In February 2021, Noble Research Institute announced that the 75-year-old agricultural research organization would focus all of its operations on regenerative ranching.
The decision naturally elicited a parade of elephant-sized questions, all interconnected, all equally critical. Farmers and ranchers, who have worked with Noble for generations, wanted to understand the definition, motivation and potential of this regenerative ranching mindset. Collaborators from universities, government agencies and the agriculture sector wanted to understand the broader implications.
Below, Noble President and CEO Steve Rhines walks us through the decision to harness Noble’s passion and past for the singular purpose of assisting farmers and ranchers as they regenerate the land in a profitable manner.
Q: What is regenerative ranching?
At Noble, we have adopted the following definition for regenerative ranching: “the process of restoring degraded grazing lands using practices based on ecological principles.” Admittedly, “ecological principles” may feel science-y and complicated, but many of us learned of the four ecosystem processes in school, including the water cycle, nutrient cycle, energy cycle and community dynamics. In practice, it is managing your grazing lands with grazing animals in a way that advances — rather than opposes — these important, natural processes.
What do you hope to accomplish by focusing on regenerative ranching?
Noble’s goal is to achieve regenerative land stewardship in grazing animal production with lasting producer profitability. Achievement will be measured by the nation’s farmers and ranchers profitably regenerating hundreds of millions of acres of U.S. grazing lands.
Why, as the largest nonprofit agricultural research organization in the country, did you decided to hone in on regenerative ranching?
The short answer is that we, as an organization, believe that regenerative agriculture helps producers meet two essential objectives: to be economically successful today AND to leave their lands better than they found them.
If you look at a farmer or rancher’s operation, they have to manage all pieces of the ecosystem — including soil, water, land, animal, markets and themselves. For the past three decades, we’ve been focusing on the individual pieces of that puzzle. Regenerative agriculture looks at how the whole system is managed, so our research will be at landscape-scale.
So what’s the longer answer? What brought you to this point?
In 2019, we began an organization-wide assessment to set a strategic direction and a common goal for the organization. As part of that work, we identified three primary challenges to future ranch viability: 1) land productivity and regeneration in the face of climate variability, 2) declining profitability and 3) declining population of agricultural producers.
It became clear that regenerative ranching is well-suited to address all three challenges as we look at the current and future generations of grazing animal producers.
We then evaluated these challenges through how our operations (i.e., producer consultation, producer education and research) could mitigate them. It was clear that we could only do that if we focused all of our energy on this singular goal: achieve regenerative land stewardship in grazing animal production with lasting producer profitability.
How does this regenerative focus align with your founder’s intent?
This was the other critical component to Noble’s move to a regenerative ranching focus. Regenerative ranching perfectly aligns with the mission and ethos established by our founder, Lloyd Noble. In a 1948 speech, occurring less than three years after our founding, Mr. Noble outlined that the organization was “intensely interested in the rebuilding and rehabilitation of the soil.” Rebuilding and restoring the soil is at the heart of our mission and regenerative ranching.
We’ve been working on soil health for decades. Isn’t it already fixed?
There is as much need for rebuilding the soil today as there was when Mr. Noble founded this organization. Scientists and producers agree that our grazing lands are degraded, which results in a cycle of increasing inputs to achieve the same levels of production per acre. In addition, we see continued erosion and the loss of grazing lands to brush and woody encroachment. This has a tremendous negative impact on our landscape and becomes economically unsustainable.
How is regenerative ranching different from land stewardship and soil conservation, or is it just another name for the same thing?
Land stewardship practices often focus on soil testing and applying necessary nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to enable maximized plant yields. Often, the focus is on the plant, but the plant is only part of the story.
Likewise, soil conservation (and land stewardship), in its simplest form, seeks to reduce or prevent the physical loss of soil due to water and wind erosion. Again, this is only part of the overall equation.
Regenerative ranching is the next step in the land stewardship journey, wherein farmers and ranchers reduce their reliance on conventional practices and manage their operations to restore — or regenerate — the soil as a valuable component of a system that involves the dynamic interactions of soil, water, plant, animal, economics and the land manager.
Why specifically focus on grazing lands?
Grazing is the single largest use of land in the United States. Beef cattle have been a primary focus on Noble’s research and consultation for the past 75 years. There are 655 million acres of public and private grazing lands, which represent almost 41% of our nation’s land. Grazing lands exist in all 50 states, and the majority of this land cannot sustain row crops. It is reported that up to 70% of the world’s grazing lands are in a degraded state. And, research in grazing lands is often overlooked.
Does regenerative ranching work?
Yes, we have countless examples of regenerative ranching working across the United States. We understand that this evidence is anecdotal, but our research will answer critical producer-guided questions regarding soil management, grazing, economics and business operations.
A world-renowned regenerative scientist recently said: “An appropriate question is not whether regenerative agriculture works or not but how to make it work under a producer’s specific context, including their land resources, economics, social and human circumstances.” There are a lot of variables, but they are what ranchers face every day.
Our educational and consulting programs will be rooted in equipping farmers and ranchers to effectively use regenerative principles for their specific land and operation.
How does Noble fit into the entire regenerative ranching process?
We want to help farmers and ranchers overcome the four key barriers that stand in the way of their lasting use of regenerative, profitable land management practices in grazing animal production.
Everything Noble does will build a farmer or rancher’s knowledge, critical thinking skills, understanding and confidence in applying regenerative principles. We will be here when they need help or when they encounter something new.
What are the barriers?
We group these barriers into four categories: lack of guidance and mentoring; economic uncertainty in adoption and operations as well as managing ongoing risk; cultural, generational and societal pressures that work against change; and lack of available, science-based management knowledge.
There are two parts to this last one. First, we need to answer the right questions to benefit farmers and ranchers, which will also benefit the scientific community. Second, we need to make research results (whether provided by Noble or others) accessible and usable by farmers and ranchers.
In the end, we are dedicating all of our operations, including research, consultation, producer education and our ranches, to helping break down these barriers.
What are the outcomes of degraded soils?
Degradation negatively impacts the land’s productivity. In an effort to maintain productivity, we often seek to add more and more inputs to “control” weeds and increase production. These inputs are often expensive and require time and equipment to apply. That is only one side of it. Degraded lands rarely receive the full benefit of rain or applied water because the land is often bare, hardened, and tends to allow water to move across the surface to tributaries or other bodies of water. We often see degraded lands being more susceptible to wind and water erosion.
How is Noble going to help producers with degraded soils?
We are here to help farmers and ranchers improve degraded soils and the economics of their operations. It is not just about reducing inputs. Rather, it is holistically managing an operation — soil, forages, animals, water, economics, and human effort and time — to benefit both the soil and the economics. Through this approach, we first look to build soil health. We do this by covering the ground with growing plants, we rely on a diversity of grazing plants, we keep living plants present year-round, we avoid depending on regular and significant disruptions to the soil (e.g., fertilizer, tillage), and we integrate managed grazing into our system. Healthy soils tend to stay in place, increase water availability for forages, and serve as a reservoir of nutrients for plants.
The outcomes of regenerative ranching sound great, but it differs from traditional management of livestock and pastures. Change in practice can be hard — particularly if you are depending on your farm or ranch for your livelihood. Accordingly, Noble is dedicated to assisting farmers and ranchers in building knowledge, skills, and confidence in adopting and sustainably applying regenerative principles to their own operations.
Healthy soils provide the forage that I need to raise healthy cattle.
I only have so much land to work with, and I want to be able to improve what land we have.”
Rusty Daniel, Wapanucka, OK
What are the benefits of regenerative ranching?
Properly managed soil leads to increased soil organic matter, which reduces soil erosion, holds water to sustain through periods of drought and to mitigate impacts of heavy rainfall, enables productive plant growth, requires less fertilizer and other inputs, enhances water quality, and sequesters atmospheric carbon. Less fertilizer and inputs can significantly impact the profitability of an agricultural operation.
At scale, we begin to sequester atmospheric carbon and manage one of the variables often cited for climate variability. We impact water quantity, water quality and nutrient runoff. We create landscapes that serve as the center of rural renewal. And, we impact the profitability and ability for farmers and ranchers to continue raising the world’s protein needs.
How does regenerative ranching impact wildlife?
A landscape comprised of diverse plant life increases opportunities and habitats for wildlife and pollinators. Diversity above ground correlates to diversity below ground, which provides an environment conducive for above-ground plant growth.
What role do grazing animals play in regenerative ranching?
The introduction of managed grazing animals stimulates plant growth, recycles nutrients to the soil, and enables the energy of the sun to be converted into a nutrient-packed protein source for human consumption via plants that are otherwise inedible by humans.
What are the costs associated with shifting to regenerative ranching?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Instead, the answer typically depends on what you’re trying to do, how fast you’re trying to do it and the resources you have available to get you there.
We teach principles — soil management principles, economic principles and grazing principles — not “a solution in a bag.” We offer context on application of such principles, then producers have to decide what that might look like in their context. But, Noble walks alongside the producers for that part of the journey as well.
We know that economics is at the top of the list of questions for farmers and ranchers considering regenerative production systems. As we transition the Noble ranches (about 14,000 acres), we will be tracking infrastructure (water, fencing, etc.) and expenses for new enterprises (adding sheep, goats, etc.) as well as vetting alternative approaches, for example, portable water troughs utilizing quick-connect adaptors along water lines versus stationary troughs. Then we will make our budgets and expenses available for review by farmers and ranchers as part of our educational and learning process.
Is regenerative ranching a profitable way to manage the land?
The American landscape is dotted with financially sound regenerative farmers and ranchers. Can they explain their success scientifically? Not always. Does that mean, then, that success hasn’t happened? Absolutely not. We can visit many of these farms and ranches and see diverse pastures — not five different forage species but 50 or more different species. We see pollinators and wildlife activity. We see increased soil organic matter and increased water holding capacity in the soil. We can find healthy and marketable ruminants — from cattle to sheep and goats. We see reduced fertilizer and other input costs, which results in increased profitability. In addition, we see new marketing opportunities, which offers alternatives to commodity food production, which allows farmers and ranchers to participate in specialized markets to satisfy a growing desire for locally sourced food.
As mentioned before, understanding the economics is critically important. Exploring different markets and helping navigate the risk associated with change is a place Noble can assist. It will be a primary focal point of our research and education activities.
How does a producer know this isn’t just another short-lived trend?
With regard to the issue of trends, in 1945, Mr. Noble envisioned our organization to work to repair and build up the soil and at the same time provide practical and economically beneficial information to agricultural producers. On a national scale, it is arguable that the need has never been greater to restore our soil and better ensure the economic viability of the less than 2% of the U.S. population that grows food for a hungry globe.
Is there research to back up the claims on regenerative ranching?
There is a growing body of reported research. There are a number of names — which I cannot do justice to in this answer alone — who have been speaking about and sharing the impact of regenerative ranching through peer-reviewed research and presentations for years (even decades). A few of these names include Hannah Gosnell, Laura Paine, Rattan Lal, Jason Rowntree and Richard Teague. Noble seeks to contribute to this research and share its results broadly.
What does regenerative ranching look like in application?
It looks like what the farmers and ranchers implementing the principles want it to look like. It might mean smaller framed cattle, but maybe not. It may include use of electric fence dividing larger pastures into smaller grazing paddocks, but maybe not. It may involve multispecies grazing (cattle plus sheep or goats), but maybe not. It may look like multiple enterprises per acre to offer economic diversity to the operation, but maybe not.
No matter what the specific operation may look like, we are working toward operations that are regenerating their grazing lands and at the same time providing lasting producer profitability.
Does moving to regenerative agriculture mean abandoning conventional agriculture as it is currently known?
In the text Tools to Manage Ecosystem Processes, the Savory Institute says it best: “When managing holistically, tools are neither good nor bad, and no judgment on the use of any tool or any action should be made outside the context of the whole under management.” The text goes on to say: “The way a tool is used can make as much of a difference as whether its use is appropriate.”
Regenerative ranching is not anti-technology or anti-anything. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, fire and grazing are all tools that may be employed for land or forage management. Rather, regenerative ranching is balancing the place for any such tools, technologies or management practices based on observation and need.
In visiting with long-term regenerative farmers and ranchers, once ecosystems are healthy and functioning, the “chemotherapy” needed to drive yield and production is often displaced by natural interactions and processes.
What about the way we market our livestock? Does it mean we won’t be selling through the sale barn or to feedyards?
The first question would be “What does the farmer or rancher want?” Regenerative ranching does not dictate a point of sale or prescribe a singular marketing option. Producers may market their livestock through traditional channels, for example, sale barns, or transfer them to feedyards. Others may seek to distinguish their animals from commodity channels, for example, by selling as pasture-raised harvesting and selling directly to consumers.
I am interested but not sure of where to begin. How do I get started?
Contact Noble Research Institute at 580-224-6500.