America’s Conservation Ag Movement is a broad national effort to help farmers, ranchers and growers continue their journey to conserve our shared natural resources and promote sustainable food production.
Headlines encouraging Americans to eat less red meat to help mitigate climate change are an attempt to seek a simple solution to a complex issue. That view overlooks the unique role cattle and other ruminants play in diverse ecosystems.
Rather than campaigning for an end to livestock production — a goal that is unrealistic and fraught with unintended consequences — some groups are choosing to seek common ground and work with producers to improve sustainability objectives.
“In the next 40 years we must produce as much food as we have in the past 8,000 years,” says Jason Clay, senior vice president for markets and food at the World Wildlife Fund. “We must produce more with less.”
Work With Nature
For western South Dakota ranchers Bart and Shannon Carmichael, producing more with less was necessary to keep the lifestyle they want for themselves and their children. Remaining traditional wasn’t the answer, so they began working with nature instead of against it, says Bart Carmichael.
The Carmichaels implemented a rotational grazing system on their 3,000 deeded acres and 2,000 leased acres. After a few years they were running twice as many cows on their Wedge Tent Ranch than they were on a traditional grazing system.
“It requires a change of mind,” Carmichael says. “It’s more management, but it’s not more work.”
The rotational grazing system involved dividing their large pastures into several smaller ones with cross fences. Rather than turn cattle out into a large pasture to graze for several months, the Carmichaels now move their cattle to fresh grazing about every three days.
Once cattle leave a paddock, they won’t return for 14 months. That rest is critical for the health of the grass and soil, and the cattle deposit manure and urea that become fertilizer for plant regrowth. The system is good for animals beyond the cows.
“Our change in management has also improved wildlife habitat,”
Back to the Native State
At Jorgensen Land & Cattle in south-central South Dakota, a diverse area of native grasslands is interspersed with farmable acres. Rather than managing their farming and cattle operations as two separate enterprises, Bryan Jorgensen says they operate an integrated system that allows one to augment the other.
“It’s our goal to study and understand the native grasslands and try to get all of our farm acres back to their most native state,” Jorgensen says.
Cattle and no-till farming are the tools to achieve the goal. In 1991 they switched to 100% no-till on 12,000 acres of non-irrigated cropland.
“To reach these goals, we’ve developed a very diverse rotation with as many as 12 different crops, which lowers production costs and improves soil health,”Jorgensen says.
Before the switch to no-till, the Jorgensens kept the cattle off their farmland. Now they have installed fences around their crop acres so they can graze cattle on cover crops and crop residues after harvest.
Like the Carmichaels, the Jorgensens use a rotational grazing system year-round for their cowherd.
During one recent winter season, 800 Angus bulls were grazed on cover crops and Jorgensen calculated a savings of $1.53 per head per day versus what it would have cost to keep those bulls in a feedlot.
Cover crops provide shelter and food for wildlife, including an abundant population of pheasants. In addition to practices that benefit native animals, the Jorgensens dedicate about 800 acres each year to wildlife habitat.
Grazing provides benefits in other, more arid ecosystems. Southeast Oregon rancher Bob Skinner grazes cattle on both public and private land.
Skinner says both native wildlife and the general public benefit from cattle ranching. “Public land ranchers not only manage the cattle on the land, but also maintain miles and miles of water pipeline, fences and ground water sources, and act as a first line of defense for fire control at their own expense.”
Wildlife benefits from these water sources and the vast, healthy, open spaces private lands provide. Case in point: the recent decision to unlist sage grouse as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
“One of the biggest reasons that occurred is because of the incredible conservation and firefighting efforts of ranchers,” Skinner says. “Fire is the No. 1 threat to sage grouse habitat here in the Great Basin.”
No-Till Show and Tell
In the early 1990s, the late Martin Jorgensen gave a private tour of his Angus herd to a fellow breeder, stopping between two fields, one no-tilled and the other conventionally tilled. He grabbed a length of rebar from the truck and invited his guest to come for a look.
In the no-till field, Jorgensen jammed the rebar into the ground about 2'. When he pulled it out the bottom 12" were wet. In the conventionally tilled field, the rod was dry all the way to the bottom.
Of that visit, Iowa cattleman Dave Nichols says: “Martin was so proud of what they were accomplishing with no-till. Rather than have ground laying fallow with nothing on it, they could crop it every year because it had cover over it all the time. He was prouder of their crops and prairie grass land than any cattle he showed me.”
Read the 2019 America's Conservation Ag Movement Annual Report in Farm Journal.