Common ground

Ranchers in the US partner with conservationists to produce protein in a way that conserves grasslands and community

Brenda Brady’s red hoodie provides a splash of color against Montana’s fall landscape as she bends down to see how the forage is faring in a recently reseeded cattle pasture. Behind her stands a 4x4 Chevy truck, which has replaced the horses her great-grandparents rode to survey these lands. The tract on which she stands used to be cropland, but now she’s in the business of growing grass.

On pastures like this, “the goal is to not have bare ground, but to have litter, or what we call the debris,” she explains, plucking a tuft of dry grass. “You want litter—still standing grass—of varying heights. With new seeding, you’re going to have some bare ground that will fill in over time.”

A couple of hours ago, a brief shower passed through—a blessing, given the drought-like conditions that have plagued the area in recent years. When it does fall, the rain replenishes the native plants—the slender wheatgrass, western wheatgrass, bluebunch wheatgrass, green needlegrass, and flax—that keep her cattle fed, provide habitat for native species, protect the health of the soil, and store carbon in the ground.

Brady’s ranch is in Winnett, in Petroleum County—one of the United States’ 15 most rural counties, where approximately 75% of income is generated by agriculture and communities are like close-knit families. Before European settlement here in the late 1800s, Indigenous peoples lived off the plentiful wildlife the land sustained. Today, the large bison herds have been replaced by cattle, but birds such as mountain plovers, chestnut collared longspurs, and Sprague’s pipits are still found alongside deer, elk, and rarer species like swift fox, in habitat managed by ranchers.

But across the Great Plains, the large-scale conversion of native grasslands to cultivated crops, resource extraction, and other development have driven widescale destruction and fragmentation of this carbon-rich landscape, pushing species such as pronghorn and the greater sage-grouse into shrinking and degraded swaths of habitat. And the area is on the cusp of more dramatic change.

WWF’s 2021 Plowprint Report revealed that grassland plow-up across the Great Plains has continued to accelerate for the second year in a row. The data shows that from 2018 to 2019 about 2.6 million acres of grassland—an area larger than Yellowstone National Park—were plowed up, primarily to make way for row crops. Almost 70% of new conversion across the Great Plains was for three crops that are grown primarily for food and fuel: corn (25%), soy (22%), and wheat (21%).

In addition to impacting wildlife habitat, these changes release enormous amounts of carbon, exacerbate droughts and wildfires, and cause harmful soil degradation and erosion, threatening the interconnected livelihoods of rural ranching communities and the ecosystem they rely on.

Ranching for conservation

Laura Nowlin and friend outside with cattle

Quick to laugh, and with no Stetson in sight, Brenda Brady might not fit the stereotype of a rancher, but she knows her land’s pastures and coulees like the back of her hand. She and her sister Laura Nowlin, who ranches next door with her husband and two children, both left the family ranch (which began operation in 1914) to study and work elsewhere but returned to raise cattle in their rural hometown. They now lease the property, split into two ranches, from their parents and uncle.

Since taking over, Brady and Nowlin have continued their parents’ legacy of progressive land management and habitat restoration, in part through their involvement in WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative, which began in 2011. WWF plant ecologist and conservation biologist Aaron Clausen describes the initiative’s goal as “supporting ranchers in making lasting land-use decisions that maintain healthy grasslands while keeping their operations flexible and financially stable and their land managed in a way that encourages it to be productive year after year.”

Work under the Sustainable Ranching Initiative includes monitoring soil carbon, reseeding native grasses, surveying bird biodiversity, and monitoring water and plants. WWF’s latest project, the Ranch Systems and Viability Planning network (or RSVP for short) helps ranchers develop sustainable grazing management plans with assistance from on-the-ground technical specialists and access to continuing education and finance. Funded by the Walmart Foundation, Cargill, McDonald’s, and others, RSVP has generated a lot of interest from ranchers in a short time because it helps them build sustainability into their beef buyers’ supply chains. Since 2021, 40 ranches have enrolled in the program, covering close to 380,000 acres in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

“Collaborative efforts like this can accelerate innovative, sustainable solutions and support ranchers in the beef supply chain, where they need it,” says Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer for Walmart and president of the Walmart Foundation. “Sustainable grazing practices that improve soil health, absorb carbon, and reduce water consumption help protect the land and the people who depend on it.”

For the sisters, a primary approach to sustainable ranching is rotational grazing—a method that involves frequently moving their cattle to different pastures, often using temporary electric fences that divide the land into smaller pastures (this is known as cross fencing). This type of grazing allows the soil and grasses to rest and recover more often and between seasons—and improves overall grassland health.

“Agriculture has always been adaptable, even though the stereotype is that it’s unchanging.”


“The grasslands evolved to be grazed, with cattle now mimicking the action of historical grazers like bison,” says Clausen. “If a cow munches the grasses down to where there are 2 to 3 inches left, and then is rotated to another pasture, the grasses can recover all that growth within one growing season while also putting down more roots, which store carbon.”

The resulting mosaic of heterogeneous, patchy habitat also supports a diversity of wildlife.

“Wildlife is part of our daily lives,” says Nowlin, as the sighting of a mule deer on the ranch access road offers a glimpse of the variety of animals for which the land provides crucial habitat. There are white-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes, porcupines, marmots, turtles, bumblebees, and more. Nowlin has a camera trap on her property, and every year she presents her father with a photo book of all the wild animals that have passed through.

The sisters say they don’t think of themselves as conservationists so much as stewards of the land. But they challenge the misperception that ranching and conservation can’t go hand in hand. Both are members of, or partner with, various ranching associations, NGOs, and government agencies focused on promoting good land stewardship and sustainability, including Winnett ACES (Agricultural and Community Enhancement and Sustainability), a community conservation collaborative in which WWF participates.

“There are a lot of ranchers who have been doing conservation practices for a long time without it being recognized as such,” says Nowlin as she drives along a bumpy pasture. “Agriculture has always been adaptable, even though the stereotype is that it’s unchanging.”

The crop trap

“There can be a perception that cattle are bad for the land—and they absolutely can be—but our ranches show cattle can also improve habitat and restore land and water systems.”

Vice President of Ranching Operations, The Dixon Water Foundation

Approximately 73% (over 94 million acres) of remaining grasslands in the Northern Great Plains are privately owned. While ranchers operate across a spectrum of sustainability, they all face pressure to convert existing grasslands into cropland, which—depending on market fluctuations—can yield better short-term profits than livestock can. This reality means that, when wheat and barley prices go up, ranchers may feel compelled to plow up and plant crops on large areas of intact grasslands.

But in the long term, plains land is not well-suited for row crops. In addition to releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the conversion sets off a cycle of negative feedback loops: Row crop agriculture requires more water and fertilizer, which further degrades the ecosystem, leaving farmers even more vulnerable to weather conditions and market forces than ranchers.

In places like Montana, says Clausen, ranching is, “no question, the better option. ... You can’t grow a crop in a place with just 4 inches of rain without irrigation. But even in an extremely dry year, you can still graze [the land] and grow protein and grow grasses.”

For a long time, ranchers thought of their operations in terms of cow numbers—a model that doesn’t account for the variability of grasses from year to year. “Instead, forward-looking operations like Brady’s and Nowlin’s are thinking in terms of the amount of grass they produce on their property and the number of cows that the grass can feed,” he says.

This approach helps ranchers avoid having to purchase supplemental feed or make risky financial decisions, such as converting land for crops or selling off cows. It also often results in more total pounds of beef per acre than non-regenerative ranching practices, as grass and wildlife thrive.

“The health of the grass and the health of the animal equal a healthy business,” Nowlin says.

Agriculture for water

Landscape of river in grasslands

About 1,400 miles south, another progressive grasslands management project that takes a working lands approach to conservation has caught the eye of WWF’s experts. Enrique Prunes, who works on groundwater and agricultural water for WWF-US, explains that the Dixon Water Foundation’s ranch in Marfa, Texas, has developed a food production cycle that benefits biodiversity, ecosystem conservation, and the water system while giving ranchers flexible grazing options.

The ranch is in the Chihuahuan desert, which includes parts of the transboundary Rio Grande-Rio Bravo River Basin spanning the US-Mexico border. Here, ranchers, farmers, policy-makers, and communities are struggling to balance their water budget—defined as the amount of water they use within the limits of how much the basin can provide—while maintaining the agricultural heritage of their communities.

This dry basin is one of the most at risk of collapse in the world. Increasingly frequent droughts and warmer temperatures due to climate change have compounded the harmful effects of poorly planned dams, water diversion for irrigation, overgrazing by cattle, and allocating more water to users than is available in the system. The allocations differ between Mexico and the US, but most water here irrigates crops like alfalfa that are used to feed cattle for meat and dairy production; a small percentage goes to other crops, including cotton, pecans, corn, and sorghum.

The Dixon ranch encompasses the Alamito Creek watershed, a Rio Grande-Rio Bravo tributary. As is typical in the area, many water channels have deepened over time due to increased incision—a natural process whereby a river cuts down into the bedrock—disconnecting the creek from the river’s floodplains, increasing siltation and runoff, and altering the groundwater hydrology. But by mimicking the system nature designed, Dixon’s ranching practices have begun to reverse these effects and to restore the freshwater system.

“We’re trying to reconnect the system and give the water a chance to slow down, infiltrate, and recharge the groundwater,” says Philip Boyd, who directs science and communications for the Dixon Water Foundation. Cattles’ hooves help break up the hard ground and allow grasses to seed. This process further increases water infiltration and carbon sequestration through better and healthier grasses, thereby shifting from “a vicious cycle to a virtuous one,” adds the foundation’s president, Robert Potts.

As the vegetation grows back, it lets rain soak into the ground and raises the water table, and it provides aquatic habitat and seasonal pasture. The grass also holds in place some soil that would otherwise be swept into the creeks and protects the biodiversity that depends on grasslands, particularly migratory birds.

Casey Wade, the vice president of ranching operations, views cattle grazing as a tool that functions in service of the landscape. “There can be a perception that the cattle are bad for the land—and they absolutely can be—but our ranches show cattle can also improve habitat and restore land and water systems,” he says.

The foundation runs four ranches using such regenerative agricultural approaches, creating a space to experiment, collaborate, and learn. It’s also become a resource for ranching colleagues and friends. “It’s not about pitting one practice against another,” says Wade, but instead about meeting ranchers where they are and collaborating on solutions that are good for nature and address the challenges they face.

The grass business

In both Winnett and Marfa, the shift in mindset is from raising cattle to growing grass. “I generally ask myself, what did it look like before we got here, and how can I mimic that? Because it was working extremely well and supporting an abundance of life,” says Wade, who increasingly sees himself as a custodian of the soil. “That’s what I need to take care of, and then the grass takes care of itself, and the cattle take care of themselves, because we’re mimicking what was going on here for eons,” he explains.

Back in Winnett, Brady and Nowlin have similar ideas. “We’re not going to be successful as ranchers if we’re not aware of conservation,” says Brady. “For us, as far as ranching goes, it’s a business taking care of the soil and the grass and the wildlife, and trying to do what’s best for the land.”

These growing collaborations between ranchers and conservation groups, which look at ranching through a nature-focused lens, address both the threats of agriculture to land and water and the threats faced by producers and food crops throughout the connected Great Plains landscape.

“We’re trying to reconnect the system and give the water a chance to slow down, infiltrate, and recharge the groundwater. ”

Director of Science and Communications, The Dixon Water Foundation

Still, that work is just one part of a complex supply chain that involves a string of stakeholders, from transporters and feedlot owners to retailers and consumers. The margins in many agricultural enterprises are minimal, and the existing agricultural value chain, which doesn’t distinguish producers like Brady and Nowlin from those who don’t apply conservation practices, makes it very hard for producers to make a living. In the beef industry, Clausen notes, ranchers who raise the cattle and manage the land often get the smallest piece of the pie.

The lesson here is to think about critical environmental issues like biodiversity and habitat loss in tandem with rural workers’ incomes, says Martha Kauffman, WWF’s vice president for the Northern Great Plains. “You have to recognize that for ranchers and farmers, long-term success is not just about the health of the grasslands, but also about the health of their businesses and families.”

In Brady and Nowlin’s parents’ ranch house, a long wooden banister displays several generations’ worth of leather saddles that once belonged to their forebears. Nowlin says she’s unsure whether her children will follow in the family’s footsteps. In the meantime, she and her sister and an emerging alliance of like-minded ranchers are working hard to ensure that the abundance of the Great Plains—and their way of life—is conserved for the next generation.

Additional reporting by Erin Waite.



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