What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Agriculture is facing an impending crisis due to multiple factors

  • Widespread soil erosion and decreasing land productivity in the face of climate variability
  • Declining population of agriculture producers
  • Unprecedented levels of farm debt and bankruptcies
  • Growing global population that is increasing the demand for food
Jon Hemme inspects the soil in his regenerative pasture

Many farmers and ranchers recognize that regenerative agriculture may be the only long-term solution to these problems. Regenerative agriculture is a management philosophy that seeks to improve soil health.

At its core, regenerative agriculture is the process of restoring degraded soils using practices (e.g., adaptive grazing, no-till planting, no or limited use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, etc.) based on ecological principles.

Regenerative agriculture strives to work with nature rather than against it. Regenerative agriculture is more than just being sustainable. It is about reversing degradation and building up the soil to make it healthier than its current state.

What Regenerative Agriculture is Not

Before we dig further into what regenerative agriculture is, let’s talk about what it is not.

Regenerative agriculture is not a marketing trend.

It may set a farmer or rancher up for success in various marketing programs, which would allow them to gain a premium price for their products. However, regenerative agriculture is not a marketing program in itself, like the organic program which has a USDA certification. Farmers and ranchers can manage regeneratively and sell through traditional commodity market venues, direct to commercial marketing chains, and direct to niche markets – whatever market makes the most sense for them.

Regenerative agriculture is not new.

While they may not have always called it “regenerative agriculture,” people have been practicing this type of management for centuries. In fact, regenerative agriculture asks agricultural producers to foster a deeper partnership with their oldest companion, Mother Nature.

Why? Nature already provides the foundations for the farm (soil, water and sunshine). We just need to understand how to work with nature to maximize the ecosystem processes.

Regenerative agriculture is not a prescription.

There is no one-size-fits-all in regenerative agriculture.

There is no single recipe for success that can be adopted by everyone. In the same way, there is no static routine or management plan that a farmer or rancher can expect to yield the best results forever.

Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture seeks to make measured improvements to the health and quality of the land — not just to sustain it.

Rancher holds a clump of grass and soil containing earthworms and healthy roots

Regenerative agriculture promotes building soil organic matter and biodiversity.

Increasing organic matter in the soil is a major benefit. Organic matter is the decomposed life that helps grow more life — the forages, crops and livestock that become a farmer’s income.

Increasing biodiversity adds to organic matter, but it also helps the ecosystem perform at its best. Different plants and animals (including macro-organisms and microbes, like bacteria and fungi) play different — and important — roles. Taking out one player leaves a function undone.

Ranchers on horseback ride over a hill next to two tall trees

Regenerative agriculture encourages healthier and more productive soil that is drought- and flood-resilient.

Regenerative agriculture helps farmers and ranchers be more resilient in both times of drought and flood.

The more rainfall soil is able to hold, the less runoff and erosion will occur — and the more water that plants can use during drought. Less runoff also means that less soil is eroding and fewer synthetic chemicals are being washed into our lakes and rivers.

Cattle mob grazing tall forage

Regenerative agriculture advocates decreased use of chemical inputs and subsequent pollution.

By boosting the soil’s natural fertility, farmers can reduce their need for additional fertilizer.

By increasing diversity, both in terms of plants and animals, farmers and ranchers can build some resilience against — and a new mindset toward — pests. With regenerative ranching, “weeds” aren’t necessarily seen as a bad thing, because livestock can eat them. If cattle, sheep or goats are eating “weeds,” the farmer doesn’t need to spray as much herbicide.

In addition, increasing the soil’s water holding capacity reduces runoff.

All of this taken together means cost savings for the farmer or rancher and a cleaner environment — which benefits them and their neighbors.

Tall plants with a backdrop of a blue cloudy sky

Regenerative agriculture boosts cleaner air and water.

Improving soil health leads to benefits that extend beyond the soil.

Soil acts as a natural water filter when it is fully covered by plants and plant residues. The healthier the soil, the better it can do its job. Ranchers can actually improve water quality with regenerative agriculture by keeping the land fully covered at all times and limiting the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Plants are, in a way, air filters. They take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into sugar, a process that is aided by soil microbes. The healthier the soil, the healthier the plant, and the better this process works.

In addition, regenerative-agriculture practitioners reduce their input use. This typically means they also reduce the number of passes across a field in the tractor (and the amount of air pollutants).

Doe and fawn deer stand in a clearing at the edge of a forest

Regenerative agriculture stimulates enhanced wildlife habitat.

Nowhere in nature do you see only a single variety of plant growing. Mother Nature embraces diversity and so should we.

Moving away from monocultures benefits wildlife (large and small, above ground and below), which in turn benefits the ecosystem and ultimately the operation. Again, nature likes diversity.

Many farmers and ranchers who adopt regenerative agriculture report seeing an increase in the number and variety of species on the land, including native grasses and forbs, birds, insects, earthworms, deer and other wildlife.

Grassy fields under clear blue skies

Regenerative agriculture assists capturing carbon in the soil to combat climate variability.

There is a lot of talk about removing animal agriculture to reduce greenhouse gases, but the truth is: The land needs animals.

Proper integration of livestock on grazing lands — which make up 655 million acres of U.S. land (the single-largest land use) — can actually rejuvenate the land’s health.

Part of this rejuvenation is through carbon sequestration. Plants have the ability to take in carbon from the air and store it in the soil with the help of soil microbes. Cattle and other livestock play roles in stimulating this carbon sequestration process through properly managed grazing.

This makes regenerative ranching a solution in today’s climate conversations.

Regenerative Agriculture Principles and Practices

Regenerative agriculture focuses on outcomes — actual improvements made to soil health and to the overall quality and health of the land.

It recognizes the interconnectedness of the various parts of the land, which consists of soil, water, air, plants and animals together with the knowledge and skill sets of people who manage the entire system.

Cow looks at a bird sitting on a fence wire

This means regenerative ranchers learn to work with the natural patterns of the land in order to enhance the land’s natural abilities to:

  • Grow forage
  • Provide food and other habitat for livestock and wildlife
  • Support humans, not just through food and profitability, but also through water and air quality

Regenerative agriculture is management based on working within ecological principles.

Ecological principles recognize that all ecosystems (including individual farms and ranches) function through four interconnected processes, commonly called the four ecosystem processes.

6 Soil Health Principles

The four ecosystem processes are taking place on every farm and ranch in the world, as well as in every other natural community, whether forest, grassland or swamp.

Farmers and ranchers can use the following six principles of soil health, no matter where they live, as a guide for managing within the ecosystem processes for healthier land:

Adaptive Grazing as a Regenerative Tool

Grazing plays into maximizing each ecosystem process, but grazing must be managed properly.

Well-managed grazing is great. Overgrazing is devastating to both the land and the rancher’s profitability.

Join the Regenerative Ranching Journey

Regenerative agriculture is a way to build the health of the soil — and ultimately entire farms and ranches — by tapping into nature’s natural processes. It invites farmers and ranchers to not simply sustain the land’s health, but to leave it better than they found it.

Learning to work with nature, rather than against it, will benefit us all in the end: the soil, water, air, plants, animals and people. Farmers and ranchers don’t have to choose between benefiting the land or their profitability. They must be profitable in order to make long-term decisions for the land.

The health of our soils can be regenerated with an understanding of how the land functions through the four ecosystem processes (energy cycle, water cycle, nutrient cycle and community dynamics).

Hand holding plant roots taken from healthy soil

Put into practice, each regenerative farmer or rancher applies the six soil health principles in the ways best for their unique land and operation:

  1. Know your context.
  2. Cover the soil.
  3. Minimize soil disturbance.
  4. Increase plant diversity.
  5. Maintain continuous living plants/roots.
  6. Integrate livestock.

We hear so many stories of farmers and ranchers who have been successful in regenerative ranching. They have created win-win situations for both themselves and their profitability as well as the long-term health of the land.

They’ve seen benefits to the health of their animals, to their quality of life, to the water and air quality that their communities depend on, and to their bottom lines. They are more resilient in drought because their soils soak up more precipitation, which means they also do better with heavy rainfall.

However, we know the journey can be challenging.

Regenerative agriculture requires a different mindset than has been passed down to most of us. Foundational, science-based research and economic knowledge about the impacts of regenerative management are growing fields. There is also limited access to information that farmers and ranchers can use in day-to-day operations.

Steer grazing tall forage with rancher on horseback passing by in the background

Noble Research Institute has committed its 14,000 acres of grazing lands and livestock operations in southern Oklahoma to provide education and demonstration for supporting others’ transitions from conventional to regenerative ranching. As of 2021, Noble has transitioned to regenerative management on these acres. The organization will openly share both challenges and successes in its own regenerative journey to benefit others’ experiences.

We invite you to join us in this regenerative ranching journey. Our 75 years of working with farmers and ranchers have shown us that agriculture and land stewardship are paths best traveled with others.

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