Pamplin Media Group – Ranchers join program to monitor the land


Grazewell program helps ranchers monitor and improve soil health and biodiversity across 6.5 million acres

KIVA HANSON - A group of ranchers came together to form a co-op focused on differentiating their product and increasing profit, all while practicing sustainable, regenerative and progressive farming practices.

Right here in Oregon, 36 years ago, a group of ranchers came together to form a co-op focused on differentiating their product and increasing profit, all while practicing sustainable, regenerative and progressive farming practices.

Now that co-op, known as Country Natural Beef, has grown to over 100 ranchers on 6.5 million acres in 11 Western states. They’re doing more than ever to focus on regenerative ranching practices with a new program called Grazewell.

Grazewell started out of a desire of the ranchers to better understand their land and how to improve it. The program monitors data points like soil and water quality, biodiversity and ground cover to help ranchers understand and adapt to improve their land.

“In our own ranch, we’d be doing this even without a program,” said Jack Southworth, a cattle rancher from Seneca. “This just feels right to us. It feels like we’re doing the right thing for the planet, the right thing for our livestock, the right thing for the consumer that buys our beef, and the right thing for the quality of life for people on the ranch now, and in the future.”

Southworth’s family has been raising cattle in Oregon’s Bear Valley since 1885.

Thanks to a $10 million grant from the United State Department of Agriculture, the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest has taken measurements of almost 120 ranches across the Northwest to get a baseline of soil health, water conservation and biodiversity.

Ranchers and the land

In 1986, when Mary and Lowell Forman joined Country Natural Beef, along with 13 other founding family ranches, the goal was to combat the plummeting cattle prices of the ’80s. Now they’re focused on differentiating their products and taking care of the land they work.

“We want to know about the earth out here, and to take care of it,” said Lowell. “It’s been in my family for generations, and I’d like it to stay healthy enough to keep doing that.”

The Forman’s ranch — situated between Madras and Antelope, on land in Wasco and Jefferson counties — began as a homestead over 100 years ago and has remained in the family. Lowell and Mary say the practices of Grazewell aren’t much different to how they used to be, and the focus on upkeep and regeneration of the land, keeping their cattle happy and healthy.

“A lot of the people that we’re working with are already doing a lot of really good stuff, and are naturally curious,” said Dallas Hall Defrees, Sustainable Northwest’s Regenerative Ranching Program Coordinator. “They’re always trying to improve the land. Ranchers and farmers as a whole, none of them want to make the land worse and worse. We’re all trying our best to make a living off the land that we have, produce good food, and improve the landscape. That’s really what we’re hoping to perpetuate and improve.”

For ranchers, Grazewell allows them to monitor their land with minimal time and cost on their own, while also getting measured, audited, third party verified data. The initial monitoring, taken on almost 120 ranches earlier this year, takes a day or so. A team, along with the ranchers, collects transects and soil samples at a variety of locations around the ranch, which are then analyzed.

“The best part of this program has been the ease for us,” said Lowell. “It’s third party verified, and they have access to the technology to get really accurate information.”

Ranchers make adjustments

Grazewell goes beyond just monitoring the land. While initial measurements taken this year will provide a baseline for understanding how new practices affect the land, farmers are also adapting grazing practices to better support the land, and doing continual education on grazing and regenerative farming practices.

“The junipers that are so pervasive and use so much water here are here because huge herds haven’t been grazing like they used to,” said Mary Forman, looking out the window at hundreds of junipers she’s been uprooting on their ranch. “Animals used to come through here in huge herds and wipe all that out.”

Species like the juniper and other woody stemmed plants were a popular food among historic herd animals, and free grazing before humans meant they, along with natural fires, kept the ecosystem in check.

“We’re a group of ranchers that are collecting data on how we are doing on the land itself and verifying we are doing good for the climate,” said Southworth. “That is, we’re storing carbon in the soil and pulling it out of the atmosphere, making sure we have perennial grasses and plant litter, so the soil is covered, and minimizing disturbance with equipment. We want to have a diversity of plants, and we want to incorporate livestock management into all of that.”

Grazewell’s practices mean ranchers move herds between pastures more frequently, giving the grasses and soil rests from grazing. This allows native bunchgrasses to recover. When these native grasses grow, they draw carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground, making the soil healthier.

The program also encourages ranchers to focus on biodiversity, and foster diverse plant growth, supporting healthy cattle, wildlife and water systems.

Supporting the water system is also a major factor of the program. Much of the American West has been in a drought for the last several years. Through adding native species and ground cover to the land and monitoring soil filtration, the program hopes to reduce runoff.

“When we use these practices and have a covered soil surface, we can slow runoff in the spring from snow or a high rain event, and allow more of that moisture, the precious moisture we receive, to soak into the ground,” said Southworth. “This also helps keep soil cooler in the summer, meaning we lose less water to evaporation.”

The major goal of Grazewell is to improve carbon dioxide sequestration in the soil. The program does this by allowing grass to constantly be consumed by grazing cattle and regrown. Each time a plant regrows, it brings more and more carbon into the soil.

A 2020 study from Syracuse University suggests that the program could potentially sequester, think put back into the soil, between 6 and 26 million metric tons of CO2e a year. This would be like removing 1.3 billion gas powered cars from the roadways for one year, or not burning 6.6 billion pounds of coal.

For the consumers

When calf prices plummeted in 1986, Oregon ranchers knew something needed to happen. They banded together and created Country Natural Beef. Ranchers realized the consumer was searching for something different. They cared about connecting to where their food came from, and how it was raised.

“We found out restaurants and stores wanted beef that was natural and were shipping it in from all over the world, places like Argentina,” said Mary Forman. “We decided we could do that same thing right here in Oregon.”

So, they began to differentiate. The ranchers focused on sustainable ranching practices and natural beef and differentiated their product by connecting with their consumers directly. They decided to raise their cattle without antibiotics or growth hormones, and practice Global Animal Partnership animal welfare.

They also began visiting stores that carried their beef, meeting directly with consumers to connect their practices with the urban citizens consuming the final product. Since then, the consumer has responded, and many restaurants and grocery stores carry their products across the state. Popular spots like McMenamins, Whole Foods and News Seasons stock Country Natural Beef.

“We came tighter and decided we had to figure out a way to sell the beef the consumer wants,” said Southworth. “We’ve been doing that ever since. We’re antibiotic and hormone free and have a set of practices we adhere to and treat our cattle in a humane manner. Grazewell is just a further way to differentiate our product in a rather crowded marketplace.”

For the future

Scientifically, monitoring and adjusting soil won’t change overnight, and much of the soil health metrics and biodiversity isn’t something you see by just looking at the land. “On a day-to-day basis, you probably won’t really see what we’re doing,” said Defrees, quoting rancher Tim Kearns. “But in 20 years, you would certainly see if we weren’t.”

For many of these ranchers, the effects of these practices won’t be directly seen for years to come, and the ultimate benefit won’t be seen until further generations. To them, the sustainability of industry and future generations is a driving factor in making these changes now.

“The short-term impact is more ranchers will become aware that we’re more than just cattle ranchers,” said Southworth. “We’re grass ranches and we’re people ranches as well. If we understand that, we can start managing the health of the soil and the range land and not just thinking of ourselves as cattle producers. In the long term, I hope that we have more family ranches that can stay in business from one generation to the next. So much of agriculture these days is being bought up by large corporations. I hope there’s still a place in Oregon and the American West for family-sized ranches that are multigenerational and are in the ranching business for a long, long time.”

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