The land under the feet of America's farmers and ranchers is as alive as the crops they raise or the cattle they graze over it. Understanding that and building up soil so that it supports a wider microbiome, sequesters additional carbon and retains more water when the rains fall, draws a line between who will be winners and losers in the years ahead.
Meredith Ellis knows which side of that line she wants to be on. Born and raised on Texas' G BAR C Ranch, she is becoming a key voice in sustainable agriculture. What Ellis says she has learned during the last several years continues to completely change the way she, her dad, G.C. Ellis, and long-time farm manager Michael Knabe see the world around them.
"With increased climate events, I believe winners in the future of agriculture will have built up their soils and carbon banks," she explains. "They will own land that is the most drought- and flood-resistant. Ultimately, they will see a double benefit for that effort, because they will be paid to sequester carbon for corporations, and they also will be the ones with grass to graze when someone else is waiting for it to rain."
G BAR C Ranch is about an hour and a half north of Dallas. The ranch started with just 350 acres, growing to 3,000 acres over the last 35 years. Ellis says she's come to realize how unique it was to grow up on a working cattle ranch.
"I really took that all for granted," she says. "I went to the University of New Mexico where I earned a master's in landscape architecture with an emphasis in sustainability. There is this broad picture of land use in the U.S. I saw firsthand the disconnect people have with where their food comes from and a lack of understanding about what 'nature' and 'wild' really mean. Because of those four years, I came back with a different perspective about what my dad was doing. I could see that the acres he was managing and preserving were, and are, incredibly valuable to our ecosystem. I realized the biggest thing I could do with my life was to continue that work and build on it."
Part of that work for both G.C. Ellis and Meredith has been working as cooperators with Oklahoma's Noble Research Institute. Her dad called the organization initially for advice on wildlife management, and the relationship grew during the past 20 years. He was a founding board member of the Integrity Beef Alliance (IBA), and Meredith is a current board member.
The IBA is a program to help simplify management decisions and increase calf marketability for the nation's cow-calf producers. The relationship with IBA allowed Ellis to take part in a two-year pilot program with the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB). The goal was to help develop real-world metrics showing the impact of various areas of management across a ranching operation.
Those two years, Ellis says, helped clarify how everything works together on a ranch. She says they found areas where they were doing surprisingly well, and some areas where they needed to improve.
"One of the metrics I'd never really thought about was employee safety and well-being. Not to say we weren't safe, but there was nothing formal in our way of going about things. We'd never really talked about it. Ranching was our way of life and we used what we felt were safe methods, but it was a talk we needed to have," she says.
She adds the pilot program underscored just how important rotation and cover crops are to the big picture of environmental health.
"When you talk about air and greenhouse gas emissions, land resources and yield, I saw there is so much overlap between those benefits and a good rotational grazing plan. We'd always been tuned into the value of our native grasses, but now we are more focused on what is down in the soil, what's below. Since the pilot, we've added cover crops on our wheat fields, and we think about what is happening throughout the soil profile."
BUILDING ON SOIL HEALTH
Ellis says just 6% of their operation is considered cropland, which they also use for grazing. Historically they only planted winter wheat on these acres, but since the pilot, they've added summer cover crops which are also grazed.
"The intention is adopting those five principles of soil health and to build on the soil," she says. She refers to recommendations that call for producers to cover the soil, minimize soil disturbance, increase plant diversity, maintain continuous living plants and root systems, and integrate livestock.
At the G BAR C, Ellis says the biggest advantage they have is the array of available native grasses.
"They seem to rock along, nothing phases them," she says. "Their roots go so deep into the ground that when water seeps from these hillsides it's drinkable."
Ellis believes most farmers and ranchers never know how big their contributions are to the environment. That makes it essential that measures of success are in place to prove the value of agronomic practices many have used for generations.
A self-assessment developed by Noble Research Institute in conjunction with the USRSB is a web-based tool to do that very thing. It was tested during the two-year pilot Ellis participated in, and she believes it will be a foundation for success moving ahead.
The pilot aimed to validate, track and trace beef sustainability claims across all segments of the supply chain. It applied the U.S. Beef Industry Sustainability Framework to 36 ranches, across 92,577 acres. The self-assessment was integrated into the USRSB's educational module and will be available free of charge to every segment of the beef industry.
Wayne Morgan, corporate vice president of Golden State Foods and chair of the USRSB, says "the pilot successfully tracked animals from birth to the beef patties at restaurants. Providing information up and down the supply chain is valuable when identifying opportunities to improve, and ultimately it allows us to answer the questions our customers are asking."
LITTLE CHANGES ADD UP
Ellis says the process was a game-changer for G BAR C. Being able to receive real-time feedback about carcass quality on their calves in the feedyard showed their efforts were having a positive impact.
"It demonstrated the practices and genetics we invested in were paying off," she notes. Their overall goals also led to a recent move to end the seedstock side of the business and focus completely on breeding replacements and utilizing maternal genetics more efficiently.
"We believe selecting on the maternal side helps us as we work to have the most efficient cow herd possible for our environment," she adds. Grassfed bull genetics are also beginning to play a role, as ranchers work toward a genetic mix that allows herd females to maintain a good body condition, be good moms and still have small enough frames to thrive off the land more efficiently.
As the work continues to evolve, Ellis says goals for G BAR C's future are focused around a lot of little things they know will lead to big improvements on the ranch.
"We are paying close attention this year to stockpiling on our Bermuda fields, with the goal of leaving standing Bermuda hay for later in the season," she says. "In addition, we interseeded wheat in one pasture and built additional working pens to take pressure off forages when we need to keep the cows close to a working pen. That allows us to spread them to different locations, not always putting pressure on one pasture.
"We are working to rotate more, and we are collaborating with the Botanical Research Institute of Texas at Fort Worth on 200 acres we bought a couple of years ago that had been tilled. They are helping us build up the microbiome of the soil and get more of those big native grasses to fill in.
"If you ask me what I've learned over all of this time, it's that all these little things really do matter. They are what makes the difference looking ahead, and as we learn to measure the value of what we do as ranchers it is going to give us all a lot to be proud of."
Victoria Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @myersPF
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