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The regenerative vs. industrial mindset

Billy Whitehurst for Progressive Cattle Published on 10 December 2020

My last two articles briefly summarized some differences between our conventional industrial production models in the beef industry and the growing “niche” markets that are becoming more prominent. As niche markets grow, so has the focus on regenerative production models because the niche market consumer and producer both tend to have desires to break free from the high input, “bigger is better” industrial mindset.

Unfortunately, as these production models have diverged in paths, there has been much misunderstanding and, in some cases, a lot of mudslinging between producers, associations and consumers. As we look at these two mindsets, it must be noted that neither model is necessarily wrong and neither side necessarily bad; they both have a place in food production for a growing population. Let’s use a couple of common management issues to highlight how the two mindsets might view things differently.

Scenario 1: A weed management problem in a pasture

Industrial mindset knows that a decrease in weeds means an increase in forage available for cattle to graze. Simple: We find the appropriate herbicide to apply to the weed and over a period of a couple of applications, and maybe some resting of the pasture, we get an increase in the amount of grass growing for our cattle. It takes a couple of half-days a year to spray the pasture at a cost that seems reasonable. Not only that, but the pasture also looks great.

The downside is that the herbicide could also be killing favorable plants as well microbes in the soil – maybe not, depending on the chemical. Long-term negative effects to soil health may be a concern with this approach. Applications will be a constant because once annual maintenance treatments of herbicide stop, the weed comes back. This results in an annual expense that must now be factored into the cost of production, which may or may not be profitable. This may or may not prove to be a convenient and time efficient way to handle the problem.

Regenerative mindset sees this as an opportunity to turn a weed into a cash crop and knows that three goats can be grazed to every cow without reducing stocking rates due to lack of dietary overlap and also that goats will eat this particular weed. Problem solved: We put goats in the pasture, they eat the weed and we have just turned a liability into an asset. Instead of broadcasting herbicide through the entire pasture, we use nothing or spot spray a few small areas. Now we have reduced input costs by not using chemical and have added another layer of income to the same acres that before only generated a single income stream. No desirable plants are being killed by the herbicide, and the soil microbes are thriving.

Great idea, except did you read the part that you now have goats? Time and labor inputs just increased due to additional fencing needs, and weed control will take longer to see the results. Like chemical treatment, this method of biological treatment is a long-term plan, so you’d better learn to like those goats. That instant kill on weeds we got with the herbicide that made the pasture look so nice didn’t happen either due to the increased time needed for the goats to graze it all. This may not be the most convenient way to handle the situation, but it may also result in greater profit to the land while decreasing overall expenses.

Scenario 2. A need to increase soil nitrogen

Industrial mindset sees this as a simple annual call to the local co-op for a chemical fertilizer order. Test the soil, apply fertilizer annually, problem solved. Highly time efficient and convenient, however, like the chemical herbicides, we may now be damaging the soil microbes we rely upon to keep our soil healthy and vibrant, and we have an added annual production expense the cow herd must pay for.

Regenerative mindset is fully aware that up to 95% of the nitrogen that goes into a cow comes out the other end in manure and urine (urine having the most readily available nitrogen). To add nitrogen back into the soil, we graze it in tightly managed cells to regulate how and where nitrogen is put back onto the field. If we are in an area or time of year when we need to provide some supplemental hay, we feed in tightly controlled areas, so the manure, urine and organic matter provided by the waste gets put where we need to increase the soil nitrogen. This keeps the soil healthy and, over the long term, creates a natural way to achieve needed nitrogen levels in the soil with no additional outside inputs. This may require some fencing, labor and time input but keeps money in the bank where it belongs.

These two scenarios just begin to scratch the surface of the differences between a regenerative and industrial mindset. In some cases, the divide between the two mindsets has pitted segments of the beef industry against each other unnecessarily. Both mindsets are rooted and grounded in science, just a different school of science. Both offer upsides and downsides. While one mindset may appeal to different groups of consumers over the other, livestock raised under both mindsets have a market into the foreseeable future.

As we move forward, the consumer, social and cultural trends, and demands are likely to have greater influence on which direction markets ultimately take, thus dictating which will be more profitable in the long term. We must remain flexible and adaptable to change. Those who do not change with the times will find themselves looking for a new occupation or a second job to support their cattle habit while those who are adaptable will thrive and prosper.  end mark

Billy Whitehurst
  • Billy Whitehurst

  • Makale Livestock
  • Whitehall, Montana
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