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THE FUTURE OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE AND REGENERATIVE RANCHING

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The idea of managing ranches with a focus on building healthy soils and implementing management that promotes healthy wildlife populations and their habitats, biologically diverse plant communities and livestock production is not a new concept. It is, however, a concept that depends on producers who are driven toward those outcomes.

As we look to the future, the external challenges facing U.S. producers will only become more intense. As the U.S. population grows toward a predicted 438 million people by 2050, the demand for food and land will increase.

Many questions are currently being asked. Do we continue to promote management that maximizes production on smaller acreages at the expense of land health, or are there alternative strategies that are productive and profitable while regenerating land?

The majority of our grazing lands are generally not well suited for cropland food production, yet they serve our planet by storing more than 30% of global soil organic carbon. Such intrinsic outcomes are called ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the many and various benefits provided to humankind by healthy and functioning ecosystems.

Aldo Leopold once famously stated, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” Opportunities to compensate producers for the production of multiple ecosystem services are currently in development. Ecosystem services are often grouped into functional areas of soil, air, water, plants and animals.

Many of the questions around the production of ecosystem services are common to most emerging markets, and these questions are not lost on regenerative ranching. Largely, much of the research focus in the future will be placed on which metrics matter, how do we most aptly measure them, how are they influenced by management, and can they be monitored at scales that are relevant to producers?

One of the cornerstones of regenerative ranching is a focus on diversifying products, therefore the diversification of market opportunities will continue to be an option for producers interested in regenerating landscapes.

With more data comes more understanding of the value of ecosystem services: how they could be a potential revenue stream and how they impact increased health and function on existing production enterprises.

Managing regeneratively allows our living soil to sequester organic carbon, which aids in climate mitigation strategies. Increasing organic matter provides our soils a greater ability to build aggregation, which allows it to hold more water and further serve as a filter to increase water quality and quantity. Biodiversity is also an outcome, from the soil microbiome to more functional habitats for wildlife species. These are all services provided by regenerative producers that benefit society as a whole.

Regenerative ranching has a positive future. More and more producers are questioning their conventional methods, measuring their outcomes and defining goals that include regenerative solutions. These are and will continue to be positive developments for the agriculture industry and for society as a whole. The question we should all ask ourselves is, what would a future look like without regenerative ranching?

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Adding years to the significantly important lives of Oklahoma’s Flood Control Dams

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Recentlylocal, state, and federal officials toured the Upper Elk Creek Site 23D Rehabilitation on the east edge of Elk City, Okla.

New life is being given to this flood control dam and the tour was a way to showcase those efforts along with the watershed project sponsor, North Fork of Red River Conservation District. Originally constructed in 1976 at a cost of $102,401 and classified as a significant hazard dam, this is now a high hazard dam. An increase in risk of loss of life and property damage due to a potential overtopping breach of the dam during an extreme flood event is the reason site 23D is undergoing this rehabilitation.

Although Site 23D is functioning as originally planned and providing downstream flood damage prevention, this rehabilitation means that in the future, Site 23D will reduce the potential of a dam breach and subsequent potential damage to downstream properties and infrastructure and will reduce the risk of loss of life. Additionally, the rehabilitation of site 23D allows for the service life of the dam to be extended for at least a century.

In this project, the top of dam elevation is being increased by 4.4 feet. Due to the raised top of dam elevation, the county road is being raised as well. A new 30-inch reinforced concrete pipe is being installed using a technique known as “jack and bore.” Articulated concrete blocks (ACBs) are being added to the exit channel of the spillway to provide erosion protection and prevent head cutting. The contractor for the rehabilitation construction is C-P Integrated Services, Inc., of Oklahoma City. The rehabilitation construction costs are $4.3 million, 65 percent of this cost is provided by the federal government while 35 percent is provided by the Conservation Commission on behalf of the watershed project sponsor, North Fork of Red River Conservation District.

The upstream flood control dams have received incredible support from Oklahoma’s congressional and state leaders.

One form of support that is significant was the passage of SB 1938, authorizing the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority for bond issuance in the amount of $17.5 million on behalf of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. These funds are being used for the repair and rehabilitation of high-hazard dams pursuant to the Conservation District Act.

Trey Lam, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said, “This gathering captured a true picture of what created and has maintained the small watershed program for nearly 80 years.  The dedicated and visionary North Fork of the Red River Conservation District Board hosted Elk City officials, a Conservation Commissioner and staff, along with Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur and State Representative Todd Russ, USDA-NRCS engineers and staff. We were also very honored to have Congressman Frank Lucas and his field staff join us. The Watershed Program works best as a partnership of local, state and federal entities with a common goal of preventing devastating flooding while putting conservation on the ground in the watershed.  The 2,107 flood control structures in Oklahoma would never have been built without such a strong partnership.  All the partners are just as dedicated to maintaining the level of flood protection today and for the next 100 years.”

During the tour, U.S. Congressman Frank Lucas, a native of western Oklahoma and a longtime champion of the upstream flood control program, said, “In conservation these are the good old days; all we have to do is continue to work together and there will be benefits for generations to come. Am I proud of what we have done together? You bet. Thank you to each of you for doing what you do and thank you for helping me do what I do. Together we are going to make such a difference that the people downstream will never know it happened. That’s the ultimate compliment when things work so well that people don’t even know what you’ve done.”

Chris Stoner, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Oklahoma State Conservation Engineer, said, “It was great to see the support from all different levels today with city, county, state and federal officials all in attendance. It was good for everyone to see a job that is under construction to show the scale and complexities of these rehabilitation projects.”

The 2,107 upstream flood control dams constructed in Oklahoma — the most of any state in the nation — have established a $2 billion infrastructure that provides benefits to thousands of citizens. In fact, it’s estimated that the dams and accompanying conservation practices in the watersheds provide approximately $96 million in benefits each year.  Not only do they provide flood and erosion control to over two million acres of agricultural land in downstream flood plains, but they also provide sources of water for livestock and irrigation and habitats for wildlife. There are 42 flood control dams that were constructed as multi-purpose structures, which provide municipal and rural water supplies and recreation areas for local communities.

Altogether, the flood control dams in Oklahoma protect 2,756 county and highway bridges; provide a reduction in flooding for 41,744 farms and ranches; trap 19 million tons of sediment each year, which would otherwise end up in major streams and lakes, and they create or enhance 90,979 acres of wetlands.

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Suzy Landess: Conservation carries history into the future

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Feeling a connection to the land you live on is special.

However, appreciating such a connection that stretches back in time 134 years is almost indescribable.

At any given time, Suzy Landess doesn’t have to look at her family tree to appreciate history. Instead she can gaze upon the plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Landess lives and ranches southeast of Guymon on the very land her great-great-great grandparents settled in 1886. That’s why when explaining the present, she starts with the past.

“My ancestors designed this ranch for cattle to water out of the creeks,” said Landess, who lives on the land her grandmother, Pearl Vantine, was born on. “Pastures were set up for rotational grazing along the creeks where the trees also provided shade and shelter for cattle and wildlife.  As water in the creeks dwindled, my grandparents looked to windmills to provide a water source for livestock.”

Today, her family’s operation runs stocker cattle and commercial cow/calf pairs. 

“This area of Oklahoma has changed since it was settled by the pioneers in the late 1800s,” she said. “Creeks and rivers crisscrossed the Panhandle and provided a water source for buffalo, cattle and early settlers.  Today, water is a precious resource in the Panhandle.  We no longer have creeks and rivers flowing and we now rely strictly on the Ogallala Aquifer for water in this region.”

Conservation has always played a significant role in ensuring that history continues.

“Conservation has been a way of life for me,” she said. “I have always known that it was up to me to be a good steward of this land.  My grandmother always said that ‘This is God’s land and it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the land.’ ”

She can’t remember a time when they didn’t use rotational grazing practices and they have tried to maintain a certain amount of forage growth in all of our pastures. Plus, they have placed dirt tanks near their stock tanks in hopes of catching run-off water for cattle to drink to take the strain off their stock wells.   

“Throughout the years, we have participated in many conservation programs through the FSA (Farm Service Agency) and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service),” Landess said. “With the assistance of NRCS, my grandparents built dams in low areas and ravines in hopes of catching run-off rain water for livestock to drink.  We converted abandoned irrigation wells into livestock wells.

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) has helped them run water lines and drill new wells on the ranch to improve the water on the ranch.

In the 1980s, Landess’ grandparents enrolled their farmland in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and they still have ground in the program.  Too, they began participating in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) at the turn of the century.  Through the CSP program, they were able to improve their management practices and learn detailed information about the nutrition that their grass provided.

There are many examples on the ranch of adapting to fit present needs.

“My grandfather Mark Vantine placed large 41-foot tanks on the ranch to water livestock,” she said. “I used those tanks as a water source for two pastures by placing fence lines down the middle so cattle could water from the same tank on both sides of the fence.   As the windmills that my grandparents built started to need more and more repairs, I began to replace those windmills with solar pumps.  We practice rotational grazing which is similar to the native buffalo’s flash grazing or cell grazing.”

By these and other conservation practices, she says they are taking good care of the land, and in turn the land takes care of their family.   

In turn, Suzy and husband Bill Landess share their passion for conservation with others. Landess is a member of the Texas County Conservation Board and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. 

“I enjoy being a contributor to some of the boards that help producers in the Panhandle conserve our natural resources for future generations,” said Landess, who is also a member of the Oklahoma Cattleman’s Association and the Texas Southwest Cattle Raisers Association. “I have great respect for others who realize the responsibility that we have to be good stewards of the land and water resources.  It is our duty to ensure that future generations have access to quality water sources and that they are able to carry on the legacy of American agriculture.”

Today, Landess son, Mark Landess, helps run the ranch.  They are continually looking for ways to improve the pasture, soil and water on the ranch.

“Just as we taught Mark to be a good steward of the land, he is now teaching his children to do the same,” she said.

At that point, she once again returns the conversation to the past to explain the importance of the present and future.

“My grandmother (Pearl Vantine) is my mentor,” Landess said. “She learned to swim in the Coldwater Creek just north of my house and they often ate fish that they caught in the creek.  She indoctrinated in me the importance of conserving our natural resources and persevering the land for future generations.”

 Editor’s Note: The Oklahoma Blue Thumb Calendar highlights important information about conservation, has a featured producer(s) in the months of February through October, and provides contact information for both Blue Thumb staff and Conservation Districts. Plus, this year’s project includes an in-depth producer(s) feature story, such as the one you just read. Landess is featured in April of the calendar. If you would like a copy of the free 2021 Blue Thumb Calendar, please contact Blue Thumb Program Director Rebecca Bond at Rebecca.bond@conservation.ok.gov.  

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Faith, Family, and the Great Outdoors

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Walking along the paths cut through her family’s land, Rebecca Stevens reflects on how lucky she was. Raised in a beautiful home with scenic land on a quite road in Overbrook, Okla., she grew up with an appreciation for all things outdoors. Hunting, fishing, and camping are just a few of the things the 21-year-old nursing student enjoys, and she has spent her life becoming a good steward of the land and its inhabitants.

Her faith in God is also of utmost importance. “Church is a particularly important aspect of our lives, and I was raised going to church every Sunday. The few times we missed was because of hunting,” she said with a laugh.

“It was a wonderful way to grow up,” she recalled. “My sister and I would come out and spend the days here in the woods playing. We had all this room to run and play and hide. I was pretty much raised hunting, fishing, and camping.”

At first glance, Rebecca doesn’t appear to be the outdoors’ type, if there is such a thing. Tall and lean, she looks more apt to be in the pages of a magazine than in a deer blind. Those assumptions are quickly belied by a deep knowledge, love, and appreciation for nature.

Getting Started

Rebecca comes by her love of wildlife honestly. Her father, Russell Stevens, has been a strategic consultation manager and a wildlife and range consultant in the producer relations program at the Noble Research Institute for more than 30 years. Her grandfather Larry Stevens, affectionately nicknamed Papa, built recurve bows for years. “Papa built recurves, and then my dad started building longbows,” Rebecca shared. “We will go to traditional archery tournaments around McAlester and Stratford and practice all year long to get ready for hunting season. My mom is an English teacher, but she enjoys it, too.”

Rebecca reminisces about the first time her father let her sit in a deer stand by herself; a morning that was memorable for a couple reasons. “I was eight or nine. It was awesome. He walked me to my stand and set me up there and made sure I was good. He walked across the property to sit in a different stand, so I wasn’t totally by myself. I felt pretty independent.” She laughed and added, “I just remember shooting a doe and losing a tooth the same morning.”

While Rebecca doesn’t build the bows herself, she still regularly finds herself partaking in the process. “It’s pretty neat to watch. Dad will bring the bows in the house and show us them throughout the process. He’ll show us different woods for limbs and risers and see what combinations look good to us, and it’s pretty fun,” she shared.

While many people enjoy hunting with a compound bow, Stevens enjoys the challenge of the longbow, which is basically, “Just a stick and string,” she said with a laugh. “When you’re pulling back that weight, you have to hold it the whole time, and you don’t have any sites.”

Rebecca has taken several deer with the longbow, but there are a few that stick out in her mind. Most memorable, perhaps, was her first deer taken with the longbow at age 15. She was on her grandmother Jeanette’s property, while her father was away on a hunt in McAlester. “It’s kind of hard to describe, but I can remember it happening and was over in just a couple minutes. It is so vivid in my mind,” she shared. “He came in kind of back behind me to my left and was only about 10 yards away. He only had three points on one side, and a spike on the other. He was kind of cutting across angling away from me. I remember placing the arrow right at the last rib, and angling it forward.”

After releasing the arrow, she knew she’d taken a good shot, but because of the deep brush she quickly lost sight of the buck. “I remember calling my dad, and he told me he just knew that my first deer I shot with a recurve was going to be when he was away. It was his last day there, though, so he told me to just wait and he’d come home to help me track it,” she said. “I went back to my grandma’s house and sat there and waited what seemed like forever. We were both really excited. After I shot him, I had to sit down because I was shaking so hard. I couldn’t believe it happened.”

Hunting is a big part of Rebecca’s life, but it is not just about sport. “Some of the best memories I have had with my dad have been in the outdoors. It’s always been a special time for us to bond,” she said. “Not just that, but hunters are the biggest conservation team in the United States, and so we can manage the deer, and wildlife in general, by hunting. It’s very important to control the population.”

In addition, the Stevens family gets to enjoy the bounty of food that comes from hunting. “We hardly waste an ounce of meat,” Rebecca shared. “We actually process all of our animals ourselves, and my dad has taught me a lot about how to do that. We use as much as we can.”

Choosing Nursing

With her passion for the outdoors, Rebecca had planned to find a career that would foster that love, even working several summers at the Noble Research Institute as a hand. “I just mowed, painted fence, hauled hay, and did anything to do with keeping the outside running,” she recalled.

Those plans changed her senior year, when Russell became very sick. “He was diagnosed with cancer, and I’ll never forget those nurses and how well they took care of my dad and my family and how they advocated for him. We also had a nurse in our family, Michelle, who I think help saved his life. My mom had been on the phone with her asking about what could possibly be wrong with him,” Rebecca explained. “Michelle was the one who got in touch with the oncologist at Mercy OKC, who was on vacation at the time, but went ahead and ordered blood work for dad and reviewed it while on vacation. Michelle told us tog et our bags packed because the city would be calling to tell us we needed to get up there quickly.”

“I figured I would really enjoy being in that profession and possibly saving lives. Those great nurses made a lasting impression on me,” she said.

The nursing program at East Central University is top-notch, and the end of school is in sight for Rebecca, who is set to graduate at the end of the spring semester in 2021. “When COVID-19 hit, we had to stop right after spring break, adjust, and do our school and clinicals online. They did the best they could to get experience for us, but this semester we’re pretty limited to the places that will allow students. Still, they are working to make sure we get our experience which will allow us to graduate on time,” she explained.

In addition to school, Rebecca works as a nurse’s aid at Mercy in Ardmore. “We don’t have as many aids right now because of COVID-19, so I stay pretty busy,” she said. “I haven’t decided on a specific direction I want to go with nursing, but I’m excited to be in a field with so many options.”

Walking along the paths cut through her family’s land, Rebecca Stevens reflects on how lucky she was. Raised in a beautiful home with scenic land on a quite road in Overbrook, Okla., she grew up with an appreciation for all things outdoors. Hunting, fishing, and camping are just a few of the things the 21-year-old nursing student enjoys, and she has spent her life becoming a good steward of the land and its inhabitants.

Her faith in God is also of utmost importance. “Church is a particularly important aspect of our lives, and I was raised going to church every Sunday. The few times we missed was because of hunting,” she said with a laugh.

“It was a wonderful way to grow up,” she recalled. “My sister and I would come out and spend the days here in the woods playing. We had all this room to run and play and hide. I was pretty much raised hunting, fishing, and camping.”

At first glance, Rebecca doesn’t appear to be the outdoors’ type, if there is such a thing. Tall and lean, she looks more apt to be in the pages of a magazine than in a deer blind. Those assumptions are quickly belied by a deep knowledge, love, and appreciation for nature.

Getting Started

Rebecca comes by her love of wildlife honestly. Her father, Russell Stevens, has been a strategic consultation manager and a wildlife and range consultant in the producer relations program at the Noble Research Institute for more than 30 years. Her grandfather Larry Stevens, affectionately nicknamed Papa, built recurve bows for years. “Papa built recurves, and then my dad started building longbows,” Rebecca shared. “We will go to traditional archery tournaments around McAlester and Stratford and practice all year long to get ready for hunting season. My mom is an English teacher, but she enjoys it, too.”

Rebecca reminisces about the first time her father let her sit in a deer stand by herself; a morning that was memorable for a couple reasons. “I was eight or nine. It was awesome. He walked me to my stand and set me up there and made sure I was good. He walked across the property to sit in a different stand, so I wasn’t totally by myself. I felt pretty independent.” She laughed and added, “I just remember shooting a doe and losing a tooth the same morning.”

While Rebecca doesn’t build the bows herself, she still regularly finds herself partaking in the process. “It’s pretty neat to watch. Dad will bring the bows in the house and show us them throughout the process. He’ll show us different woods for limbs and risers and see what combinations look good to us, and it’s pretty fun,” she shared.

While many people enjoy hunting with a compound bow, Stevens enjoys the challenge of the longbow, which is basically, “Just a stick and string,” she said with a laugh. “When you’re pulling back that weight, you have to hold it the whole time, and you don’t have any sites.”

Rebecca has taken several deer with the longbow, but there are a few that stick out in her mind. Most memorable, perhaps, was her first deer taken with the longbow at age 15. She was on her grandmother Jeanette’s property, while her father was away on a hunt in McAlester. “It’s kind of hard to describe, but I can remember it happening and was over in just a couple minutes. It is so vivid in my mind,” she shared. “He came in kind of back behind me to my left and was only about 10 yards away. He only had three points on one side, and a spike on the other. He was kind of cutting across angling away from me. I remember placing the arrow right at the last rib, and angling it forward.”

After releasing the arrow, she knew she’d taken a good shot, but because of the deep brush she quickly lost sight of the buck. “I remember calling my dad, and he told me he just knew that my first deer I shot with a recurve was going to be when he was away. It was his last day there, though, so he told me to just wait and he’d come home to help me track it,” she said. “I went back to my grandma’s house and sat there and waited what seemed like forever. We were both really excited. After I shot him, I had to sit down because I was shaking so hard. I couldn’t believe it happened.”

Hunting is a big part of Rebecca’s life, but it is not just about sport. “Some of the best memories I have had with my dad have been in the outdoors. It’s always been a special time for us to bond,” she said. “Not just that, but hunters are the biggest conservation team in the United States, and so we can manage the deer, and wildlife in general, by hunting. It’s very important to control the population.”

In addition, the Stevens family gets to enjoy the bounty of food that comes from hunting. “We hardly waste an ounce of meat,” Rebecca shared. “We actually process all of our animals ourselves, and my dad has taught me a lot about how to do that. We use as much as we can.”

Choosing Nursing

With her passion for the outdoors, Rebecca had planned to find a career that would foster that love, even working several summers at the Noble Research Institute as a hand. “I just mowed, painted fence, hauled hay, and did anything to do with keeping the outside running,” she recalled.

Those plans changed her senior year, when Russell became very sick. “He was diagnosed with cancer, and I’ll never forget those nurses and how well they took care of my dad and my family and how they advocated for him. We also had a nurse in our family, Michelle, who I think help saved his life. My mom had been on the phone with her asking about what could possibly be wrong with him,” Rebecca explained. “Michelle was the one who got in touch with the oncologist at Mercy OKC, who was on vacation at the time, but went ahead and ordered blood work for dad and reviewed it while on vacation. Michelle told us tog et our bags packed because the city would be calling to tell us we needed to get up there quickly.”

“I figured I would really enjoy being in that profession and possibly saving lives. Those great nurses made a lasting impression on me,” she said.

The nursing program at East Central University is top-notch, and the end of school is in sight for Rebecca, who is set to graduate at the end of the spring semester in 2021. “When COVID-19 hit, we had to stop right after spring break, adjust, and do our school and clinicals online. They did the best they could to get experience for us, but this semester we’re pretty limited to the places that will allow students. Still, they are working to make sure we get our experience which will allow us to graduate on time,” she explained.

In addition to school, Rebecca works as a nurse’s aid at Mercy in Ardmore. “We don’t have as many aids right now because of COVID-19, so I stay pretty busy,” she said. “I haven’t decided on a specific direction I want to go with nursing, but I’m excited to be in a field with so many options.”

Read more about Rebecca in the November 2020 issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.

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