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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho cattle ranchers seek ways to restore Western land. But the answer isn’t simple

Glenn Elzinga, right, Annie Elzinga, left, and employee Jake Taylor use hot wire, powered by solar chargers, to confine cattle at night in a pen adjacent to the conservation riders’ camp in 2020.  (Courtesy of Melanie Elzinga)
By Felicity Barringer, </p><p>Ian Max Stevenson </p><p>and Nicole Blanchard Idaho Statesman

After jouncing around the deep gullies that cows and water have carved into her 8,000-acre ranch, Mickey Steward got out of her ATV on a ridge and knelt down close to the soil. The 72-year-old pointed at the snakeweed, a plant indicative of overgrazing, scattered across the land she owns. She picked a small blade of grass near her knee, grabbing it closer and closer to the root, until none was left, demonstrating the damage cattle can inflict.

During the height of the growing season, Steward moves her cattle after they spend 12 hours in each of the paddocks she creates with easily moved electric fences. Over a few weeks, the quick rotation then turns into a three-day window. After growing season ends, cows can stay in each paddock much longer.

“If you take even the slightest step towards managing your grazing,” she added, “you greatly improve the quality and quantity of your forage.”

Steward’s management of the cattle on Seacross Ranch is a microcosm of the changes that began at least two decades ago and are now embedded in ranching in the West. Some ranchers in Idaho have shifted more of their focus onto their cattle’s impact on soil and grass, looking for ways to mend decades of overuse that have depleted the Western landscape.

Different approaches to grazing – and, later, to marketing the beef – divide ranchers the way doctrines divide religious orders, Steward said. State and federal agencies increasingly support sustainable efforts by pumping tens of millions of dollars into regenerative practices.

But there is no set definition for “regenerative ranching,” nothing concrete to dictate the number of pastures to use or the time at which cows should be rotated. That allows for flexibility, but it also makes room for a wide range of producers to claim they have sustainable practices, despite a lack of conclusive evidence of regenerative ranching’s benefits. Meanwhile, the science about cattle’s contribution to climate-changing gases, particularly methane, is unambiguous.

Some proponents worry that agribusinesses will exploit the growing attention on the environmental impacts of industries like ranching. With no agreed-on definition, there’s also no standard to certify that beef came from a regenerative operation.

Already, companies like McDonald’s, Walmart and PepsiCo have adopted the term.

“People are putting pretty on a pig, bigtime,” said Glenn Elzinga, whose family owns the Alderspring Ranch near Salmon.

Proponents for regenerative ranching grows

Regenerative ranching usually refers to a practice called adaptive multi-paddock grazing. It involves slicing a field into small pastures, through which livestock are moved on a schedule. The idea is to prevent cattle from chewing the juiciest plants down to the nub, instead forcing them to moderately graze an area before moving on and allowing time for the first paddock to recover. The practice mimics the habits of native bison and other grazing animals that moved regularly to escape predators.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the National Resources Conservation Service, has been giving tens of millions of dollars annually to support regenerative programs. And federal agencies have shown growing efforts to fund the practice. The NRCS distributed more than $5 million in Idaho last fiscal year for projects on grazing lands, higher than the previous year’s distribution of $3.7 million, spokesperson Mindi Rambo told the Idaho Statesman.

Despite the benefits of rotational grazing, it’s still a limited practice, with less than half of cattle operations using it, according to a study published by the USDA. Even fewer do the kind of intensive, frequent rotation performed by ranchers like Steward, Elzinga’s family at the Alderspring Ranch and Wendy Pratt near Blackfoot, Idaho.

Elzinga told the Idaho Statesman in that he and his wife had been impacted in their youth by agricultural pesticides and herbicides, so introducing alternative practices has long been a priority.

“My wife and I had a passion for the land but we had problems with traditional agriculture,” Elzinga said in an interview.

In the early 2010s, after Alderspring Ranch lost cattle to wolves, it sent range riders to camp alongside the cattle. Elzinga said the riders also stopped cattle from overgrazing and kept the herds moving across the landscape.

These days he keeps his herd constantly moving, Elzinga said. It will graze a two-acre area for about two-and-a-half minutes before moving through. The cattle don’t return to that spot for two to three years. In some places where the rangeland is drier and more brittle, they don’t return for seven years.

Elzinga said his ranch’s tactic – to keep cattle moving while eating, so the herd is always grazing and putting on weight – is part of a simple formula. If his herd gains one pound per day for 100 days in the summer, he can turn a $100,000 profit, and he touted the microorganisms his cattle introduce through their manure, saliva and urine as beneficial to his rangeland.

“The biggest problem for Western rangelands is that everyone has cast their trust upon barbed wire to control their cattle,” Elzinga said, when ranchers themselves should take an active role. “We’re gonna control our cattle.”

Years of experimentation, new institutes supporting the practice and government support have created an assembly of Western ranches firmly in the regenerative camp.

Whatever their convictions about grazing practices, most ranchers “consider themselves to be stewards of the land,” said Brett Wilder, an assistant professor of farm business management at the University of Idaho. “People have been talking about soil health and sustainability and ranching for years and years and years,” Wilder said. But, Wilder added, “it’s gotten a lot more traction recently.”

Efforts to apply ‘good practices’

Wendy Pratt, who with her husband runs a ranch near Blackfoot that dates to 1904, said both of their fathers were naturalists who paid attention to the wildlife on their ranches, like the “geese that come in on the ponds in the fall or the bluebirds in the spring.”

“We’ve always been pretty appreciative of the natural world,” she said, adding that she got involved in “holistic” management 25 years ago.

Pratt focuses on five principles, which include keeping soil covered with plant matter, maintaining living roots in the soil and incorporating livestock into the soil-grass ecosystem. Pratt said the work is on a “continuum of applying good practices and evaluating the outcome.”

By shortening grazing periods on pastures, Pratt said in an email, her ranch has lengthened the number of days cattle can graze. It has helped them gain weight and stay in better condition through the winter, she said.

Ranchers also argue that a cow’s way of trampling grasses into the soil can introduce organic matter that is helpful to other plants, while also providing better insulation from harsh winter temperatures and sequestering carbon – a process in which more carbon is injected into the soil. In turn, Pratt thinks those changes help keep the soil healthy and leave benefits for wildlife.

‘No way’ to improve ecosystem with cattle

Despite passionate advocates’ belief in regenerative ranching, some comparisons of traditional practices with regenerative ones identify little landscape benefit. A major recent USDA report noted that many articles in the “farm press” that promote rotational grazing are anecdotal and “not well supported in the experimental research.”

As the U.S. looks to slash its carbon emissions, proponents of regeneration have also focused on whether carbon sequestration could help remove climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But a 2017 study led by an Oxford researcher found that improving management of rangelands has inconsequential effects on the climate, noting that any sequestration is “substantially outweighed” by the emissions generated by cattle.

Logan Thompson, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Kansas State University, told the Idaho Statesman that researchers have also fixated on methane because the heat-trapping gas is the predominant pollutant in the industry. Eighty percent of those methane emissions come from cattle grazing, while the remainder comes from confined feedlots, he said. His research has found that in Alabama, multi-paddock grazing reduced methane output by 15% to 20%. No comparable study has been done in the West.

“We don’t really know where the science will lead us,” Thompson added. “A lot of focus has been put on carbon sequestration, and overall it’s such a variable thing to measure that it’s very easy for people to reach divergent outcomes.”

For some environmentalists, research on regenerative practices showed evidence that it is little more than a marketing strategy for an industry that has been linked to spreading invasive grasses – which reduce soil carbon – and squeezing out native species like deer and elk.

“There is no way to improve a Western ecosystem by adding cattle or sheep,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. He told the Idaho Statesman he would rather see USDA funds used to acquire grazing permits from willing sellers and permanently close swaths of land in the West to livestock grazing.

“That would achieve a much bigger positive impact on carbon sequestration and provide more climate benefit than chasing the mirage of rotational grazing,” he said.

The sparse data on the impact of regenerative ranching is prompting both ranchers like Steward and Elzinga, as well as some new companies, to try to slowly fill in the gaps by analyzing the soils in different areas. Ranchers hope those analyses will help them determine the environmental benefits of their ranching practices.

Increasing federal investment raises fears

Adopting grazing plans that incorporate constant movement across a ranch’s fields can be costly. It means continually moving both cattle and fences, both labor-intensive activities, and potentially adding wells, pipelines and tanks to make sure cows have water in every paddock.

In some instances, modern technology could make regenerative practices more feasible, lessening the need for extensive fencing. Researchers at the University of Idaho are studying how to effectively control cattle using electronic collars and geofences. Jim Sprinkle, a researcher with the university near Salmon, Idaho, said he’s working on another study to examine whether similar technology could be implemented with ear tags instead of collars.

But without that streamlining tech in their hands, ranchers who operate on slim cash margins can see investing in additional fencing, manpower or irrigation systems as a risk without an assured reward.

Pratt, the Blackfoot rancher, said she previously received funding from a USDA program to build fencing, plant pollinator species and track her cattle’s condition. Such programs have helped pay the bills for similar infrastructure, and more federal money is on the way for Idaho ranchers, allocated in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

Nonprofits large and small are working with ranchers interested in adopting regenerative practices. Among them are the World Wildlife Fund, the Noble Research Institute, the Nature Conservancy, Sustainable Northwest, the Quivira Coalition and many others. The Nature Conservancy helped the Elzinga family launch its range-riding tactic and provided funds to hire employees. The group also incentivizes ranchers and crop farmers to test regenerative techniques by offering to fund the difference for lost profits as producers try new approaches.

Still, proponents worry that companies could use that incentive to make a profit by disingenuously marketing sustainable practices.

Elzinga, the rancher near Salmon, said buying regenerative ranch-grown beef could be murky for consumers. But he doesn’t know what a path forward might look like. He said he thinks a government certification, like the one the USDA offers for organic products, could open the door for even more confusion if businesses see an opportunity to make more money from the label.

He said he has already seen commercial ranching operations attempt to fly under the regenerative banner without adopting environmentally beneficial practices. To Elzinga, it’s a potential downside to a surge of interest in a practice that has become his family’s way of life.

“It’s a mess because all the sharks are coming in,” Elzinga said. “They’re out to make money with this.”

Felicity Barringer is the editor and lead writer at & the West.