It was a bright, sunny day and thirty other agriculturally oriented people were sitting, like me, on itchy straw bales under a tent. We were semi-circled around a New Zealand agroecologist named Nicole Masters who was holding clumps of earth in her hands and begging us to call it “soil” instead of “dirt.”
Dirt,” Masters explained, made the earth under our feet sound worthless. “Soil” was a much better word. She shared her belief that instead of raising livestock, ranchers should focus on raising good soil, and that doing so we can transform the health of our animal flocks, all while spending less money. Win, win, win.
Masters can read soil like a map. She pointed out spider web-like fungal chains and worm burrows and root systems. She taught us what dandelions signify in a field and how to do a water infiltration test. Numbers and scientific names and data and statistics flew around me and I sat there, overwhelmed but intrigued, trying to take as much in as I could.
Masters explained how rich, deep topsoil (the soil at the very top, right below our feet) aids in storing carbon and how our goal as ranchers - in part - should be to re-build topsoil in our pastures. Much of the nation's topsoil has been lost of the last century, and intensive rotational grazing is a method used to build it back quickly.
Here is the takeaway from what I learned that day - and have continued to study ever since: just as livestock can cause damage to our soil due to overgrazing, they can also rapidly improve soil when grazed responsibly. In fact, cattle and sheep can improve land so much, so fast, that they are a sustainability secret weapon.
No pesticides needed: the sheep ate all these weeds and created room for the good grasses to grow. By the following year, there were almost no weeds in the pasture.
While I have always been interested in the benefits of grazing and healthy soils, it was this seminar by Nicole Masters one year ago that really kickstarted a much deeper passion in me. Since then I have read books, articles, Youtube videos, and taken seminars, but am truly only at the beginning of my journey in beneficial grazing. Next week I am actually headed to a nearby grazing academy to get more hands on experience!
Here's the crux of rotational grazing, and what it is trying to replicate:
Historically, massive herds of bison (60+ million of them, estimated) grazed on grasses through the Great Plains. (For context, the US currently has around 93 million cattle.)
They moved quickly, eating everything in sight and then did not return for a long time. Their grazing cleared the land of overgrowth and encouraged beneficial grasses to grow, and their manure fertilized as they went. Within weeks of the bison’s departure the land was much stronger. Over time, the layers of manure and composted grasses built rich topsoil, creating what is now some of the best farming soil in the country from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. Their range was called “the great bison belt.”
The concept of regenerative grazing focuses on this ancient bison pattern but condenses it to build topsoil FAST. Whereas the bison did this work over millennia, modern ranches can make real progress in their lifetimes. Month by month or season by season we can move our livestock quickly through pastures, concentrating manure and lightly clearing the grasses. Trampled forage and manure feeds the soil’s microorganisms, who build topsoil over time. The more topsoil we have, the more carbon we can store.
So here's how to manage our sheep using regenerative principles:
The sheep move every 1-2 days through small pastures, eating all grass evenly but not overgrazing, and then they do not return for 30+ days. They are constantly exposed to fresh tall grass, and the grass grazed behind them gets ample time to recover and benefit from their natural weeding and fertilizing. I use solar powered fencing to keep the flock contained (mostly). We do not spray pesticides or herbicides on our pastures and always look to a natural solution when combating the inevitable problems that crop up. Additionally, by keeping our sheep on tall grass we drastically reduce their parasite load and are able to decrease reliance on de-wormers.
Our cattle are also managed using responsible grazing practices, but on a different scale. They are moved to new pasture every 30 days or so, and the previous pasture rests for the remainder of the grazing season. It's important to note that regenerative agriculture can look different depending on the terrain, pasture quality, and region.
Can I be honest for a minute and admit that our transition to rotational grazing has not been seamless?
The learning curve to any new system is steep, and I spent much of last summer adjusting our grazing plan as we went. We ran out of grass early because I failed to account for several factors, and had to pull the sheep off pasture sooner than I wanted so they didn't overgraze and kill our orchard grass.
There is no "one size fits all" regenerative grazing method for every ranch. That is the beauty and the struggle of it; you have to learn your soil, you grass species, and your animals. The regenerative movement is adaptable and promotes progress over perfection. It often takes 5+ years to truly transition into regenerative models and see the benefits to your plants and your animals.
Regenerative practices are becoming more and more common - even within traditional agriculture. (And some regenerative practices have been ongoing for a very long time.) Many ranchers implement rotational grazing or strip-tilling simply for economic reasons without identifying with a movement of any kind, because the case for regenerative agriculture can be made convincingly on the economics alone.
We are certainly starting to see the benefits to our pastures and our animals. But rotational grazing is very labor intensive, and there are days I wish I hadn't taken this harder road. But ultimately - regenerative agriculture and sustainability in general are central to Little Creek's mission, and our herd and the land they graze will be the better for it. And so will the meat for our customers!