Working with Nature
Re-introducing regenerative agriculture.
Photos by Ryan West, Going West Productions
His strides are filled with pride, as Jimmy Emmons begins his day on the land his grandad settled in 1924. The family’s ranch location in western Oklahoma remains the same, but the operation looks very different from back then. Emmons now gazes at the cattle grazing multiple crops on rich, healthy soil that used to be bare.
Regenerative agriculture and holistic grazing have been pushed more within the past year, but these practices date back to Native Americans working on the prairie, Amy Seiger, soil health coordinator at Oklahoma Conservation Commission and Oklahoma Electric Cooperative member, says.
“Regenerative ag is not new,” Seiger says. “It’s being reintroduced.”
After generations of conventional farming and tilling, our soils lack nutrients. Regenerative agriculture focuses on implementing five soil health principles to recreate new, healthy soil: cover the soil, minimize soil disturbance, increase plant diversity, maintain continuous living plants and integrate livestock. Of the five principles, Oklahomans should focus on keeping the ground covered, especially during summer months, with a diverse cropping system and reducing soil disturbance, Seiger says. Tillage is thought to absorb more ground water and rainfall, but it actually increases the rate of evaporation and water runoff.
“It makes a huge difference to encourage the no-till system,” Seiger says.
For farmer, rancher, Oklahoma Conservation Commission Soil Health Mentoring Coordinator and CKenergy Electric Cooperative member Jimmy Emmons, regenerative agriculture transformed his production in Leedey, Oklahoma. Emmons began his learning experience with regenerative agriculture and rotational grazing when he planted his first cover crop in 2011. Two years later, he incorporated cattle to graze the cover crops.
“It’s not only the soil changing,” Emmons says. “It’s you changing with it, trying to be more dynamic and thinking about things differently than you’ve ever thought.”
Emmons grows multiple cover crops, including wheat, winter barley, soybeans and milo after wheat harvest. Other recommended wheat cover crops according to Seiger are okra, beans, Sudan grasses and the western cover crop mix. The western cover crop mix is a blend of grasses, forages, legumes and 10 to 15 different plants working together to create a balance of carbon and nitrogen in the soil.
Jimmy Emmons, Oklahoma Conservation Commission Soil Health Mentoring Coordinator and CKenergy Electric Cooperative member.
“It’s good to have more variety if possible, but also stay with an economic means,” Seiger says.
Diversifying cropping systems give producers the ability to retain rainfall and let moisture seep through the ground, instead of creating runoff and losing soil nutrients. The water infiltration allows producers to withstand short-term droughts longer than fields without cover crops. A healthy ecosystem is made up of good biology above and below the soil, Seiger says.
Overgrazing is another factor that leads to unhealthy soil and less drought resistance. When you have more head of cattle in a smaller area, they compete with one another for food sources. In Emmons’ experience, cattle overgraze what they like to eat and this leads to pressuring and eventually killing the grass they are intensively grazing.
Regenerative grazing management utilizes the land to the best of its ability by moving cattle off a grazed area before the plants are grazed too close to the ground. When cattle are incorporated into cover crop fields, they can receive two grazings out of that one field. Cattle try to “mimic mother nature” and provide many nutrients and microbiology back into soil.
Transitioning to rotational grazing can be done quickly with the purchase of mobile electric fencing or poly wire fencing. It is important producers keep records of the number of cattle allowed in a field based on their grazing per acre to prevent overgrazing.
Some of the biggest challenges Emmons battled while transitioning his operation into regenerative agriculture practices were his mindset and figuring out the system that works best for his operation. Once he learned more and began to implement the new soil practices, the process was easier than he anticipated. Within a year or two, producers start to see changes in their operation. During the third year, significant changes become apparent, and moving into the fourth and fifth years, production begins to improve significantly.
“It’ll work anywhere,” Seiger says. “You just have to adapt it for your area.”
Local Natural Resources Conservation Service agencies and extension offices, conservation districts, Noble Research Institute, and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission are a few out of the list of resources and programs that work with farmers and ranchers looking to adjust their operation. Soil health consultants can visit and analyze operations to recommend grazing rotation systems, cropping diversity and other resources.
“To sum up regenerative ag, it’s working with nature instead of against nature and learning from our past,” Seiger says.
The agriculture industry is constantly “at the will of mother nature,” and regenerative agriculture can provide a balanced system that benefits entire communities.
“Regenerative agriculture is the future,” Emmons says. “We need to embrace it. It’s time to expand on what we know, step into the uncomfortable zone, try these new things and move forward.”
A healthy ecosystem is made up of good biology above and below the soil.
Soil Fast Facts
- The five principles for soil health: cover the soil, minimize soil disturbance, increase plant diversity, maintain continuous living plants/roots and integrate livestock.
- A typical soil is about 45% mineral (sand, silt, clay), 5% soil organic matter, 25% water and 25% air.
- It takes 1,000 years to create 3 centimeters of top soil.
- About 85% of U.S. grazing lands are unsuitable for producing human food crops, but provide nutrient-dense meat from grazing animals.
- The U.S. has 655 million acres of grazing lands—the nation’s single largest land use
- About 70% of global grazing lands are in a state of degradation.
- Examples of soil health education and outreach programs include: Oklahoma Conservation Commission, Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, 85-Conservation Services, Noble Research Institute, The Nature Conservancy, USDA ARS-Climate Hub, non-profit Regenerate Oklahoma, universities through research and many agricultural producers.* Source: Amy Seiger
Source: Noble Research Institution
*This is not a complete list of soil health education and outreach programs.