Home » Montana Ranchers Demonstrate Regenerative Agriculture in Action

Montana Ranchers Demonstrate Regenerative Agriculture in Action

Roger with the author during a Native Energy Soil Carbon gathering.

BY NICOLE MASTERS
This article is excerpted from Nicole Masters’s book, For the Love of Soil: Strategies to Regenerate Our Food Production Systems.

Fraggle Rock is an ’80s TV show featuring Jim Henson’s colorful puppets, covering topics like waste, the environment, spirituality and dealing with social conflict. It’s a silly show that resonates with me. The Fraggles family includes a character called Uncle Traveling Matt. Matt, who has a grey Doc Holliday mustache and a pack on his back, he leaves his safe underground community to record his observations about the human’s world (outer space). His backpack is full of measuring tools and notebooks to enthusiastically scribble his thoughts.


In a nutshell, I’ve just described to you one of my favorite ranchers — Roger Indreland. I think it may have been a shock to this well-spoken and educated rancher that he reminded me of a Muppet! It always brings a smile to my face when we don our backpacks and set out to check on our monitoring sites, under the blazing Montana sun. We’ve been doing this since May of 2014.

Roger and Betsy Indreland had doubts when we first met at the Ranching for Profit (RFP) Summer Conference. Roger’s mind has a carefree, child-like quality. The suspense of an unopened parcel, or working out how a toy is put together, can drive him to distraction. This need to understand things deeper left him intrigued enough to confront me to comment: “We couldn’t make that work.” I flippantly commented, “Well, why not?” They were both baffled that I could be so confident (“cocky” is the New Zealand term), so we set to work. Roger and Betsy have curious minds, but they’re not ones to take unnecessary risks. They’ve learned over the years to observe and record changes, before rolling actions out over their 7,000-acre operation. With their daughters Kate and Ann, they built a successful registered Angus stud, via trial and error — results they are happy to share with the neighbors. They’re a family that have earned the respect and admiration of their community, through their contribution to strengthening the Angus breed and their commitment to improving the resilience of ranching families. When Roger talks, people listen.

Betsy is his perfect counterbalance. “She speaks louder with her body,” jokes Roger. With Roger, the visionary, Betsy carries the details in the pockets of her keen mind. He’ll rattle off a sentence, which Betsy completes; “it was cow 5409 that got bit by a rattlesnake last year,” “no, it was 5475.” Roger knows she’s right. They are a powerful, collaborative team, who value their currency of communication.

‘MUCH MORE PLENTY’

To stand in the rolling pastures here, you get a sense of what gives Montana its “Big Sky” reputation. When the sun starts to rise, the light catches the Absaorkee Beartooth Mountains to the South and the Crazy Mountains to the West. Less than 2 hours to Yellowstone National Park, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d found Nirvana — until the Californian fires smoke out the mountains, and the skies turn Hades orange.

At the beginning of the 19th century, those in the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition were the first Europeans to cross the western part of the United States. They set to survey the geography, plants and animals, as well as to establish trade with the First Nation peoples. Their voyage took them within 12 miles of the Indreland Ranch where Clark noted “Buffaloe is getting much more plenty.” This area was once dominated by dense, short prairie grasses. Now the rangeland is dominated by sagebrush with bare ground, cryptogams and diverse native flowering species. With early overgrazing of sheep and cattle, estimates point to a decline in soil carbon between 30-60 percent since Lewis and Clark first sailed by.

Anyone who lives and works on the land appreciates the forces of nature and how small and powerless we really are. The climate here in Big Timber is not easy, with winter bringing whistling winds and dense snow, followed by scorching summer sun. The ranch sits around 4,500 feet in elevation, with 300 to 350 mm (12 to 14”) of annual precipitation. The frost-free window is only 90 to 100 days. The bulk of feed needs to be grown in a short and frantic 30-45 days, to supply enough grass for the coming year.

MONTANA TOUGH

When Roger was growing up, his father was adamant that fertilizer was expensive and made the ground hard. Of course, after heading off to ag school to study economics, Roger came back with the inflated opinion — that his dad was backwards in his thinking, and that “bigger is better.” With risky spring rainfall, fertilizer numbers didn’t really stack up. Instead, they invested in equipment for farming and haying. A dry year hit early on and with repayments due and no harvest, the early years for the new couple were tough.

During college, Roger had the opportunity to work with one of the icons of the registered Angus business. In a private conversation, the breeder revealed a pivotal insight, his belief “the Angus breed was now beyond its optimum size.” With Betsy’s background in marketing and Roger’s keen observations, they knew going to bat against the big Angus players and wealthy landowners was a risky maneuver, given their promotional budget. The Indrelands were early pioneers in using the genetics from what has now become one of America’s most popular “bigger is better” bulls. In their windswept land and tough nutritional conditions, this decision cost the pair dearly, with 75% of the cows returning infertile. Roger and Betsy have always valued diversity and that year chose to use two different bull genetics. Fortunately, their second-choice bull had much better cow energy value ($EN) and his daughters thrived. Their ultimate realization? These bigger-framed, high-input breeds didn’t have the traits necessary to survive and thrive in an extreme low-input natural system.

These early incidents were catalysts for the duo to look at techniques to reduce inputs and produce a fit-for-purpose herd that can perform in low energy environments, requiring minimal handling or supplemental feeding. For instance, in the harsh 2017-18 winter, before the snows became too deep for them to dig through, their cows were only fed for a total of 3 weeks. “We have a herd of cattle that are low input, extremely durable and very sound,” Roger says. This trouble-free line of cattle that works in sync with nature has attracted a loyal and growing client base interested in resilient, cost-effective and profitable progeny.

Having an indicator for how much input an animal requires to grow and produce milk is a valuable decision-making tool for producers interested in profitability, rather than showy large frames. Cow energy values ($EN) are used by breeders to predict how much a cow’s energy requirements could save you in feed costs. $EN is expressed in dollar savings per cow, so a higher value is better. Not all cultivars or livestock selections are designed for low-input systems. Being able to calculate potential costs would be invaluable in any sector — for wheat, apples, vegetables (…but maybe not horses?). In Montana’s extreme environment, a low, negative $EN means high amounts of supplementary feeding will be required through winter. If you look in breeder catalogues, the average Angus breed has an $EN of minus $4.01. The average for Indreland bulls in a recent year was +$20.57. Now that’s Montana tough.

Until 2006, the ranch was running an approach typical to the area, removing every blade of grass, feeding hay for a large part of the year and then calving in winter to produce larger calves at weaning. Calving in winter is a stressful approach for anyone, with lots of sleepless nights and long days ensuring calf survival and cows are well fed. It’s a common practice, often in the most inhospitable environments, with warm wet calves hitting frozen surfaces at birth. Seeing cows with no ears and tails can be a clue as to the climatic conditions on their birthday.

‘A RARE SKILL’

After attending a Ranching For Profit (RFP) school, the pair had a bombshell moment; they had been calving at the exact opposite time for cow nutritional needs. They shifted calving from February to May, to match the spring growth and every man, woman and beast breathed a sigh of relief. This timing is a closer match for when wild antelope and deer are birthing on the range too. After my first visit with the Indrelands, we discussed the concept, that these lands may never have been grazed every year by large herds. Extending this recovery time has been a breakthrough and a return to what Roger believes used to happen before the invention of large round-bailing equipment. For drought resilience “successful old-timers knew they needed to have at least 18 months of feed in front of them,” he says. Drought in Montana is not a someday/one-day concept, yet memories can be truly short in every farming/ranching community.

Grazing is recorded in a notebook and a chart on the wall. They aim to graze different pastures, at different times of the year. Some of the larger pastures create management challenges; these areas are split up with electric fence. Plant species on the range provide diverse pickings. The irrigated grounds and lowland areas consist of smaller pastures where stock can be moved more regularly. The ranch practices the “Bud Williams Stockmanship” approach to low-stress animal handling, creating a relaxed environment for people and animals. Most cattle work is done on foot and with their stock dogs, Lily and Ace. Another consequence of the smaller framed livestock is the safer conditions in the yards. Betsy recalls how in the early days, they couldn’t see over the backs of cows, which made her feel vulnerable in small spaces. The cattle “are responsive to us,” says Roger, “and that is a source of great pride for us too, to be able to go out and maneuver cattle and do just about anything we want, without any huge problems.”

I fancy myself as pretty sensitive when moving stock. However, watching Roger on foot, silently pull a cow and calf from the herd and wind them up a hill through an open gate, all without breaking a sweat, has left me with a new appreciation for the art of moving cattle.

There was no crisis that led the Indrelands to shift their practices. Roger had a good early foundation with an observant, patient and skilled stockman father. He doesn’t worry about what the neighbors think; in fact, I think he enjoys making them scratch their heads. He’s unusual in that he’s not afraid to ask any question, of anyone. Their neighbor, Gretel Ehrlich, poet and author of the The Solace of Open Spaces, has an ethereal way of capturing the raw nature of the ranching community. She is astounded by Roger’s mind. “He stays contemporary in his thinking processes,” she says. “He’s stimulated by looking at the land.” Even when Roger is knowledgeable about a topic, he will still ask people deeper questions to expand or question his own knowing. Gretel and he both ask the big questions many are afraid to ask. This is a rare skill; indeed their fearlessness is inspiring. “What are you doing here? Because your father said you should be a rancher?” reflects Gretel. “Because you love it? To make money?” Or to leave a legacy? “Most people are terrified to stop. You could ask this about your marriage, children or life.”

Gretel is a close friend of Allan Savory and has traveled and visited with him on many ranching operations. She marvels at the same processes many discover when deepening their relationship to soil. “It’s the new thinking which makes it fun, which no one ever anticipates,” she says. The new learning and creative actions dissolves “the poison of tradition,” she says. She’s a lyrical genius. I’m in awe.

THANKS FOR THE INPUT

The Indrelands keep excellent records and have been tracking their soil and pasture changes, monitoring Brix, soil minerals, biology and plant tissue tests, to ensure they’re heading in the right direction. Their irrigated meadows are bacterially dominated, with ‘sleepy’ soils on the range, a fairly typical finding in Mid-Western rangelands. They have soils with 100% Base Saturation, high Ca and Mg. Early testing revealed trace element mobility issues (Mn and B), low sodium and low nitrogen. Their irrigated meadows contain a diverse mix of introduced grasses and alfalfa, with yields that had been struggling due to tight soils and poor infiltration. Field observations and leaf tissue tests showed the hay was of average quality, providing lots of feed for insect pests, like alfalfa weevil and flea.

Based on the testing, a bio-stimulant blend of trace elements, fish hydrolysate and humic acid was applied. These initial results were startling; this one-off treatment had effectively lifted feed quality by 43 percent! Livestock producers can see this result directly by observing animals; they will spend less time eating and more time lying down. If you’re in a feedlot, the improved quality will mess with your feed budgets. The cattle effectively are now getting the same amount of nutrition from two mouthfuls, as they once got from three. This improvement in nutrition is retained in stockpiled winter feed, increasing the valuable protein and energy levels. Brix levels doubled from 10 to 20o, all for only a $20/acre investment. These fields also increased 1 ton in yield. Working out the numbers, this additional ton yield pays for a further 5-10 acres of application for the following season, paying improvements forward. Quality hay like this will store better and, when markets become educated, will command extra at sale point. One hay producer in New Zealand, who produces a high Brix, solid stemmed Lucerne (alfalfa) for racehorses; found that once horses got a taste of his wares, they wouldn’t eat any other hay. He could then dictate the market prices. Excellent.

SPRAY IT, DON’T SAY IT

In 2015, Roger repeatedly struggled to use a conventional sprayer, which blocked with any coarse materials. In 2017, he set about designing and building a slurry sprayer, based on the advice from brilliant New Zealander and Utah native, Steve Erickson, at Chaos Springs. The sprayer cost less than $5,000, including labor, to build. It can pump huge volumes (300 gallons or 1200 liters/min) directly out of irrigation ditches or troughs.

A slurry sprayer, is a coarse-nozzled spray unit, driven by an open diaphragm or trash pump. These sprayers are designed to reticulate liquids and keep solids in suspension. One advantage of the unit is that there are few points for blockages, due to the simple interlocking systems and no complex mixers or compression points. I prefer round tanks, rather than oval or square tanks. These round tanks can create vortexes and reduces sloshing — an essential element on uneven country. The vortex offers another dimension of benefit for those interested in biodynamics or structured water. A single 5 mm nozzle (1/5 inch) can cover over 16 meters (52 feet), so cropping operations can put 2 nozzles onto a boom and cover 32 meters. They are great for spraying sieved compost, live biology and seed, with large droplet sizes at surprisingly low pressures.

400 ACRES

The Indreland Ranch includes 400 acres of low-lying rolling country. These areas with their deeper topsoil, were traditionally used for oats and barley. What little organic matter remained, after historic grazing cycles, was rapidly oxidized or blown away. As a result, the farmground degraded into lifeless, structureless clays and silts, dominated by early succession Yellow alyssum (Alyssum alyssoides) and non-mycorrhizal-species, like field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) and lupines. It was an area Roger and Betsy initially left from the soils program since it was so degraded. This is a good strategy. By focusing on better-performing areas, or areas that do get moisture, subsequent lifts in quality and performance can help fund the cost of improving poorer areas. Through lifting the carrying capacity in their irrigated lands, they were able to lift livestock by 25 percent. Numbers they continue to build upon.

In fall, 2017, the farm ground received its first inputs in 30 years. Using a direct drill, Roger mixed 2 pounds of dry vermicast and 2 pounds of kelp meal with 12 pounds vetch and 50 pounds of winter rye. As an additional experiment, he also added sunflowers, because he could and that’s what experiments are all about, even when your “know-it-all” coach thinks you’re crazy. The 2017 summer had been a scorcher; over 300,000 Montana acres, had been on fire. Fortunately, fall did bring some germinating rains. The sunflowers grew to 3 inches, before they were knocked out by frosts. It may not seem like much, but even 3” of growth and a wee taproot would have some benefit to a land that had been growing nothing. Any cover is better than being caught out with a bare bottom.

Come spring melt and warm sunny days, the vetch and rye sprung to life. Excited daily updates were received on their growth status. The 2018/19 seasons were one of the best South-Central Montanans can remember, with some good regular rainfall keeping the covers growing. Even by late summer, the base stayed green. Quite frankly, with the mud, it feels more like New Zealand than the yellow dusty country I have come to love. It’s been a fantastic year to start on new ground. The cover crop grew to over a meter high in places and only 40 of the 400 acres were grazed. The rest was left to self-seed and give the soil some well-needed rest and recovery. Roger had never seen this kind of growth here and was encouraged to expand their seeding/vermicast acreage. Leaf tests showed that the treated plants were responding positively to nutrients, setting them up for better quality seed set, forage and carbon drawdown. After years of being treated like dirt, these lands were now flourishing.

BIODIVERSITY BOUNCES BACK

One morning while Kate and I were moving cattle, we saw Roger, who was across a large pasture, double over. He didn’t stand up again and Kate began to worry. Was he having heart trouble? We called his phone. No answer. And no movement across the field. Suddenly, we saw him leap onto his ATV, arms flying as he zipped over to us. He had a broad grin and was full of contagious excitement. Beetles! He’d been trying to film a dung beetle he’d spotted rolling a ball of manure, something he’d never seen on the ranch before. The minute he’d stopped to watch; the dung beetle played dead. Roger remained motionless in the hope the beetle would set to work again, ignoring any phone calls in the process. He kept his camera primed, until the dung beetle slowly unfolded its legs and promptly flew off!

Since the management changes have been implemented and plant nutrient levels have been lifting, diversity has naturally returned. John Baxter, a young grassland ecologist in the making, has been out flipping cow pats. At last count, there were 6 different dung beetle species, including the escapee roller. With the taller pastures and winter cover, more biodiversity is flowing in. Sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Hungarian partridges (Perdix perdix) are now common sights, as they bob across the lawn with a trail of fluffy young. Both species look very tasty and with the voles and moles, the fox population is booming. One mum and dad fox set up camp on a knoll opposite Roger and Betsy’s bedroom window. This spring, we all watched in wonder as not 4 or 5 cubs, but 7 fuzzy balls tumbled out from their den. They provided entertainment for weeks. It’s always a pleasure to be around families who rejoice in the diversity of life and see the benefits predators bring to the land.

MEASURING SUCCESS

The principle: “Without measurement there is no management” is demonstrated by all the Regenerators I speak with. These measurements also include observations, which Roger and Betsy are naturals at. They have a comprehensive soil testing kit, which includes materials to photograph and monitor transects.

Through monitoring changes over time, Roger says, “We have gotten into the habit of tracking those things and observing results from a different perspective from which we had looked at them before.” The actions I’ve suggested with the family have “had a positive result, whether it is an increase in Brix, dung beetles or earthworms.” Infiltration improvements have been dramatic, with a 3-to-4-fold improvement in just a few years. When you ask Roger how much rainfall he got, you’ll get a sassy, “Why, all of it, of course!” At least that’s the goal. They were put to the test with a 6-inch storm event (2 inches were hail) in 2 hours, flash flooding causeways and the road to the north of the ranch. The next day, they had no issues driving across the ranch to survey the damage. Soil structure for the Indrelands has been one of the more notable differences. This structure differs across the fence. Driving a pick-up or side-by-side is easy going…until they open gates to drive across neighboring properties, often to haul out bogged down neighbors!

The Indrelands are part of a unique soil carbon scheme, the Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative. Driven by Western Sustainability Exchange and Native Energy, a carbon credit provider, the program pays ranchers up front, for practice changes known to improve soil carbon, such as adaptive grazing management, range riding and avoiding tillage. These ranchers are using the funds to improve water systems and fencing. They submit their grazing plans to the project and attended workshops on methods to improve soil health. The initiative has received a lot of positive attention from the community and the voluntary market. I’m not a fan of carbon offset markets personally, as the benefits from building soil carbon rewards producers directly. However, hiring the producers, who are responsible for most of the land, to improve ecosystem services, is something I am happy to get behind. As the U.S. soil guru Abe Collins says, “we are building the largest infrastructure project in the world.” To achieve such lofty goals, the people on the ground need to be hired to build the system. Unfortunately, building soil health doesn’t catch the eye, like a CO2 scrubber, foodbank, dam or a bridge. The effect, however, is far more profound and effective than the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ approach.

Many producers tell me they don’t have time for monitoring; however, it’s the monitoring that is going to give you more time. Try to create a simple system that becomes a habit. The most successful producers I know carry a small notebook, a refractometer, garlic crush and a temperature probe by their truck’s gearstick. When driving through a gate, drive an extra 10m (32’), put the moisture meter in the ground (away from the track) and as you walk to shut the gate, grab a few handfuls of grass, put the sample into your garlic crusher, look at the sample, shut the gate, walk back to the truck, record the temperature and drive off. This would be the same for horticulturalists. When you’re walking down the rows, take around 20 leaves from different plants. Include pH sap readings in this sampling too. This will add all of a minute to your routine and a wealth of information as you build a picture of your place.

You will be sampling at different times of the day in different climatic conditions and different growth points. All this information is going to help you manage more decisively and build confidence that you’re heading in the right direction. If you’re not heading in the right direction, this information will point you in another direction. Plants are stressed? Take actions to support health, without losing production. Or when Brix is highest, cut for hay. For dairy and lamb fattening, if Brix is low, miss this field in the rotation. Brix lines are low and sharp? Consider potential nitrates, don’t graze and, if possible, apply a spray with humic or milk products to mop up the nitrates before weeds germinate. If your plant pH is low, try applying an alkaline spray like milk, liquid calcium, or seawater. Once crop and pasture health improve, you’ll have more time on your hands anyway, which I’m sure you’ll find ways to fill!

Nicole Masters is an agroecologist and educator based in New Zealand.