Last week I attended the Grassfed Exchange conference along with Tristan Banwell, of Spray Creek Ranch, in Santa Rosa, California. This year’s conference, dubbed “Regeneration Rising” was possibly the largest gathering of ecologically minded farmers and ranchers in North America. Drawing attendees and speakers from across the globe to discuss the topic of regenerative agriculture.
The conference started with a tour of two ranches using Management Intensive Grazing (MIG) in the rolling hills of California's Sonoma county (interestingly, very near where my Great Grandpa’s family ranch was located before his parents and only sister died and he was shipped off to live with an Aunt in Toronto). On the day-long tour we learned about different methods of managing your herd for optimum soil health and mimicking natural grassland ecosystems to bring back the native grasses. I picked up some great fencing tricks and got a bunch of new ideas.
The next day was a 12 hour marathon of “Ted” style presentations from people doing fantastic work with land restoration and research. Most notably Dr. Charles Massey, the keynote speaker and author of “The Call of the Reed Warbler” who ranches sheep in Western Australia. I really appreciated his pragmatic worldview and hopeful message about the great potential of regenerative land management to combat climate change and repair hydrologic cycles. We heard from people who had seen incredible improvements to arid desert landscapes, ravaged by hundreds of years of overgrazing. Just by modifying the time duration and rest periods of herding animals they were able to increase drought resistance, soil carbon, and grass species diversity. The day was filled with pictures of fence lines with lush green grass on one side and desert on the other (backed up by research of course)
The last day was a series of “breakout sessions” where we learned about lots of forms of grazing management, new technology, and my favorite, the science of grazing. The science panel was made up of three very accomplished scientists doing research on soil carbon, and most interestingly, a type of seaweed that reduces methane emissions in cattle by 60%. It was great to meet one of the reachers behind this groundbreaking discovery and hear about their sound methodology. According to Dr. Cynthia Daley the only thing stopping this seaweed (Asparagopsis) from being available to all farmers worldwide is simply the cultivation methods and infrastructure. While research should continue to figure out optimum use, the effects are proven and they’ve seen no negative results in beef or milk production.
The health benefits and nutritional value of grass-fed beef to the consumer is clear. But what doesn’t get discussed as much is the immense benefit to the land that this nutritious food represents if it is produced using a regenerative method. Properly managed grasslands produce more food, and can build beautiful, complex soils teeming with life. When managed for optimum growth and health, grasses build deeper, more extensive root systems with vast fungal mycelia, bacteria and insects that feed the plant in ways we’re only beginning to fathom. The potential to build soil carbon is sure to be one of the key tools in the fight against climate change and the stabilization of the hydrologic cycle (the latter is possibly as important when it comes to feeding the world, and reducing drought). As well as providing grass-fed beef with low energy input.
Attending the Grassfed Exchange was a transformative experience that will shape the future of our farming operation. While we plan to continue raising pork and chicken as a supplement to our grass-fed beef, we expect that beef and possibly other ruminants will make up the majority of our production in the future. As a newly transitioning Organic farm, it is great to have a way to bring GMO free nutrients onto the farm in the form of animal feed. We will continue to develop innovations in our outdoor production models that allow us to directly apply the manure to the land (ie: chicken tractors) and work the pigs into the regenerative equation as best we can. But, as weather patterns become more erratic, threatening food supplies globally, and the overall nutrient density of food decreases (due to C02 and other factors) we think focusing on low input beef production is the key to our future success and a more responsible form of agriculture, which doesn’t rely on industrially grown annual crops like barley and wheat. The move to a plant-based diet is something that is taking hold all around the globe, and we support this decision for those who feel comfortable with it. For those who feel the need for at least some animal protein, we want to assure them that our meat is a truly sustainable option that can supplement their diet in a way that does no harm. Eventually we hope to show, through extensive research and demonstration, that it can have a net negative carbon footprint.
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