Rosie Burroughs is quick to say a regenerative mindset is not made overnight.
She and her husband, Ward, farm and ranch in Merced County in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Through the years, they have built on their family’s legacy by bringing their children — Christina, Benina, Zeb and Joe — and their families into the business. Together, through a combination of partnerships and independent enterprises, the members of Burroughs’ family operate a grass-based dairy; raise beef, sheep and poultry on native range and in multispecies pastures; and grow almonds, olives and walnuts.
“It takes time to learn, time to transition,” Burroughs says. “That paradigm shift is something like a lightbulb. It switches on, and you say ‘OK, great. Now I get that and why it’s important.’ Then you continue to learn more, fine-tune, and experience other lightbulb moments.”
It was her father-in-law, Ernest, who took the paradigm shift the hardest when Rosie and Ward joined the family beef, dairy and crop operation in 1974 and started pushing for more holistic thinking.
Ernest grew up on a grass-based dairy in the 1920s and ’30s before being swept up in the generation of farmers and ranchers who were repeatedly told they needed to increase production to improve their livelihood. For the Burroughs family’s dairy, that meant moving cattle inside and bringing high-quality feed to them rather than encouraging the cattle to harvest their own fresh forage.
Milk production went up in that conventional system, but Rosie and Ward could see they were not tapping into nature’s cycles — freebies for the farmer.
Instead, they had removed the cattle’s ability to act as a conduit of the sun’s energy, to play their role in a fundamental cycle: The sun feeds the grass through photosynthesis, grazing animals eat the grass, then those animals deposit nutrients back into the grass as natural fertilizer.
When Rosie and Ward told Ernest they wanted to manage for grass and the entire ecosystem rather than for high milk production, he was skeptical. Very few ranchers were managing their grass in the U.S. at the time. But the couple and their daughter, Christina, who had brought back ideas from the grass-based dairies in New Zealand, began managing for a diversity of plants in the pasture. They began moving cattle from paddock to paddock in order to work with, not against, the energy cycle.
Ernest saw the results and was impressed.
“He lived out his life here on our farm, where he could watch the cows go in and out from the pasture twice a day for milking,” Burroughs says. “He said he never would have believed it could be done and that it was one of the most beautiful sights he got to see in his retirement.”
She says even though she and Ward still don’t have all the answers, their minds are made up. The regenerative journey is worth it, for their family, their land and livestock, and their community.
The Burroughs family isn’t alone.
Gail Fuller went broke trying to keep up with the conventional corn-soybean game on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, near Severy. He is now reversing erosion and building up a healthier land resource for his kids and grandkids while raising grass-finished beef and lamb, pastured pork and poultry, and fruit and nut trees.
Jake Miller returned to his family’s crop and beef operation near Culbertson, Nebraska, after college, intending to both farm and ranch until he realized grazing was his best opportunity to improve his soil and its ability to hold water. In the frequently drought-stressed region, he and his father, John, graze their cattle longer due to their management.
The stories of people committed to leaving the land better than they found it are countless.
Each regenerative rancher faces a unique set of circumstances, both personally and financially, as well as in terms of land resources and environmental conditions. However, underlying their commitment is a powerful mindset that energizes their journeys.
The intricacies of this mindset vary from person to person, but patterns begin to emerge in conversations with Burroughs, Fuller and Miller.
The following is a look inside a mindset focused on tapping into age-old truths about how the land works for the benefit of the ranch and beyond when managed regeneratively.
Finding Strength in Humility
The regenerative path is not a new one, but it typically is a divergence from the mainstream. Especially for those who have grown up in agriculture, this means there is a lot to learn and unlearn. Even for those who did not grow up on a farm or ranch, the journey requires humility and a recognition that decisions made on the ranch affect not just the family on that piece of land, but also society as a whole.
Fuller grew up on a typical Kansas family farm and went out on his own in the 1980s, expanding his operation to 3,200 acres of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. He was interested in no-till early on and, after a few failures, transitioned completely away from tillage in the 1990s. However, he was still using tremendous amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and seeing significant erosion.
Looking back, he says, he had “foolishly” thought he’d reached the “pinnacle of farming” when he moved to no-till. But in the early 2000s, he began to learn more about the connections among the soil, water and human health, including the reality that runoff from his farm could negatively impact water quality for others.
It was a thought Fuller says he couldn’t stand, and he immediately began finding ways to improve soil health in order to reduce his input use. A financial crisis in the 2010s pushed him to further change his model from focusing on crops to grazing livestock.
Fuller was faced with the realization that he had to admit he didn’t know it all and that he could do better.
“It’s difficult for any human to admit that maybe they’ve done wrong or aren’t doing everything to the best of their ability,” Fuller says, “but I care about my kids and grandkids. I knew I needed to make changes so future generations could have the same chance to do what I’m doing.”
On the regenerative journey, humility is not just about recognizing needed change. It assumes that others can have good — or even better — ideas, and that every living thing is valuable and worthy of consideration in decision making.
As Burroughs puts it, “We like to have an open heart as we seek information and knowledge about how to go about our land stewardship,” which she sees as her family’s greatest responsibility. “God has created this planet and us on it, and it’s up to us to make sure we are not only conserving and protecting it, but that we’re also rebuilding and regenerating it. We want to make sure everything we’re working with, from the microbes in the soil to the birds in the air, has an environment that is nurturing.”
Don't Break the Circuit
Early 20th-century conservationist Aldo Leopold once described the land as “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.”
Regenerative ranchers recognize they are not managing cattle or sheep or goats in isolation. They are managing a whole system made up of interconnected parts: the soil, water, air, plants, animals and themselves (the decision-makers). The connections are endless, and activity in one area sets off a chain reaction of changes (positive and negative) in all the others.
“When you look at the whole and see that everything is interrelated, you make decisions for the whole,” Burroughs says.
That means managing for life in the soil as well as above it: keeping the ground covered with a diversity of plants and animals; minimizing disturbances, such as tillage; and keeping living roots in the ground to feed soil microbes.
It also means being profitable. The whole circuit must include economic and social factors, which affect the well-being of individuals and communities. For ranchers to be able to continue caring for the land and making long-term decisions, the land must also support them.
“You can’t just focus on profit,” Burroughs says. “You have to think about the environment and the rest of the whole. But the operation has to be economically viable. Otherwise, people aren’t going to be able to continue ranching.”
This shift to thinking about the whole — not just cattle — is one of the biggest changes Miller says he has had to make.
“We’ve had to change our mindset from grazing and doing everything for the cow to turning the cow into a tool for what the land needs,” he says.
In the past, his family stretched forage resources in order to preserve the cow herd during drought. They grazed the grass hard, as long as they could. Then they would supplement with dry feed.
Now, they closely monitor their grass supply and match cattle to it.
“We’re watching for what the land needs to heal itself,” Miller says. “We’re not afraid to sell cattle when we need to protect the land resources. It’s better than trying to stretch those resources and losing animal body condition in the process.”
Managing for the whole also can mean changing one’s thinking toward some of the individuals who make up that whole.
Fuller, a lifelong farmer, was brought up to believe insects are the enemy. Now he sees them as a sign the ecosystem is coming back to life. For every pesky insect he sees, there are an estimated 1,700 others that are either beneficial or neutral. These are not just pollinators. Insects play roles in the carbon and water cycles, and many of them are still unknown in terms of their contributions to the land.
“I’ve lived my whole life with a kill, or conquer, mentality,” Fuller says. “I’d wake up every day and think, ‘What do I have to kill today?’ Now I have the mentality, ‘What do I need to grow today? How do we fix this farm with life instead of death?’”
Spark Life-Long Curiosity
Fuller didn’t move away from his “kill mentality” without help. He asked questions and sought out answers.
In the case of the insects, Fuller found a conference where an entomologist was speaking. He went to listen, then he started asking questions about what insects do and why he should avoid destroying them and their habitat.
He also experimented on his own. In 2008, Fuller planted side-by-side fields, some with neonicotinoid-treated seeds for insect control and others with non-treated seeds. He found no yield difference in the crops but saw definite losses in diversity in the fields planted with treated seeds.
“That was a really big confirmation to us that we were on the right track,” says Fuller, who since has eliminated insecticides and fungicides from the operation.
Regenerative ranchers aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They want to do better, both for themselves and the land, and getting there can mean moving into unknown territory. They have to be curious enough to venture into the darkness and find those who can help illuminate their path.
Ranchers can find information and resources online and by going to workshops, conferences and seminars, Burroughs says. She and her husband, Ward, sought out the advice of Ranching for Profit early in their career. They continue to attend events and learn from other farmers and ranchers as well as consultants.
“I feel that we have probably only just begun to scratch the surface of what we know,” Burroughs says. “We can spend the rest of our lifetimes improving on what we’re learning.”
Generate a Plan, Monitor and Adapt
Regenerative ranchers know their resources — the soils, plants, animals, water, markets and overall environment with which they are working.
Miller and his father take time to inventory their grass and plan at least one to two grazing seasons, or about six months, in advance. Miller uses Google Earth Pro to map out their acreage and paddocks, then he tracks grazing moves and other observations in the PastureMap app. His father uses an Excel sheet from the University of Nebraska, “Pasture and Hay Records.”
“The successful people I have seen [are the ones who] take time to monitor the range and see what’s out there in terms of plant health and range conditions,” says Miller, adding that this includes taking historical data into consideration.
In southwestern Nebraska, Miller knows that grazing grass too short one time may mean needing three to five years for recovery. The Millers carefully monitor what grass they have and how many animals they need to match that, and they have built in contingency plans to make themselves more flexible.
Prior to the drought of 2013, the Millers always sold calves in February. They lost about 40% of their cow herd due to the drought. Instead of replacing those cows, they started a yearling enterprise. Now they graze calves through the summer, so when drought threatens, they have a group of animals easy to sell in order to reduce stress on the land and keep the cow herd intact.
“That’s been a big part of our success in drought years,” Miller says, “just having cattle that can go at any point if they need to, so the grass can last.”
The Millers also watch for other threats to the grass, such as when hail damaged pastures in a July 2020 storm. They built time into their grazing plan to rest affected areas, not letting cattle access them until late September 2021. Even then, the plan was to graze lightly — go in, take the best forage and get out.
Plans change based on observations and penciled-out numbers.
Miller says he was against using supplemental protein for the cattle when he first came back to the ranch after college. The family doesn’t supplement like they used to — they don’t need to, thanks to their management. However, they have observed that a little extra protein can improve both animal performance and the land.
“We’re able to target species of grasses that we could not get the cattle to touch without the protein supplement,” Miller says. “It’s made quite a difference. But I’m conscious of the cost of everything we do. I’m definitely using products where I know we’re getting the bang for our buck.”
Successful plans also adapt to accommodate new enterprises and opportunities that make the most of what is available.
Miller found himself with extra time on his hands since he wasn’t feeding cattle. He also wasn’t satisfied with the generic supplies available in his area to help make daily cattle moves easier, particularly solar electric-fence chargers. So he decided to fill the market gap by starting a new business: Livewire Fence Supply.
“I see this a lot in my peers,” Miller says. “It may not be a retail business; maybe it’s custom grazing or something else. But many people find themselves open to new ideas and plans that bring in additional revenue streams.”
The key is to be observant, both when working on the land with a current plan and when looking for opportunities for the operation’s future.
“Take the time to be an observer, to look at what you’re doing, and to know if what you’re doing is working,” Burroughs says. “It’s good to be open-minded and willing to try.”
Failure Is Not Weakness
Even the best plans will sometimes fail. This should be expected on the regenerative journey, Burroughs says.
“You have to set your plan based on your locale,” she adds. “This isn’t a cookie-cutter process in which you can mimic exactly what someone else is doing across the country.”
Every environment, every location, every farm or ranch is different, and the animals and land must be managed accordingly. Decisions should be based on the whole and made within the operator’s unique context.
Communication is key when working with others on a project.
“Set a time to meet and plan and make decisions, to avoid frustration and ideas not being shared and brought to the table,” Burroughs says. “Have a succession plan in which you know how the operation will move forward in the future. Cultivate leadership in those who will take over someday.”
And don’t be afraid to fail.
“It’s important to not feel that a mistake is a failure,” she says. “It’s a learning experience and something to put in your pocket and keep going.”
After more than 20 years, the Burroughs family has seen life return to the soil and rangeland. They’ve created habitat for wildlife and watched birds they’ve never seen before cross their farms and ranches. Their natural water springs are protected, and their healthier soils are not only sequestering carbon but recharging aquifers.
Fuller is pleased to no longer see water standing in his fields, even when roadside ditches are full of rainfall.
Miller, too, no longer sees standing water and knows his land is more resilient in drought. He says when he was kid, he would rarely see earthworms. Now, he can go out and dig up a shovelful.
“When you see that, through your practices, you’re bringing life and life cycle into your rangeland, it’s a very beautiful sight,” Burroughs says. “Our mindset continues to change. This is a journey. It takes time, but it’s one of the greatest things we can do.”