We use the term regenerative agriculture a lot in our communication as really this is the basis our business was founded on, selling meats from animals that have in some way contributes in a positive way to the ecosystem they lived in, but what exactly is regenerative grazing and how is it different from conventional grass fed animals?
The first point to note is that when we conventionally farm grazing herbivores they do not behave exactly as they would in the wild.
By the late 18th Century there was an estimated 60 million bison moving freely across the great plains of America, what's staggering to consider is that these beasts weighed in at as much as 1200 kgs and large male could be 9ft high to the top of the shoulder hump, that's 2.5x the size of a typical beef cow.
If we consider the sheer size of these animals there was a greater weight of beasts in America then than now of animals, despite our intensified agriculture and this ecosystem actually removed carbon from the atmosphere.
Without the constraint of fie3lds and fencing the animals would have moved continuously in huge herds across the plains, by huge we means hers of hundreds of thousands! The reasons for the continuous movement is a combination of needing fresh pasture to eat, moving with the seasons to take advantage of changing conditions and tro make it more difficult for predators to pick them off.
This continuous movement means that they had a particular effect on the plants and existed in a mutualism with the prairie grass ecology.
Grasslands and grazing animals have co-evolved to mutual benefit, in simple terms the animals get to eat and the grasses get fertilised by the plant matter that passes through the animals as well as having their seeds deposited, trampled and moved and being strategically pruned to allow more light to get to the plant, the grasses and the animals eating them help each other to grow.
Grassland ecology is quite simple.
Grass puts green leaves upward and roots downward during the growing season. The leaves use air, water and sunlight to make sugars. The carbon and water are stored in the roots as carbohydrates: carbon + water. If the plant is a food crop, we can often eat the leaves, stem and roots and derive lots of nourishment from them. If the plants are mainly cellulose, our stomachs have no way to digest them.
Grasses (and other plants) evolved with ruminant animals. Ruminants have extra stomachs and sturdy mouths to break down, ferment and digest the cellulose in grasses so the nutrients in them can be absorbed and converted to meat, fat and energy for the animal. What's left is piss and poop, burps and farts.
Grass must be eaten down by ruminants to survive. Without grazing, grasses grow high, desiccate and oxidize. They slough off their roots and after a few years stop growing altogether. By grazing most of the plant leaves and moving on to new pastures, ruminants revitalize grasslands. Without grazing, the land dies.
Grass is not just what you see above ground. Perennial grasses put down deep roots during the growing season; around the roots a universe of biological activity occurs. The roots exude sugars to attract the previously unconnected microbes and fungi underground. These organisms network themselves and begin to breakdown bedrock into minerals the plant's roots can absorb. The plant can signal for nutrients and water, or tell the underground miners it is under attack and to create substances to help the plant fight insects and diseases
After a grazing animal eats its leaves, the plant lets most of its root system go dormant. Later it begins growing new roots to reestablish its nutrient and immune support system underground. Here is the magic: the old roots, made of carbon and water, serve as the foundation of new topsoil.
Carbon rich soil continues to generate biological activity underground. It forms a sponge that can absorb huge amounts of water from rainfall or flooding, which it slowly releases over time: drought tolerance and flood resilience.
Across the Great Plains of Canada and America this wonderful system existed in balance for millennia building many many feet of topsoil as the process of growth and decay takes carbon from the air and through the action of the plants and the animals deposits it into the ground as wonderful soil.
Most topsoil worldwide is between 1–8 inches deep, but the topsoil in the Great Plains was a staggering 6 feet deep and the richest on earth, this made the area a greater depository of soil carbon per acre than the Amazon rainforest which has more above ground plant matter but has very shallow soils.
The big difference between aboveground and belowground carbon storage is the timescale, soil can exist undisturbed in the ground for thousands of years, carbon in the form of plant matter will be returned to the atmosphere when the plant dies which could be anywhere from months to a hundred years or so in the case of the oldest trees.
Image below shows the thin soil structure of the Amazon.
A very widely shared and wonderful article in National Geographic from 2015 called Digging Deep Reveals the Intricate World of Roots shows just how deep the roots of plants go beneath the surface of tallgrass prairie and just how deep the soil can be in this ecosystem.
As you can see from this image, and as mentioned above, the bulk of prairie grass plants is below not above the ground and can be as deep as 14 feet! these roots hold together the structure of the soil, prevent erosion and dramatically improve the water holding capacity of the soil but perhaps most importantly they store vast amounts of carbon in the ground.
You might be thinking we've gone off topic somewhat but let's now consider what has happened to this ecosystem and what could be done to help restore it.
The Plough That Broke The Plains
In May 1936, as the people of the Great Plains battled against the combined effects of overproduction, drought, and depression, the federal government released The Plow That Broke the Plains. The film (the film can be seen on YouTube) was part of a massive campaign by the federal government to convince farmers and ranchers that the search for windfall profits in the West had resulted in misplaced settlement, misuse of the land, and ultimately the great dust storms that ravaged the Great Plains in the 1930s.
But it wasn't always like that, agriculture on the great plains started well before the Europeans even knew America existed!
In these times often called 'pre-contact' which is considered to be before 1750 the principal crops grown by indigenous farmers were maize, beans, and squash, including pumpkins. Sunflowers, goosefoot, tobacco, gourds, and plums, however, this was not mechanised as they did not use animals to hepl till they land they favoured was mostly river banks and ot at all at the scale that happened after the settlers settled.
Between 1860 and 1900, the number of farms in the Great Plains of the United States tripled. This was due to two crucial factors of the late nineteenth century: the taming of vast, windswept prairies so that the land would yield crops and the transformation of agriculture into big business utilizing mechanization, transportation, and scientific cultivation.
This was essentially a mass destruction event over a few decades.
This post - New Evidence Shows Fertile Soil Gone From Midwestern Farms
April 5, 2021 from the website Great Plain Regeneration sums up the scale of the problem but ends the article by stating: There's no quick solution, (she says.) But there are ways to farm that also rebuild topsoil. They involve less tilling, or none at all. Farmers can grow grass and harvest hay, rather than corn.
That brings us full circle to livestock, grazing animals when mamagend correctly can restore this degraded ecosystem and build back the soil lost to growing crops.
So what is regenerative grazing?
We've gone a little around and about to describe how a natural system taht offered a huge global carbon sink operated, was destroyed and perhaps can be rebuilt so what has this got to do with pasture raised beef in the UK, quite a lot actually!
If you remember at the start of this article we talked about how huge herds of buffalo would continuously move across the land having had just the right impact on the grassland ecology to stimulate growth rather than hinder it, it would then be possibly a full year before the heard returns and by then the plants would have more than recovered from the animals effect.
Farmers keeping animals in a regenerative system simply control the movement to mimic this effect.
Let's take a hypothetical large 100 acre field of grass in the UK and assume we have 60 cows, we could just let the 60 cows range freely across the 100 acres and with sufficient water and no other intervention this system could be sustainable, but ti will not be optimal.
Without the fear of predation or the worry about not finding sufficient pasture to eat the cattle will not be bunched together as their ancestors would have on the great plains meaning their grazing will not be having the same stimulating effect on the plants growing in the system as they will be steadily eating bits, trampling a little and fertilising randomly and evenly but not intensively. What happens in this 'continuous grazing' or open gate grazing method is that certain favoured plants are over grazed to a point of not surviving, manure is primarily deposited around water sources and this syst6em can only sustainably support around 35-40% of the potential that the system can provide for.
The regenerative farmer mimics the movement of buffalo!
With the same number of cattle and actually even bigger numbers of cattle on the same land the system can be managed very differently.
The secret is to to herd them together into a much smaller space.
The regenerative farmer doesn't allow the cattle to free range over the 100 acres but instead herds them together in a tight group in perhaps 1.5 acres, this is done using a simple electric fence.
The 1/3 principal
One of the famers we spoke to told us the cattle move when they have eaten 1/3 of the pasture, trampled 1/3 and left 1/3 and this can be achieved in 1/2 day to 2 days depending on circumstances but then they move, as they would have on the great plains.
Rest is the key
The secret to this system is the rest. The land that has recently been eaten and trampled will also hasve been very well fertilised through the urine and faeces of the cattle and when they're gone a huge growth spurt occurs, the plants have been essentially pruned and fertilised!
Ideally the particular part of the field will not be grazed again for long enough for the ecosystem to not just recover to be have significantly benefitted from the action of the cattle this could be as soon as 30 days or as long as 100 days depending on environmental factors but this is the key, leaving it alone. A plant can have 50% of its leaves removed and its roots will remain intact. But if 70% of a plant is grazed, half the roots will stop growing for three weeks and if the plant is 90% grazed – all of its roots will stop growing for three weeks. Not good.
When these paddocks are resting from grazing they experience increases in growth as a result of the nutrients the cows have deposited, this stimulates not just plant growth but all life from bacteria and fungus upwards to include of course the plants but this then brings insects and invertebrates to feed, pollinate and in turn this bloom translates up through trophic levels of the ecosystem to bring ever more life and ever more complexity and of course, all growth is directly or indirectly removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Look out for our next article where examine the different methods used by regenerative farmers to move the cattle for this beneficial effect.