Ranchers are true stewards of the land and have been caring for their resources and livestock from the beginning. However, there is more that can be done and we have been hearing the words regenerative agriculture for some time now.
In this episode, Steve Rhines and Hugh Aljoe with the Noble Research Institute share their knowledge and experience with regenerative ranching practices. They explain what it is, why it will be a huge part of ranching now and in the future, and what it looks like for different producers.
Listen on your favorite podcast app and find a link to the transcript and all other episodes on https://www.casualcattleconversations.com/
Shaye Koester 0:08
Hey, hey it's Shaye Koester and I'm your host for the Casual Cattle Conversations podcast where we foster innovation and enthusiasm in the ranching industry through sharing the stories and practices of different ranchers and beef industry leaders. Be sure to be a greater part of this podcast and become involved on my social media pages. Follow cattleconvos on Instagram, Facebook and tik tok or Shaye Koester on LinkedIn to join the conversations around the challenges we face as ranchers and how we can overcome them. You can also find more information about this podcast, all my episodes and how to partner with me on this show, by going to my website, casualcattleconversations.com. With that, thanks for tuning in, and let's see who our guests is today.
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Shaye Koester 1:39
Alrighty folks, thank you for tuning in again today. It's great to have you on here again. If you're a new listener, welcome to the show. Today we are going to be discussing regenerative ranching. So I brought on two experts from the Noble Research Institute in Oklahoma. Today, visiting with me on the show is Steven Rhines, and Hugh Aljoe. These two individuals truly possess the background, knowledge and experience to explain what regenerative ranching is and why it's important to your operation, whether that is that relates to profitability, the ability to pass your land down to the next generation, or really just looking at your soil health and quality right now. This is a topic that I truly believe is important and we always need to continue improving our stewardship. We are already great stewards of the land, but we can always continue to improve. I think these two individuals do a tremendous job of explaining the topic of regenerative agriculture and providing some tips and advice on what practices you can look at maybe implementing now and how they will impact your operation. So with that, let's get on with the episode.
Steve Rhines 2:01
Hi Shaye, how are you?
Shaye Koester 3:11
Oh, I can't complain. I'm doing pretty good.
Steve Rhines 3:14
It's good to see you again.
Shaye Koester 3:15
Yeah, it's been a couple years.
Hi, Hugh. Thanks for hopping on. I'm Shaye. It's nice to meet you. I appreciate you joining me for this.
Hugh Aljoe 3:24
Oh, you bet. Glad to do it. Glad to do it.
Shaye Koester 3:28
Well, with that would one of you or both of you please provide a brief background on the history of Noble Research Institute.
Steve Rhines 3:38
Shaye Koester 6:47
Well, that is awesome. And thank you for offering that history. So now on a more personal scale, would each of you offer insight on what your backgrounds' in agriculture are?
Hugh Aljoe 7:01
All right. Well, my background is, ya know, I grew up in West Texas on a family farm, I went to A&M and got a couple of degrees there and was hired right out of school to work for an international businessman running a cattle operation in East Texas. I did that for 10 years. We did you know a lot of say intensive rotational grazing, tried to try to be as progressive as we could with you know, with the land as well as trying to try to run as many cattle as you could just because the businessman, that was one of his objectives. So you know, we were able to grow the operation to about 1400 cows. From there, I was hired here as a pasture range consultant 25 years ago, been here ever since. I'm primarily working with people on pasture and range issues. In particular, grazing management has been kind of my forte. The last few years, I've been the director of the producer relations, which is our consulting efforts as well as overseeing the range operations here at Noble.
Shaye Koester 8:10
Well, awesome, thank you. How about you, Steve,
Steve Rhines 8:13
Not quite as extensive. I grew up on a very small cow-calf operation. By small I mean, probably a dozen mama cows. My grandfather had upwards of the high 80s. The challenge was, I didn't really care for the state of Oklahoma or cattle when I was a kid and I thought a lot of good opportunities go. I saw myself being in a city and being an engineer. And, that's what I chased in school. So I went to school to become a mechanical engineer and work in the aerospace industry, went on to law school, and then found myself in Ardmore, Oklahoma. So as fate would have it, it's not my choice. It was somebody else's choice and we wound up here and fell in love again with the state. I couldn't be happier to be involved with farming and ranching and cattle production. So it was an underlying calling, which I just didn't appreciate for the better part of my life.
Shaye Koester 9:11
Well, I'm glad you had the chance to come back and live that out then. So with that regenerative ag is it's a buzzword and there's a lot that can fall into it. So how would you describe regenerative agriculture within the ranching space?
Hugh Aljoe 9:31
Well you know if we look at regenerative ranching, which is the term that we've coined because our focus is going to be around grazing lands, this would be the process of restoring degraded grazing lands using practices based on ecological principles. And what we really want to be able to do is take some of the practices that we've known to be part of what we'd consider good stewardship and apply them more intentionally in order to focus on restoring you know, the ecological process. Particularly the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy cycle as well as community dynamics, just being sure that we're helping Mother Nature do what she does really well. So what do some of these practices look like, you know, surprisingly to some people is that they look a whole lot like what we're doing when we're trying to apply good, you know, good land stewardship to begin with, we're actually planning for rest and recovery of our pasture land or grasses to grow up before they're actually grazed. Providing the recovery that the plants need, so that we get more photosynthetic activity and, as a result get more biological activity below the surface. Because as the roots grow, so do the associations with the organisms in the soil, in able to be no-till some of the cover crops that we're looking at as diverse mixtures, planting into areas that would have been cropland that have been grazed year after year, trying to minimize the need, reduce drastically the need for things like fertilizer and pesticide, and what we're seeing is we can increase our stock density and grazing affects, you know, a lot of those things we consider problems sort of disappear. They're taking care of them as we're going through our proper management. Those are some examples. Anything else you'd like to add?
Steve Rhines 11:27
No. I think simply, one of the things that we've looked at is making soil a partner in our operation, I think a lot of times, we just use it to either hold the animals up, or serve as a medium for plants to grow. But it's actually thinking a little bit about how we manage that as the entire system as he talked about. So I've got nothing further to add.
Shaye Koester 11:47
So when we look at ranching on the business side, what are the main benefits there that ranchers see from adopting some of these practices,
Hugh Aljoe 11:57
The main benefit that producers have when they begin adopting these practices, is that one, they have reduced the need for some of the inputs that they routinely apply such as chemicals and fertilizer. They also find that, that they begin to work with Mother Nature. You are actually working and using whatever is provided grazing for us, in many instances, trampling some of the materials in order to actually feed organisms within the soil, things that that most people haven't up to this point really considered animals that we need to be feeding. You know, and those organisms within the soil, really begin to add the biology and add to the biology, improving those ecosystem processes that we spoke of early on. I think that's the biggest benefit too is that another benefit is that you also because you're not putting these inputs, you're seeing an extreme reduction in some of the costs that they've used to support their operations. And they're not losing very much of the production, in most cases, whatever they might have seen early on is recovered within a very short period of time.
Shaye Koester 13:04
Well, thank you for sharing that. Steve, do you have anything else to add?
Steve Rhines 13:09
I think one of the interesting things is a lot of the pastures look a little different than what they might otherwise look like. In this part of the country look at monoculture. Bermuda grass is our primary warm-season grass, and tend to what you see here is a little bit of a different mix as we actually worked to incorporate forbs legumes into the pasture. And so and my father is one of them. He'll talk about the weediness and how is he going to manage the weeds and what you see in this managed grazing setup, is you intensely graze smaller paddocks and you actually suppress a lot of the weed problems, because the animals find them into their diet, and so they aren't selective anymore, which is exactly the way I eat at a buffet. I'm not allowed to do that anymore. I'm forced in one capacity or another to graze everything equally and as a consequence, a lot of the activities that we've otherwise known becomes unnecessary as Hugh was mentioning.
Shaye Koester 14:08
Okay, so overall, when we're talking ROI, would you say it's there for these practices?
Hugh Aljoe 14:15
Most definitely, I mean, that's, that's what were some of the questions is, what's the cost on the infrastructure, and really refers to make good use of what you already have. That's where we need to start when most people should start to buy themselves just a little bit of time understanding and trying to learn what regenerative ranching is about. Understand the ecosystem processes as well as the soil health principles. What are we really trying to use and once you get a little practice at applying grazing management, maybe using cover crops to some degree, you really begin to get a feel for what you're trying to accomplish. At that point, then you can come in with a plan in order to phase in what you need to, so it's not as if it's an, what I would call them, extreme inconvenience or financial burden in order to get started.
Shaye Koester 15:08
Go ahead, Steve,
Steve Rhines 15:09
I will add the idea that that that is really one of the focal points of our research at the Noble Research Institute is to begin to look at these economic issues. We have roughly 14,000 acres worth of land that's, that's located in the southernmost part of Oklahoma. That's only one geographic reference. It's got a lot of different soil types, it's got a lot of different production value. But the idea is what we need to begin to do is across a larger footprint, do this research to begin to answer a lot of the questions that you just posed. There are different mechanisms. Some people are going to go all in, and that's going to have a certain perhaps infrastructure valuation that they need to be able to put in whether it's water, or portable water, what are those different options? That's what noble needs to be able to do. Historically, we've done this in conventional agriculture is we take a little bit of that risk away from the producer by doing some of that research and then demonstrating on our own lands, we're going to continue to do that as we go forward in this direction.
Shaye Koester 16:12
Awesome. Well, so Hugh mentioned, you know, producers need to kind of do some research and figure out, you know, what might work best for their operation and gain a better understanding of what regenerative ranching really is? Where can they go for this information, and these contact points to make sure they're getting the right information?
Hugh Aljoe 16:32
Well, as we look, look out there, here at Noble what we're looking at is trying to find people that have been in the regenerative ranching circles and learning from them to begin with. Then also in a very short period of time, we're hoping to be able to transfer a lot of that information through our own internet, our own website, and our own educational venues. There are entities such as Understanding Ag, the savory and Holistic Management organizations, Ranching for Profit and so these are some of the leaders within the regenerative ranching community that we're gleaning from, and we're happy to be learning from them as well.
Shaye Koester 17:10
Well, thank you for sharing that. So when we look at producers, as they start to implement these practices, as you've worked with producers, or seen some of their operations, what are some of the challenges they may initially face.
Hugh Aljoe 17:28
One of the big challenges is making sure that they have a good partner to guide them through, you know, the steps that are going to be necessary in order to have early success, We want to make sure that people have the opportunity to have early wins and if you're partnering with the right people, it makes it really easy. But you know, we want to be able to serve as guides, to those entities and where we've had people that have had the success, that's where they come back. So it's been the most rewarding for me is where to get started, how to start using the resources that they already have. It doesn't mean that for most people, if you see it every day, he may not understand or value what you really have. And when you've got somebody on the outside coming in, and making suggestions, then they have the buy in order to take it and run it. Rather thoughts through us, we provide a little bit of critique and do they implement their, their thoughts and our suggestions or recommendations.
Shaye Koester 18:26
Steve Rhines 18:27
I think another part of that, too, is as that as this grows, it's going to be critically important and it's an extension of what Hugh was mentioning just then it's going to be important to connect each Farmer and Rancher to a like community. We know farmers and ranchers. They're social people. They like to engage, whether it's over at the coffee shop or the donut shop, or if it's a church, you'd like to share what you're doing, you'd like to get that other idea, maybe it's just looking across the fence. But we think that that's a critical piece of this as we go forward is to be able to put these communities together and they can't be we know for a fact that they cannot stretch over large geographies, because of the differences in operations, the difference in soil, the difference in the climate. So the challenge becomes is building these networks close to home so you can relate to your neighbor and what they're going through and see it in your own operation.
Shaye Koester 19:28
Well, absolutely, you know, it is very valuable to have those people who are close to you kind of seeing some things, seeing some of the things but also having an outside look at your own place too. What would you say the future of ranching looks like then with these regenerative practices?
Steve Rhines 19:49
Well, we hope our goal is we get a new toolkit for where we're going to go I mean, we know for a fact. So before the call started you and I talked a little bit about working with Dr. Tom field at the University of Nebraska. He was an integral part of our discussions as we strategically planned and where should Noble fit and how does it relate to its history. One of the projects he asked for, that we asked him to do is to look into what's gonna compromise the viability of ranching in the United States as we look into the future. And he really came up with three points, and they're not magic to them. They're just once you hear them, you're like, yeah, I get that. And that's basically, soil productivity in the face of climate variability. The nation's or the producers level of debt, it's at an all-time high, it stretches across all agricultural sectors, it's not limited to ranching it, it is unbelievable. I believe it was in 2015 when we began to exceed $400 billion and it's only grown since 2015. And then the last, this lack of a pipeline, into the future of new people coming into ranching, coming into agriculture, to support this heritage industry for the United States. So if you begin to look at those three areas, any one of them is completely overwhelming, all three of them together is amazing. And so what our role is, is to begin to figure out, how is it that we can connect those dots begin to come up with a set of tools to manage the climate variability and soil productivity, to work on the economics of any operations to ensure that someone who wants to stay on the land can. But there's a second story to that, if I only make enough to get by year to year, what's the first thing I go after, and that's long-term thinking. So we know regenerative ranching, regenerative agriculture requires a long time, a long thought process, a long term planning process, we can't have operations live month to month, year to year, because they can't do that long term planning. And then that last piece really looks at that next generation. And it's the generation that's currently in university, it's also probably that next generation that that sets behind where you are in your own progress. And, and that is a generation that may have a connection to the land, but they also need to be thinking about ranching, or agriculture in a new light. And so as we see these new, and I hate to call them trends, because I think they're starting to eclipse trends, but localized food, knowing where my food comes from being comfortable with the idea that I not only know where it was raised but maybe where it was processed. And so as we get into those ideas, can we build an agricultural system behind that to support and help alleviate these three obstacles to the future of ranching viability?
Shaye Koester 23:02
Well, that was amazing to hear. And thank you for sharing that there was so much I value in that statement, especially when you do look at the long-term picture. And yes, making sure that we as producers are doing everything we can when we get to have a fully traceable product within the United States. So with that, you two have done a very good job answering all the questions I had, do you have anything else you would like to add? Whether that's about regenerative ranching, ranching in general or Noble?
Steve Rhines 23:35
I would just say that, and Hugh touched on it earlier. We don't pretend to believe that we're the only ones in this space. Just like agriculture, and just like I would, for the most part, I would say the nonprofit world that that Noble belongs to. It's an unbelievably generous space. And so we've worked really closely with Understanding Ag, Dr. Alan Williams, Gabe Brown, Doug Peterson, Shane, and a lot of those folks have poured into the Noble Research Institute and its employees that to help bring us along. We're also working with savory we're also working with Ranching for Profit. These people have really been the pioneers and in this space, and so we believe that we can complement them. There's a lot of things that Noble can do. A lot of the questions you raised are critical questions to the future of regenerative ranching. And that's the economics. That's the practices built on principles. And then mostly it's farmer and rancher education. We know for a fact that it's going to be a bit of a challenge because many of us grew up in a certain mindset on what ranching looks like, what my pasture should look like, what I do in May of every year, some of those are really big challenges to overcome but the burden is on Noble and these other organizations to continue to work ahead and help answer these questions for farmers and ranchers. Because for the most part, what we're working for is the underlying land. And a lot of people ask the question initially when we were making this transition, but the idea of how big is the grazing land challenge in the United States, 655 million acres, it's the single largest land use of anything in the United States. So when we talk about water quality, water quantity, almost every raindrop passes at one point or another across rangeland. So if we're not doing everything we can to sustain its health bring its health up, then we're missing an opportunity there with the waterside, new markets with regard to carbon, we're not going to explore those, but we should be incredibly versed and how that impacts farmers and ranchers in everything that we're doing, whether it is how you tend to the soil, or ultimately how you measure your progress is going to lend itself to that potential revenue source for farmers and ranchers in the future.
Hugh Aljoe 26:09
I think you know, when you look at Noble Research Institute, you know, research is in our name, you know, we are here to answer the producer questions. And that's what our objective is using our resources in order to make sure that we're always answering the questions that producers might have, helping them move toward a better, more regenerative state, as early and as quickly as possible. And through that, with financial soundness at the same time.
Shaye Koester 26:36
Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate everything you both had to offer and taking the time out of your day to be on the show.
Steve Rhines 26:44
Hugh Aljoe 26:45
It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
Shaye Koester 26:47
And that's a wrap on that one, folks. Thank you, again, for tuning in. If you got something out of this podcast episode that really hit home for you, or you maybe you have a deeper question that wasn't covered, please go drop that in the comment section of my social media posts. There's a post for this episode, as well as a post before it was published. And there will be a post a couple days after as well. So any of those options, please go drop that question or comment about the episode so that we can have a conversation about it, as well as bringing in the rest of my fans to see what we all think about that as we work to combat some of the challenges that we faced with ranching, or maybe trying to open each other's minds to new ideas and new methods. With that, thank you to Steven and Hugh, for sharing your stories and your expertise on this show. I know I really appreciated it. It really got my mind turning about maybe some things to change or what does the future of ranching really look like? So with that, thank you again, and thank you for listening, and I hope to catch you on the next one.
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