of the animals, even with the addition of numerous ranch hands covering the area by pickup, on horseback or, more recently, by ATV. Animals were rounded up at least annually for treatment, slaughter or sale, or sometimes just to be relocated to better pasture. Calves were separated from their mothers and penned for intensive feeding until they were old and hardy enough to join the herd.

The regenerative grazing approach requires a lot of ongoing effort, but benefits both the animals and the grasslands. Fountain describes the effort, “Mr. Isaacs, a fourth-generation rancher on this rolling land in the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle, will put his animals to work on the pasture, using portable electrified fencing to confine them to a small area so that they can’t help but trample some of the weeds as they graze.”

He quotes Isaacs, “We let cattle stomp a lot of the stuff down.” He continues, “That adds organic matter to the soil and exposes it to oxygen, which will help grasses and other more desirable plants take over. Eventually, through continued careful management of grazing, the pasture will be healthy again.”

“As with other pastures at the ranch, Mr. Isaacs has used his electrified fencing to put his cattle to graze on small plots here for short periods of time — 200 head, perhaps, eating and stomping around in a space no larger than a suburban homeowner’s backyard for as little as half an hour. Moving the fencing down the pasture to new plots allows the grazed land time to recover.”

Mr. Isaacs adds, “As I do better for the soil, it just becomes progressively better and better and you grow more grass … And as you grow more grass, you get better soils.”

“It’s never ending.”

Additional information:

Henry Fountain, A Different Kind of Land Management: Let the Cows Stomp, The New York Times, 2/17/21

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