Navigating climate solutions on an Idaho cattle ranch
On a pasture at Pratt Family Beef, a family-owned ranch near Blackfoot, Wendy and Mark Pratt are navigating toward a GPS coordinate marked on a smartphone.
After a few minutes of zigzagging, they locate a short pin hidden in the brush. It marks the exact spot in this high desert, shrubby, landscape where they began an experiment a couple of years ago, and where they’ll continue to return to see how it’s working.
Their goal is to transform this plot, where their cows camped during the snowy winter, into one with thriving perennials and minimal bare ground. But they’re also part of a bigger vision: an initiative called Grazewell, which aims to build the largest climate-friendly ranching cohort in the country.
A partnership between the Pratt’s beef co-op, Country Natural Beef, non-profit Sustainable Northwest and Northway Ranch Services, Grazewell plans on enrolling 120 ranches in the West in its regenerative ranching program by 2025. Consultants will conduct baseline assessments, provide tailored grazing management plans and follow up five years later.
The Pratts are regenerative ranchers. It generally means they move their cows around a lot to allow plants to replenish in between bites. But it’s also a lot broader than rotational grazing, Wendy said.
“Your values get a lot bigger when you understand that you can provide for all kinds of wildlife, whether it's microbes in the soil or songbirds; pollinator insects,” she explained. “A real key to regenerative-type production is realizing that you're just one part of that web.”
They started ranching this way decades ago, in part, due to pressure from environmentalists who claimed ranchers were negatively impacting the land.
“That led us to question some of it, and to look for answers,” said Mark, who meticulously documents the flora and fauna he observes on the ranch on a yellow legal pad.
Being part of Grazewell helps measure and quantify what they’re doing on the ranch. Now, more consumers want to know where their food comes from and are concerned about its climate impact.
“This is just one more step in that process,” he said, “Not only where did it come from, but how did it get here? What process got it to us?”
There are 100 ranches in their beef co-op Country Natural Beef, and all of those members are taking part in Grazewell, too. It also includes 20 additional small-scale ranches, some of which are owned and managed by Indigenous ranchers, including some members of the Burns Paiute Tribe.
“If you believe in the power of well-managed grazing, then you want lots of ranchers to be involved,” Wendy said.
The co-op’s idea is that healthy rangeland is not just a boon for business, but the climate, too.
The agriculture sector contributes about 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and one study found beef cattle alone account for 3.3% of emissions.
However, the Biden Administration contends that agriculture is not only a climate problem, but can also be part of the climate solution. Last year, it launched the $3 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, positioning it as a joint solution for producers and the environment.
It funded 141 projects, such as planting cover crops on millions of acres, converting waste to biofuels and restoring forests. The University of Idaho, for instance, received $55 million to provide financial incentives and technical support to encourage Idaho farmers to adopt practices that build healthy soil.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also awarded a $10 million grant to Sustainable Northwest and its partners, including Country Natural Beef and Northway Ranch Services. In addition to the baseline and follow-up monitoring through Grazewell, the funds will support a rancher-to-rancher learning network and a university-led assessment to quantify carbon sequestration.
The Grazewell team believes aligning all its ranchers on the same regenerative path could sequester six to nine million metric tons of carbon dioxide that would have been emitted.
On the pasture, the Pratts gather with Marissa Taylor, a co-owner of Northway Ranch Services and a rancher in Wyoming. She guides them through the standard Grazewell monitoring protocol.
They unroll transect tape and create three evenly spaced boxes to assess the percentage of ground that's covered by plants, a measure of soil health.
Next, Taylor hammers a metal pipe into the ground for a water infiltration test. Mark Pratt readies his iPhone stopwatch.
Taylor pours water from a jug into the circle and waits for it to slowly lower into the ground as its shine disappears.
The goal is to gauge how fast the ground can absorb the little rainfall this arid climate receives. If the ground is too compact, the water will just run off over the surface. But if absorbs into the soil, it can yield plant growth.
For the next test, they twist a probe into the ground to excavate soil. It'll be sent to a lab to measure shallow and deep organic matter. Finally, a biodiversity scavenger hunt.
"Okay, name the five most abundant grass species you see,” Taylor says.
The Pratts start rattling off. Indian ricegrass. Needle-and-thread. Annual ryegrass.
Next, onto forbs. They also get some help from smartphone plant identification apps.
“The monitoring forces you to learn them,” Wendy says.
The Pratts chose this pasture for study because the soil is sandy, similar to others on their ranch.
“This is the one that we can use to figure out the potential of the rest of the sandhills on the rest of the ranch,” Wendy said.
Though all ranchers go through this baseline monitoring, what happens on each ranch is different. Grazewell doesn’t prescribe practices across the board.
“It's about being on the land with the producer to talk about their objectives,” Taylor said, “like what they want to see happen on that land or what could happen on that land, and then set actions of how they'll get there.”
She asks the Pratts how they feel about this sandy sagebrush pasture. Hopeful. Sometimes, confused, they say. She asks them about their objectives for the site. They want to see more biodiversity and decreased bare ground.
How are you going to get there, Taylor asks.
Mark wonders if they can take the cattle off this pasture earlier in the spring.
“It seems like that April window is critical to these sandhills,” he says. “Can we figure out how to get off of it and let that springtime growth go?"
Though regenerative ranching isn’t new to the Pratts, each incremental improvement involves risk, they said, and having the support and accountability of Grazewell is crucial.
The Climate-Smart Commodities money has been rolling out for about a year now. It’s opened up climate action to more farmers than ever before, said Dr. Omanjana Goswami, a food researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“I think the right word to call this sort of set of money is ‘historic’,” she said.
Yet proving carbon reduction on farms and ranches -- a central focus of the federal program -- is tough. In the first year, Goswami said, there are insufficient data for most projects.
“On what each project was setting out to do, who was doing them, and what was the role of each partner within it,” she said. “And a lot of those questions are unanswered, even to this date."
The USDA requires regular monitoring, but Goswami isn't sure what will be publicly available. So she said, it may be tough to know if the projects are delivering results.
But, the ranchers say there are also more holistic benefits to Grazewell, such as improved water quality and biodiversity.
Still, Wendy Pratt knows the initiative needs to resonate with consumers for it to pay off.
"We hope that there's a message out there that cattle production can be a good thing,” she said.
That's why the co-op is creating a new grocery store label to let shoppers know that its beef is raised with the climate in mind. The label could be in stores as soon as next year.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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