A few years ago, a found myself in the unlikely position as the Forage and Pasture Specialist with the Oregon Small Farms Program. Certainly grazing and pastures hinge on soil health, and a soil scientist I could provide consultation for how to improve soils for forage and pasture, like for any other crop. But as a former vegetarian, I knew little about livestock, other than what I gleaned by osmosis from my East Texas upbringing – counting cows to pass the time on long car rides.

In fact, from most of my experience, I thought that grazing livestock could only have negative environmental effects. Most pastures I’d seen were overgrazed, or at the very least, had little in the way of plant diversity. On public lands, I saw cows wreak havoc on natural ecosystems when irresponsibly grazed at the wrong time of year or in fragile habitats. I’d read Diet For a Small Planet and knew that resources required for meat production boded poorly for global health. 

I never expected to have my reality turned completely upside down. The small ranchers and farmers I met and worked with in rural Southern Oregon completely blew away my preconceptions about what pastures, and the livestock that graze them, could mean for bringing soils and whole ecosystems back to health.

In fact, right now, I think that ranchers are at the forefront of the most exciting soil health movement this country has ever seen, powered by innovators, such as Allan Savory, Joel Salatin, and Gabe Brown. One of the most exciting aspects of this movement is that it’s driven by profit, not just by ideals. Around the world, insecurities such as drought, crop failures, and fertilizer costs are forcing farmers to find alternatives. Around the world, the answer is focusing on soil health – farming with nature rather than against it.

And these ranchers are making some exciting discoveries. Practices such as mob grazing and management intensive grazing mimic the natural cycles of bison on grasslands. All over the world, natural grasslands sequester more carbon than almost any other ecosystem, and exhibit a huge amount of biodiversity. As farmers switch to these practices, and pastures and ranges recover as grasslands, soil carbon contents are doubling and tripling in a few short years.

More innovations, such as planting polycultures of forage grasses and forbs increase the pasture diversity and provide habitat for bees and other essential pollinators. Diverse pastures, with a robust and active biologically community, naturally resist pests and diseases.

Including legumes, such as clovers and vetch, in pasture guilds captures nitrogen out of the air. Not only does this feed the soil, it eliminates nitrogen fertilizer needs and provides a necessary protein source for livestock. This is money in ranchers pockets.

A diverse pasture guild of grasses, forbs, and legumes builds soil health.
A diverse pasture guild of grasses, forbs, and legumes promote biodiversity and fix soil nitrogen.

As soil carbon levels rise, soils retain and conserve rainfall, leading to greater overall productivity. In this way, even seriously degraded rangelands are rehabilitated.

Some farmers are even mixing in annual crops, such as sunflowers, root crops, or corn, into their forage rotations. Integrating crops and animals in this way maximizes per acre production, naturally fertilizes cropland soil, and extends the grazing season for livestock. As global population skyrockets and agricultural pressure intensifies, the multi-purpose systems are essential to meet growing agricultural pressure. Moreover, this type of farming, by mimicking nature, helps solve the dilemma between ecosystem preservation for wildlife and farming to feed the world.

These soil carbon cowboys, managing large ranches an farms, have the ability to impact huge tracts of land. If these ideas continue to gain strength and momentum, revolutionary ranching, though controversial, has the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon to fight climate change. Not to mention that these practices provide a profitable alternative to the broken feedlot system of raising meat that is inhumane, unsustainable, and a major source of climate emissions.

These radical farmers prove that soil health means more productivity on less land, while giving nature space to survive. This just might help us make it to the next century.

Radical Ranching at the Forefront of the Soil Health Revolution