Noble Research Institute Program Promotes Better Soil, Better Pastures and Better Herd Production
By Larry Stalcup, Contributing Editor
Faced with higher input costs and tighter profit margins, most ranchers need to get more out of their soil, water and pastures, without hurting those treasurable resources. The Noble Research Institute’s focus on “regenerative ranching” aims to help producers find solutions to meet those challenges.
Headquartered in Ardmore, Okla., Noble is in its 75th year of helping ranchers and farmers. The nonprofit independent research organization owns and operates about 14,000 acres of working ranchlands in southern Oklahoma. It’s described as a “living laboratory” that enables researchers to demonstrate and practice regenerative principles and ideas that help deliver value to livestock producers across southern Oklahoma, northern Texas and much of the United States.
“Research in grazing lands is often overlooked,” says Hugh Aljoe, Noble’s director of producer relations. “There are some 655 million acres of public and private grazing lands in the U.S., which represent almost 41 percent of our nation’s land. Grazing exists in all 50 states. The majority of this land cannot sustain row crops. It is reported that up to 70 percent of the world’s grazing lands are in a degraded state.”
Noble’s mission to assist producers began in 1945. Oilman and conservationist Lloyd Noble established The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to help farmers and ranchers rebound from the dreadful Dust Bowl that nearly destroyed agriculture on the Great Plains.
“Our goal is to achieve regenerative land stewardship in grazing animal production with lasting producer profitability,” Aljoe says. “Targeting grazing lands, regenerative ranching supports the goals of maintaining clean water and the environment, while at the same time keeping farmers and ranchers profitable. Regenerative agriculture is about principles, not practices. It focuses on outcomes, actual improvements to soil health and the overall quality and health of the land.”
Noble operates on the principle that each farm or ranch differs, based on their unique natural resources, climate variability and animal and ecological dynamics. In regenerative ranching, producers apply those principles for their particular region, operation and personal situation – a concept called “context.”
Robert Wells, Noble livestock consultant, says cowherds in a regenerative program prosper from soil health. He outlines the six principles of soil health:
- Context: Successful regenerative ranchers know their context – their individual situation, including their climate, geography, resources, skills, family dynamics, goals and other factors that will influence themselves and their operations. They understand how their ecosystems function and what’s available to them to get the most out of the land.
- Cover the soil: Regenerative ranchers use forages that are actively growing, as well as forage residues to keep the soil covered. They manage forages and residues through proper grazing and stocking rates based on carrying capacity. If land is consistently overstocked and overgrazed, it’s nearly impossible to keep the soil sufficiently covered. Regenerative ranchers manage forage residual heights and amounts during both the growing and the dormant seasons. If the base forage does not provide enough soil cover, they may also use annual forages or cover crops.
- Minimize unnatural disturbance: There are many kinds of disturbances. Grazing and periodic fire are natural disturbances in grasslands. Lack of either one would be an unnatural disturbance. Mechanical tillage is unnatural and should be minimized. Carry this principle beyond the soil to include the plants, because plants and soil make up an interconnected ecosystem. However, periodic soil disturbance by the hooves of grazing animals and tunneling by roots and earthworms is natural and good for soil health.
- Increase plant and animal diversity: Community diversity is important for healthy, functional ecosystems. Thus, regenerative ranchers try to increase plant and animal diversity. They graze multiple species of animals on diverse mixes of forages in pastures that are alive with micro- and macro-flora, and wildlife above and below ground.
- Maximize actively growing roots: Healthy rangelands consist of hundreds of species of plants. Something is nearly always actively growing, whether it’s the warm or cool season. Ranchers who introduce different forages to pastures benefit the land. They increase actively growing roots by managing for multiple cultures of warm- and cool-season perennial forages, or over-seed with annual cover crops to fill gaps when their primary forage is dormant.
- Properly integrate livestock: What makes regenerative ranchers different from others is how their livestock is grazed. They manage and manipulate five critical grazing fundamentals – the time of the season or year when grazing occurs; how often plants are grazed; how heavily plants are grazed; how long a grazing event lasts; and rest periods to allow plants to recover from grazing during the growing season. They place emphasis on grazing adaptively with short grazing events followed by long recovery periods.
“Regenerative ranchers know how they can apply these soil health principles in ways that align with, and make the most of what they have for the benefit of the land, their profitability and their quality of life,” Wells says.
The Regenerative Cow
As has been preached for generations, cattle that work well in a hot, humid climate likely won’t perform in a cold one, and vice versa. The same example applies to a good “regenerative” cow.
“The type of cow that performs well at a regenerative ranch in one location may not perform well at another location,” Wells says.
“It’s also likely that different types of cows can perform equally well within the same locale under different regenerative-managed operations. It’s all about the cow fitting the context of any given regenerative ranch.”
Like with soil health, Wells lists six aspects of a regenerative cow:
- She fits her environment: There’s a saying that a bull only works for 90 days or less, but the cow never gets a day off. She is either gestating, lactating or has recently weaned a calf and is still gestating. If she does not fit the environment, whether natural or management-induced, she will either cost the rancher more to maintain body condition, or will not rebreed. She falls out of the system sooner than expected. Cows that are environmentally adapted to an area should naturally perform better.
- She is moderate in size: Based on cow size, a moderate-framed cow (1,100 to 1,200 pounds) typically eats less forage per day than a large-framed cow. With efficiency of the two cow sizes being equal relative to their respective sizes, you can stock more moderate-framed cows on the same number of acres. This should lead to weaning more total pounds of calves per acre. An exception would be cattle raised to fit a specific niche or unique market.
- She may be crossbred: Relatively straightbred, black-hided cattle have become more popular and have dramatically helped to increase consistency and quality of the beef. However, the cattle industry has lost hybrid vigor or other efficiencies that come with heterosis, which may enhance pounds of gain that pastures may produce. Successful crossbreeding requires knowing what type calves they will produce. The crossed breeds should be complementary and build off the strengths of each other.
- She does not have excessive milking ability: Milk expected progeny differences (EPDs) have increased in recent years. However, some breeds include cows with milking traits that surpass the pasture’s ability to supply the nutrients to support such high-lactation potential. Know the milking ability and EPD averages for the breeds being crossed and adjust accordingly. Heavy-milking cows can also be higher maintenance cows that can have difficulty in recovering their body condition score.
- She must be efficient: The cow should be efficient in the areas of forage intake, production and reproduction longevity. A crossbred cow that is moderate framed and possesses an average milking ability is not automatically efficient. However, these traits are some of the best, easily identifiable indicators in female selection.
- She is healthy and raises a healthy calf: Health starts while the calf is gestating. Proper nutrition of the cow can set the calf up for success. Likewise, producers should select new females from replacement programs that have demonstrated that their cattle are healthier, environmentally adapted and hardier. Sick calves seldom make anybody any money.
“A regenerative cow should be the goal of every cattle producer,” Wells says. “She will get rebred early every year, stay in the herd longer than expected, consume less forage than expected and raise a healthy, bigger calf than the average cow.
“She will be profitable for the owner and her calves will be profitable for all segments of the industry. Selecting and managing regenerative cows will help increase the viability of the industry for future generations of cattle producers to come.”
Aljoe points out that Noble has continually helped producers improve grazing. Its research and guidance in well-managed rotational grazing programs have helped many producers get more out of their grass, especially during drought, which is common in the Southern Plains.
Lloyd Noble saw how drought and misuse of the soil could ruin agricultural production. He once said, “No civilization has outlived the usefulness of its soils. When the soil is destroyed, the nation is gone.”
Noble’s focus on regenerative ranching hopes to further increase its ability to assist producers with restoring soil health. For more information on regenerative ranching, visit https://www.noble.org/news/noble-rancher/.