The Leading Voices in Food
E28: Nancy Ranney on Regenerative Grazing in New Mexico
If you’re like me, you’ve read or heard of reports and news accounts talking about the negative consequences of producing beef, with greenhouse gas emissions, heavy water use and the welfare of the animals leading the list of concerns. But just when it seems like producing and consuming less beef might be a health and environmental bonanza, along comes an alternative way of doing things. One that uses a fundamentally different approach to things.
Nancy Ranney manages the Ranney Ranch in Corona, New Mexico. In 2003, she began a restorative grazing plan based on planned rotational grazing, and started the Ranney Ranch Grass Fed Beef Program and is committed to running the ranch on the soundest, most humane and the most ecologically resilient principles. Nancy works with Melvin Johnson, ranch manager, to develop grazing plans and conservation programs. She also coordinates ranch workshops and retreats. She is on the board of the Quivira Coalition and is president of the southwest grass fed livestock alliance. Nancy has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University and a background in land planning.
I first learned of your work through your husband David Levy. He was dean of the Duke Law School. At the same time I was dean of the School of public policy at Duke. You mentioned the innovative work you were doing with your family ranch in New Mexico. And then when I looked into it I found out just how innovative your approach is and how you were ahead of your time. So you do regenerative agriculture. Can you explain what this means?
Regenerative agriculture refers to those land management practices which build soil health, increase biodiversity, improve water cycles, and generally build nutrient density in soil. Keywords are regenerate, meaning bringing new life and vigor, and resilience, that capacity to survive and flourish even in difficult conditions. And of course, such practices do increase the productivity on the land and hence economic production. In my own world of ranching, generally these regenerative practices are linked to grazing practices on the land. And these do promote resilience and build soil and biodiversity. We have seen this happen over the past 18 years and interestingly, very much so during a period of deep drought in the southwest. From the mid-1990s to 2012 in Mexico. These practices are known variously as short-duration, high-intensity, rotational grazing. Another term is adaptive multi-paddock grazing, also holistic-managed grazing and perhaps my favorite Poop and Stomp. They promote nutrient cycling in the soil. But the real key is the need to have a grazing animal and in the West, that’s the cow, to reinvigorate the landscape.
So Nancy, explain how it works. So know I’ve seen pictures of your land and it’s beautiful and lush and rich and right next to it is land that looks like complete desert. I mean, you can’t imagine anything growing. So what happens that that makes this cycle occur? What do you actually do?
Well, the key is a shift in management from continuous grazing – and most of the West has been grazed continuously – that means animals on the land all the time. And that’s a very conventional approach. When I took over the ranch, when my family started managing it after my father died in 2002, the big shift was from running 18 herds in 18 pastures to condensing down to one herd. Now we move one herd across our ranch across 34 pastures as we’ve subdivided some of those pastors to get better usage. And it means that they are on the land, on each pasture for a much shorter period of time. And those grasses then have a chance to recover over a minimum of six months, sometimes up to a year or even more. And we have seen remarkable recovery with that change.
So as I understand it the cows hooves churn the soil that allows the soil to retain water better. Then the grasses grow. The animals fertilize the soil, and you get this nice cycle going. But my knowledge about this is pretty naive. Is that kind of how it works?
That’s really basically how it works. What’s interesting is that there is an incredible seed bank in the soil. And this is true really across the country and particularly in the semi-arid West that these seeds can survive for over a hundred years. And what we have discovered is that with this new form of grazing, with absolutely no artificial seeding, no extra fertilization except from the cows, no irrigation – we have seen the emergence of seeds that were in the ground. We had no idea. We went from a monoculture of a very nice grass, blue gamma grass, a very palatable and healthy for the animals. Nonetheless, a monoculture. Now we have close to 50 native grasses that have emerged.
So if you began this process on some acreage next to yours, that now it doesn’t look like much of anything could grow, would there be grasses that are there lying dormant? That would then take root and become like your property if you began this process?
Yes, there would definitely be.
How is this good for the environment?
Well in many ways. Any biodiversity is excellent for creating resilience and productivity, really in all landscapes. What we have seen is much higher organic content in our soils. Greater potential for permeability of the rainfall, water storage, healthier root systems of our grasses. When we dig into our soils, we see that our roots go down 30 inches into the soil compared to two on our neighbors. And significantly increased soil organic carbon. In five years with this pasture management, we saw an increase of 25% increase in soil just on our ranch. Also they cools the soil temperatures, which inevitably cool the air temperatures.
So when you mentioned the, carbon in the soil. From what I understand, the grasses sequester carbon into the soil and that helps offset the effect on greenhouse gas emissions cattle might otherwise have, is that right?
That’s correct. It’s actually that the grasses are the conduit and the carbon is actually stored in the soil itself. But what has been found and increasingly, and this is really just in the last 10 years, that there has been more focused scientific analysis of what’s going on here. There have been people talking about this for decades, but really most of the work has been dismissed as anecdotal. But just recently there’s new evidence which really documents how much carbon has been sequestered and I have a few figures here if you’re interested in them. It’s impressive. This form of grazing accrues 1.4 to 2.4 tons of carbon per hectare per year over that accrued by continuous grazing. In fact, continuous grazing generally releases carbon into the atmosphere. And interestingly, it also is able to sequester the methane that is produced by cows grazing on the land. One might wonder why during the earlier centuries here in our own country with the vast herds of bison, why we weren’t releasing more methane as a greenhouse gas. Which as far as scientists can tell, did not happen, with many more grazing animals than we have today. And that is because the methane actually is real-time sequestered in the soil when animals are out on grasslands.
What does the history of how this model developed?
Well, it’s an age old pattern on the ground and an age old model. As I mentioned, the herds of bison in this country and the great migrating herds in Subsaharan Africa moved across the land in just this fashion. And they were responding to a seasonal variation, grow grass growth cycles and importantly the action of predators who keep herds moving. And in the 1950-60s, a young game biologist working in what was then called Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Allan Savory, noticed some of these patterns. And at that time, interestingly ,as a game warden, his project was to limit or reduce the herds of elephants in Rhodesia because they were seen as so destructive. But what he noticed was that where animals were allowed to move, to migrate, the numbers were not the problem. It was the amount of time that they stayed in any one place and that was destructive to the environment. So over the years he developed this approach, which he calls holistic planned grazing. This is essentially what we’re doing on the ranch. A grazing model that mimics nature and, if done well, can reverse these really negative processes on the ground.
For our listeners who might be interested in learning more about that history, I know that Allan Savory has a Ted talk on this that’s really quite good. But let me ask you another question. I know that you’re interested in the intersection of soil health and human wellbeing. Can you explain this?
Well, yes. I’m really fascinated by this. And obviously I’m not a soil scientist or a food scientist, but what I’ve seen over the last number of years is this really interesting intersection between soil health, or the health of our food, and the health of our own human gut, the microbiome. And it seems almost every week I read an article about new discoveries of what’s going on in the microbiome and how important it is that we feed this in significant ways. And that all starts with having healthy microorganisms in the soil which is what we’re seeing right here on the ground.
Are there standards for best practices for this regenerative approach? Are there things like certifications?
Well, that’s a difficult question. We need lots of attention in this area. Currently there are no federal standards for these regenerative practices or grass fed production, and/or for healthy livestock products. Increasingly, our agricultural agencies and land grant universities are seeing that such approaches are helpful to both to land health, and to meat health, and are helping increasingly to recommend these practices. There are elective certifications and for those who are interested, they can look these up. Our ranch, for example, has three certifications. One is with the American Grass-fed Association. We have an annual visit with by an independent certifier and you are certified if you are a domestic USA producer using only grass and forage and no antibiotics or growth hormones. We also have a certification with Animal Welfare Approved administered by a Greener World. This is an independent nonprofit and consumer reports rates it as the really the best indication of animal welfare if you’re interested in looking for that. And most recently we have a certification with the Audubon Conservation Ranching Program. We’re certified. Our beef is certified as grazed on bird-friendly land and this focuses on healthy land management practices that encourage biodiversity and grassland bird habitat.
Would consumers notice differences in taste with the meat products that are produced this way versus conventional agriculture?
Well, interestingly meat products are very much like wine and there is a terroir associated with different products. So we will notice different tastes and textures between products all across the country. You will see that in general grass-fed product is leaner and what is produced from our conventional grain-fed system. Leaner and more tender. And in the early years of grass-fed, I think it developed a reputation of being tough and I believe that that was because people didn’t know how tender it was and cooked it the same amount of time they were cooking conventional beef. It really only requires about half the amount of time. We market our beef as very young. This is not veal, but it is young beef. So it’s particularly tender and we’re very proud of that.
And are you hopeful about how things look with future generations of farmers and ranchers?
I am very hopeful. I’m really thrilled actually. I want to recognize this cadre of young people who are joining the world of agriculture. This includes farmers, ranchers, processors and marketers of healthy product. And I think it’s precisely because they recognize agriculture as an entry into dealing with our environmental health and our human help and even their own personal health. There are some truly wonderful, beautiful writers among these young agrarians. And I think maybe it’s because in our crazy world they have a contemplative space to think about relationship and write about it. I’ve been for many years on the board of the Quivira Coalition, which offers an apprenticeship program for young people coming into agriculture, both farming and ranching. We’ve had three apprentices at our ranch and just wonderful people from all across the country. And my sense is if anyone can heal our environment, it will be this next generation. They understand good land management and they’re also very committed to developing the relational skills that we need to make all these things successful.