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Time for an industry defining revolution?

Do not be satisfied with just being sustainable, be regenerative.

There has been a debate for a long time about sustainable agriculture. If you’re on the right side of the debate, you want your farm or ranch to sustain itself, a good antidote to all those poor fools who think modern agriculture, especially animal ag, is guilty of being a not-so-slow-motion planet destroyer.

They say get back to hand-tilling the soil; or try no-till. Go organic. Stop using antibiotics for ANY reason (just let the animal suffer?). No fertilizer, not now, not ever! It just creates dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, all the fault of the farmer.

I think the whole sustainable thing was created as a defense against the innate silliness of those arguments. My old buddy, Mack Graves, blogging for Meatingplace, had a better idea; stop following from behind and get out in front.

Do not be satisfied with just being sustainable, he said. Be regenerative. It’s not good enough to leave it as you found it. It’s better to leave it better than you found it.

“When I was a Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout troop,” he wrote, “we would go on hikes and camping excursions into the Colorado Rocky Mountains. My admonition for all the Scouts was to leave the outdoor areas we had used better than we found them.”

“Why should we in the meat and poultry industry accept sustainability as the best we can do?” he asked. “Why shouldn’t we raise our sights to become a regenerative meat and poultry industry?”

He told a story about traveling with another old friend, Mel Coleman, one of the leading lights of the meat industry and a member of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame. Coleman stopped at an old country graveyard in the middle of cattle country. He asked Graves to observe and reflect on what he saw.

With just a little encouragement, he noticed that the grasses in the fenced in cemetery were “were sparse whereas the grasses on the rangelands outside the fence were flourishing.”

Cattle did not just contribute to sustainability. They had helped improve the condition of the rangeland. They had regenerated it.

Here is Grave’s definition of the better word:

• Regenerate -- To restore to a better, higher or more worthy state. Regenerative agriculture improves water cycles, enhances ecosystem services, increases resilience to climate fluctuation and strengthens the health and vitality of farming and ranching communities.

Jo Stanko, a cow/calf operator in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and a member of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, read Mack’s blog and agreed. “Maybe we need to rebrand and introduce the term regenerative rather than sustainable,” she said. 

I asked Joan Ruskamp, one of the best and brightest advocates for American animal agriculture, about Grave’s idea. “Well, on our farm we've been focusing on regenerative processes ever since we bought it from Steve's uncle. The farmstead was run down from not having anyone living here and utilizing the barns. From the house to the holding pond we believe the farm is better than ever,” she said.

“Water quality for the streams due to our holding pond is definitely regenerative or upcycling as we sometimes say, too. Is there a better verb than regenerative?” she asked.

Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Assn., agreed with the concept. He added, though: “The one element of ‘sustainable’ I like is the seemingly consistent definition; that of the triple bottom line which forces us to think about the environment, profitability and our communities.”

He further said that “In most other cases, only one element of ‘sustainability’ is ever discussed. For instance, the greater aspect of the environmental movement had a theology about saving the environment at all costs. Forgetting that this takes private dollars that only comes from profitability and the people living in those areas to accomplish the stewardship of the environment.”

“Just my two cents,” he said, expressing a thought that is worth a helluva lot more than a couple of pennies.

Graves belies sustainability can help fight the deterioration of our climate, but regeneration can cure it. Pounding on his metaphorical lectern, he urged the cattle industry to be a change agent.

“We have many responsibilities as we raise and produce nutritious protein, not the least of which is to help the regeneration of our environment. Think about all the ways our industry impacts the environment. In each of those different yet interdependent ways we can be a positive force for change,” he said.

Want scientific proof that Grave’s might be right? Jessica R. Baber, Jason E. Sawyer and Tryon A. Wickersham, Texas A&M Department of Animal Science, recently co-authored a research report titled, “Estimation of human-edible protein conversion efficiency, net protein contribution and enteric methane production from beef production.”

They found: “When evaluated as a whole, the beef value chain is a net contributor to the human-edible protein available for human consumption. Furthermore, the quality of the human-edible protein produced was enhanced throughout the beef value chain. The ability of cattle to upcycle protein from low quality to high quality allowed for these sectors to have a net protein consumption of greater than one.”

To be absolutely clear, cattle were found guilty of committing regeneration.

Think about that word for a moment. Regeneration. It rolls off the tongue and soothes the mind. It’s a word of power and hope and demands the stewards of the land -- something every farmer and rancher aspires to be -- leave it in better shape than he or she found it. Could we, within a few generations, take our agricultural land back to its purest state when we first began farming it, make it even more productive than it is today and do it with fewer inputs?

Graves thinks so.

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