Think Out Loud

What it takes to become a regenerative rancher

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
March 25, 2022 4:46 p.m. Updated: April 1, 2022 9:19 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, March 25

Pictured: A ranch in Eastern Oregon. Regenerative ranching aims to focus more on the land than the livestock by implementing more environmentally friendly practices like controlled grazing.

Pictured: A ranch in Eastern Oregon. Regenerative ranching aims to focus more on the land than the livestock by implementing more environmentally friendly practices like controlled grazing.

Emily Cureton Cook / OPB


Portland-based nonprofit Sustainable Northwest will be getting almost $500,000 for a regenerative ranching program. The purpose of regenerative ranching is to shift the focus from livestock to the land and implement more environmentally friendly practices like controlling how much grass cattle graze on. But what does it take to make the switch? We’ll hear from Hannah Gosnell, a geography professor at Oregon State University, and Andrea Malmberg, a regenerative agriculture trainer, on how this way of ranching is practiced and the political and social challenges that come with it.

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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Last month the Portland-based nonprofit Sustainable Northwest received a nearly half-million dollar grant to create a regenerative ranching program. Regenerative ranching is a kind of catch-all term for a whole series of practices aimed at replenishing soil and fostering biodiversity. Adherents also claim, although there is some debate about it, that this is a way to address climate change. The idea of the grant is to get more ranchers in the Northwest to adopt these practices. We wanted to know what it takes to make this switch. Andrea Malmberg is a rancher in Union County who has been ranching this way for decades. Hannah Gosnell is a geography professor at Oregon State University who has studied what drives ranchers to change the way they raise cattle. They both join me now. Andrea Malmberg and Hannah Gosnell, welcome.

Guests: Thank you.

Miller: Andrea Malmberg first, how do you describe the kind of ranching that you do?

Andrea Malmberg: I think that basically regeneration – we kind of did it before it was fashionable. It was just a way to survive. Regeneration means to me that we have ecological health, we care for animal welfare, there’s biological diversity, and there’s personal and social well being. They’re all thriving and not surviving. What my husband and I have found – as well as many ranchers and farmers throughout the world actually – [is] that we can’t really do any of that if we don’t measure it. We need to measure what that actually is. Now it’s kind of becoming fashionable and it’s becoming a way to market regeneration, but for us it was just a means of survival.

Miller: What do you mean ‘survival’? What was at stake?

Malmberg: I think this is kind of a good example: the heat dome that we all experienced last year, 119° in Union, Oregon. I don’t know what it was where you were, but we were all pretty hot, right?

Miller: Yeah, it was a similar temperature in Portland.

Malmberg: Yeah. On our ranch in Union, Oregon – we have been regenerating this ranch for about 12 years – we were actually able to double our production by putting all of our water instream for salmon habitat.

Miller: That sounds counterintuitive. When you say double your production, you mean double the number of cattle grazing on your land?


Malmberg: Yeah. We changed the plant community from a whole bunch of hydrophytic plants. It was being over irrigated and there was a whole bunch of weeds and there was a lot of bare ground. By managing our cattle and our sheep properly, having proper animal impact, allowing the time for recovery of the plants, we were able to actually double our production – without any irrigation water, which means less labor. But what’s so phenomenal about that heat dome time was that it was so hot: I measured the temperature of the soil at this place and it was 88°, and I measured the temperature of a place that we were just starting to regenerate and it was 146°. So that’s what can happen with properly managed livestock. That has to be profitable, right?

Miller: Can you help us understand the practical differences, in terms of how you move around your animals or feed your animals, compared to either what you used to do or what is the norm on other ranches?

Malmberg: We’re looking at the soil surface, and we’re always empowering decisions at the soil surface. We create a grazing plan and it’s never right and it’s never the same every year. We create a grazing plan and then we’re monitoring plant growth. We’re making sure that we allow the animals to graze the plants. So that stimulates the grasses to grow thereby stimulating the roots to go deep down. We don’t allow them to re-graze that plant a second time– maybe they might do a second time but definitely not a third time. We want to keep that plant in a vegetative state as long as possible. So basically what we’re saying is that, with our animals, we’re able to have plants be in that vegetative state longer. It’s that duration – we’re able to cover the soil surface more. We’re able to allow that decay that needs to happen. Grasses, especially in these drier areas, need to be trampled down. They don’t have a fall, like the trees have a fall [when] the leaves fall down. Grasses need to get down on the surface and get trampled down, and with the saliva, dung and urine of those herbivores are able to create soil. That is what created that 88° is that there’s transpiration happening with those plants.

Miller: How is what you’ve just described different from, for lack of a better word, I would call traditional ranching?

Malmberg: I think it’s all just … it’s awareness. It’s not going by a calendar. It’s not going by tradition. It’s going by what the soil surface is telling you. Traditional ranching can do it as well as regenerative. There’s a whole bunch of people that are doing traditional. They’ve been in family ranches for multi-generations; they’re doing it as well. But we just need to think about how we can be curious and see what is happening and allow that transformative change to happen. It’s kind of like, you might decide to grow a mustache and think that’s change and then decide to shave it off. Transformative change is like, every practice I do, what is it leading me to? What I want it to lead me to is this kind of unexpected change. Like, I will never be a caterpillar again – we’re always going to [think], ‘How do we become butterflies?’

Miller: Hannah Gosnell, is there a, if not universally agreed upon, at least commonly agreed upon, definition of what regenerative ranching is?

Hannah Gosnell: Sure, yeah. Thanks for having me here. You could say that regenerative agriculture – regenerative agriculture which should be the umbrella term under which regenerative ranching would occur – is an alternative form of food and fiber production. You could think of it as a set of principles and practices that concerns itself with restoring and maintaining soil health and fertility and biodiversity and watershed health and soil water retention, all while improving ecological and economic resilience. It goes beyond sustainable agriculture because it’s not just sustaining a system that may not be working optimally. It’s actually regenerating the system so it’s on an upward trajectory of ecosystem functionality and health.

Miller: For years now you’ve been studying in various ways the reasons that ranchers might switch to more regenerative practices. They’re not always the reasons that one might assume. In the big picture, what have you found?

Gosnell: I was funded several years ago by the Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture, to understand why ranchers might transition to more carbon-friendly land management practices. So I studied ranchers in the US West that had participated in the US Chicago climate exchange and also ranchers in Australia who were interested in the carbon farming initiative there. We sort of went into the research assuming that carbon markets and putting a price on carbon would be the way to incentivize change. What I found was something totally different. The people that I was interviewing – people who had made this transition and who were practicing regenerative agriculture, regenerative ranching, which is basically just regenerative agriculture on livestock operations – were engaging in these practices for a whole different set of reasons. It wasn’t just money; it wasn’t about carbon sequestration. They were doing it because it made sense for a whole bunch of reasons, namely it increased their resilience to drought because it increased soil water holding capacity. When you graze regeneratively, it’s all about reducing bare ground. So you have more forage for the cattle, you have more ground cover, you have more water holding capacity in your soil, you have more biodiversity. There’s a whole bunch of benefits related to increasing your adaptive capacity to climate change. Not only that, it also has financial benefits and I found there’s a whole bit about increasing farmers’ sense of well being and a sense of right livelihood.

Miller: What do you mean by the farmers’ sense of well being? What’s the connection between this way of doing agriculture and a sense of well being?

Gosnell: Most people who practice regenerative agriculture also engage in holistic decision making. They adopt a set of practices for making decisions wherein they have identified their most deeply held values and they identify a long-term goal articulated in social, economic and ecological terms. Then every decision they make is based on, ‘Is this decision going to get me closer to this long-term goal?’ It requires a whole different way of thinking. It requires an adoption of systems thinking. It requires understanding how fundamental ecosystem processes work, a whole different relationship with nature and with the animals. What I found is that that process – while it’s very difficult, it’s challenging, it’s a steep learning curve to learn about ecosystem processes and how to manage them often without using chemicals – it’s a pretty steep learning curve, but it’s incredibly rewarding. As Andrea said, there’s a lot of monitoring. You’re not just moving your cows based on a timed schedule; you’re actually out there every day looking at the grass, deciding when to move the animals. That daily monitoring and being closer to nature and working with nature is really rewarding for a lot of people.

Miller: Andrea, you and your husband actually teach ranchers how to apply the kind of techniques that we’ve been talking about. How would you describe the learning curve that you see in the people you’re working with?

Malmberg: We started teaching just because we wanted to learn it more deeply, first of all. My husband did his first class in holistic management in 1987. I am now a leader of a hub called UVE that serves the Intermountain West and the Pacific Northwest. So we’ve been involved for a very long time. Hannah has also– it’s a global network and Hannah has done a lot of work in Australia and New Zealand and in the United States as well. So she really understands all these different people that are kind of in this resiliency network, actually, I think that’s what it is. It’s these people that are just passionate about farming and ranching and just know that their mission is, if they can heal the soil, we can really transform climate. So, where we started was just, ‘How do we survive, ourselves?’ Then as teachers, we just want to be out of work, and that’s what happens. We teach somebody how to do something, coach them, and they learn how to do it and they become astute at doing it themselves. They might be teachers themselves or they just make their farm or ranch survive.

Miller: Hannah Gosnell, this new grant [is] about half a million dollars. The idea is to get more ranchers using these practices in the Northwest. What do you see as the challenges, the barriers that people might face that might prevent them from making this kind of a switch?

Gosnell: There’s a lot of really good reasons to practice regenerative ranching, so you might ask, ‘Why aren’t more people doing it?’ The fact is there is a pretty steep learning curve to learn what you need to know to do it. There’s also some cultural barriers, too. When I do my academic research, I like to think about this process of transformation as occurring in different spheres. You’ve got the practical sphere of transformation, which is the nuts and bolts of learning about the ecosystem processes, learning how to graze and farm without chemicals and learning how to do the monitoring and learning how to look at the animals and see when to move them and how to work with the animals using low stress livestock handling. There’s all these practical things. But then what happens in the practical sphere is really influenced by what’s happening in these other two spheres: the personal sphere and the political sphere. In the political sphere, it’s things like, ‘Are there programs to support the financial aspects of the transition? Is the science supporting the practices that are being promoted? Are organizations like the IPCC recognizing regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate climate change?’ There’s these political aspects. But I think some of the most interesting stuff happens in the personal sphere, which is there’s a fear of change. If you’ve been ranching a certain way and you’re doing it the way your father and grandfather and parents did, there’s some hesitancy to change. And there has to be trust; you have to trust the people that are teaching you. I’ve heard it takes about three years to really fully transition from conventional to regenerative because of the steep learning curve and giving up the chemicals and figuring out how to do things differently. There’s also cultural barriers. A lot of times your neighbors will look at you and think that you’re an oddball because you’re growing your grass differently, you’re not using the chemicals and you’re moving your cows in different ways. A lot of times you don’t want to do things that’ll ostracize you. A lot of people, when they transition, they have to join new communities and get new support systems.

Miller: Hannah Gosnell and Andrea Malmberg. Thanks very much.

Guests: Thank you.

Miller: Hannah Gosnell is professor of geography at Oregon State University, Andrew Malmberg, a rancher in Union County.