Beef Industry Leaders Discuss Ranch-Level Sustainability

By Lura Roti for AgSpire 

Cow/calf producer Brady Wulf often finds himself talking with consumers because he and his wife operate a vacation rental on their family’s multi-generational Minnesota ranch. And when he shares about the positive impact the family’s cattle have on the environment, Wulf said their guests are surprised. 

“I explain how our cattle are sequestering way more carbon than they are putting out, and our guests’ jaws just about hit the floor,” said Wulf. “Because this is not the story they have been told.”  

When it comes to sustainability, beef producers do have a great story to share. But they need data to prove it.  

This became a focus that Wulf and the other panelists discussed with a large group of cattle producers during the Making Sense of Sustainability panel discussion hosted by AgSpire, June 21 ahead of the Prime Time Cattlemen’s Foundation Gala held in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“I want to give people the right to eat beef and remove some of the guilt that others are trying to drive, but we can’t do that without numbers,” explained panelist Tim Hardman, Global Sustainability Director at Fulton Marketing Group (FMG), the company responsible for procuring 700 million pounds of beef for McDonald’s each year. 

To accomplish that goal, FMG and McDonald’s teamed up with AgSpire.  

AgSpire works with ranchers – like Wulf – to incentivize and implement sustainable management practices, while also helping capture and quantify the positive impact grazing livestock have on soil and grassland health, explained panel moderator, Jared Knock.  

Knock is one of AgSpire’s founders and a Willow Lake, South Dakota cattle producer.  During the panel discussion, Knock shared the inspiration behind AgSpire. “When I think about what is going to keep animal agriculture viable for the long term …it is really the environmental concern about beef production that I see as the biggest risk factor for my children’s children to continue in the industry.” 

Panelist Don Gales agreed. The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Friona Industries, the second-largest cattle feeder in the U.S., said, “Sustainability starts at the calf level – a sustainable (beef) operation needs to be both sustainable with the environment and sustainable with economics, this is what we are working to do.”  

Friona Industries also works with AgSpire to support ranchers in their supply chain. Companies like Friona Industries and FMG represent a growing cohort of public and private organizations who are taking action to help cattle producers in their efforts to enhance soil and grassland health, as well as reward them for the positive environmental impacts. 

Through AgSpire’s SustainAg Network, cattle producers get to choose a program that fits with their operation’s goals, receive expert advice, resources and funding to cover costs associated with implementation of sustainability practices. And data is collected throughout the process to quantify the impact of these practices.  

AgSpire is focused on assisting producers improve their operational efficiency, resilience, and profitability, explained Ryan Eichler, director of producer programs at AgSpire and a Lake Preston, South Dakota cattle producer. “We help producers capture incentives and use them to further producers’ business goals.” 

Wulf participates in AgSpire’s Grass is Greener program. Funded through a partnership between AgSpire, South Dakota State University, and others, Wulf is able to expand his operation’s use of cover crops and perennial plantings, thereby increasing forage available for grazing.  

Like many agriculture producers enrolled in AgSpire programs, Wulf and his family have been implanting regenerative agriculture practices on their land for generations. He appreciates the ability to now have data to support what his family has known for years. 

“We’ve completely revitalized our grasslands with our cattle and there are a lot of measurables, like carbon sequestration, but then there are a lot of things you can’t measure, like water infiltration, like plant diversity, like controlling runoff, controlling wind erosion,” Wulf said.  

But it is the measurable carbon sequestration data collected from Wulf’s cattle ranch and others that corporations like McDonald’s and Friona Industries need, explained Hardman. 

“The numbers AgSpire is helping us collect, will drive a more meaningful sustainability conversation with consumers in the future.”  

More from the Event

Navigating the Future of Meat: The Role of Sustainability in Driving Business Success

Together with the broader AgSpire team, we have recently attended several of the leading agriculture conferences – including NCBA’s Cattle Con, the International Production & Processing Expo, Commodity Classic, the Annual Meat Conference, and the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit. These conferences convened a diverse group of stakeholders from across the globe—retailers, brands, processors, and producers alike—to delve into the most pressing issues for agriculture and to strategize for the future.

While the sustainability conversation is more established in row crop agriculture, it took center stage among livestock stakeholders. Amid the discussions and presentations, a compelling narrative emerged, one that underscores a pivotal moment for the meat sector. The industry stands at the cusp of a transformative opportunity, where the integration of sustainability practices into business models is a strategic business imperative.

This “sustainability flywheel” concept—where investments in sustainability drive meat product sales, which in turn, fuel further sustainability investments—has become a tangible pathway to resilience and growth in difficult economic times.

Here’s a deeper look into the dynamics shaping this opportunity:

> A Synergistic Relationship Between Sustainability and Business Goals

The dialogue around sustainability in the meat industry has often been framed as a cost rather than an investment. However, the narrative is shifting. Sustainability initiatives are increasingly being recognized for their potential to support and amplify business objectives. This shift is pivotal, as it not only validates the investment in sustainability but also promotes a culture of continuous improvement and adaptation.

> Consumer Behavior: The ‘And’ Factor

Today’s consumers, especially the rising Gen Z demographic, exhibit purchasing behaviors that challenge traditional market norms. They seek products that deliver on multiple fronts—quality AND affordability, quantity AND sustainability, etc. This evolving consumer expectation highlights the necessity for meat producers to adopt practices that resonate with the ‘and’ factor, leveraging sustainability as a competitive edge to meet the multifaceted demands of the market. This is a unique opportunity for sustainability to increase its role as a value-add driver of sales.

> The Sustainability Flywheel Effect

At the heart of the conference insights was this concept of the sustainability flywheel effect. This notion encapsulates how sustainability investments can protect producers from economic volatility by maintaining strong consumer demand for their products despite inflation and other macro-challenges. As these investments become ingrained in business operations, they catalyze a virtuous cycle of (sales) growth, innovation, and sustainability.

> Digital Trends and Sustainability Storytelling

The integration of digital technologies in the shopping experience, particularly among younger consumers, offers a unique platform for sustainability storytelling. The rise in digital ordering and the preference for case-ready products among younger demographics present an opportunity to weave sustainability narratives into the consumer journey, enhancing brand loyalty and driving sales. Younger generations are making fewer, but more intentional trips to the store – sustainability storytelling provided via in-store displays and packaging is primed to play an anchor role in drawing customers in to stores and to the meat counter.

> Conclusion: A Call to Action for the Meat Industry

As we navigate the complexities of an ever-changing economic landscape, the importance of sustainability investments in maintaining robust meat sales cannot be overstated. The insights from these conferences serve as a clarion call for the meat industry to embrace sustainability as a strategic business lever. By fostering a culture of sustainability, the industry can unlock new avenues for growth, resilience, and success in the years to come.

The pathway forward for the meat industry is clear: embracing sustainability is no longer optional but essential. As industry leaders, we are tasked with the responsibility to champion these practices, ensuring that the meat sector remains vibrant, resilient, and aligned with the evolving expectations of our consumers and our planet.


About the Author

Drew Slattery  |  Senior Sustainability Project Manager

Drew Slattery, with his extensive experience in the regenerative agriculture and corporate sustainability realm, is committed to enhancing the impact on natural resources and the climate across global supply chains.

Throughout his career, Drew has partnered with leading agricultural and food brands to evolve their supply chains for greater sustainability and reduced carbon footprints. This has given him a broad range of expertise – from remote sensing, to ag media, producer  engagement, behavior change programming, and corporate sustainability – and experience working with the beef, dairy, row crop, and specialty crop sectors.

Enhancing Biodiversity: The Critical Role of Grazing 

Biodiversity is more than a buzzword. It is a critical component of shaping the future of healthy and productive working lands. At AgSpire, we believe that understanding and harnessing biodiversity is not merely about compliance; it’s about adopting a transformative approach that elevates the land’s productivity and resilience for future generations.  

In the realm of ranching, biodiversity encompasses a range of plant species, soil organisms, insects, and wildlife, each playing a vital role in nutrient cycling, soil health, and forage quality. This rich diversity is an ally in building robust grazing systems, capable of withstanding environmental stresses. More importantly, it directly contributes to improved herd health and overall productivity.  

As our team develops programs related to grazing management and advises ranchers, here are four ways we can contribute to enhanced biodiversity – and deliver positive impact for ranchers: 

> The Synergy of Grazing and Plant Growth 

For grazing management to truly be effective, it must be underpinned by a deep understanding of the plant growth patterns for all the species present in the field. By aligning grazing intensity and timing with these plant growth patterns, ranchers can see a more a more consistent supply of forage while also promoting the long-term health of plant communities.  

When visiting a ranch, our technical advisors help analyze current plant community types to understand their growth cycles and timing, and using this knowledge to make informed grazing decisions. 

AgSpire advisor works with a rancher to analyze his pasture and plan for improvements.

> Rest, Rotation, and Resilience 

While rest and rotation are commonly associated with forage management, they are equally crucial for nurturing biodiversity. Properly timed rest periods allow for the establishment of new plant communities, vital for maintaining a diverse ecosystem. Appropriate rest can be challenging, especially during extreme weather conditions, but the long-term resilience and health of biodiverse grazing acres are invaluable assets during tough times. 

> Rangeland Succession: A Strategic Approach 

Rangeland succession – or the replacement of unhealthy plant communities by another – is just like managing a herd’s genetics; it requires a hands-on, strategic approach with long term vision. This process can significantly impact your land and herd – for better or worse – and therefore, must be guided intentionally. Practices like diverse seeding, controlled burns, and managed grazing are key to fostering a variety of plant species that support a healthier ecosystem. 

> Legumes: A Natural Boost to Your Grazing Lands 

Incorporating legumes pasturelands is a game-changer. These nitrogen-fixing plants enhance soil fertility, reduce fertilizer needs, and provide high-quality forage for livestock. By incorporating legumes, a rancher is not only improving soil health but also boosting the protein intake for their cattle.

About the Author

Senior Sustainability Project Manager

Drew Slattery, with his extensive experience in the regenerative agriculture and corporate sustainability realm, is committed to enhancing the impact on natural resources and the climate across global supply chains.

Throughout his career, Drew has partnered with leading agricultural and food brands to evolve their supply chains for greater sustainability and reduced carbon footprints. This has given him a broad range of expertise – from remote sensing, to ag media, producer  engagement, behavior change programming, and corporate sustainability – and experience working with the beef, dairy, row crop, and specialty crop sectors.

Planning Your 2024 Scope 3 Approach

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect back on 2023 and evaluate what to incorporate into your company’s scope 3 approach for the year ahead. At AgSpire, we were particularly excited about the following developments that will create infrastructure for more on the ground scope 3 outcomes, streamlined claimability, and more payments to producers in the coming year.  

  • ESMC became the first user of SustainCERT’s market-first value chain decarbonization impact solution, which will enable more co-claiming of shared scope 3 intervention outcomes.  
  • Verra launched a scope 3 Standard Program Development Group that will work to ensure Verra’s scope 3 program is designed to unlock immediate and large-scale investment in credible supply chain action.  
  • Science Based Targets Network released the first science-based targets for nature – specifically related to freshwater and land.  
  • Athian announced the establishment of the first-of-its-kind voluntary livestock carbon insetting marketplace.  
  • More than 120 USDA Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities Grants were signed into action and are now in the process of generating outcomes and paying producers.  
  • NRCS awarded more than $1 billion across 81 projects under its Regional Conservation Partnership Program that prioritize the scaling of climate-smart practices.  

Needless to say, there are a multitude of opportunities through which to generate progress. But how do you pick? With only a handful of growing seasons left until 2030 – the deadline for many companies to achieve their near-term science-based targets – even the smallest component of your scope 3 approach needs to have purpose and value.

Here are three ways to ensure you are moving into 2024 with focus and impact:  

> Manage Costs: To scale programs and achieve a greater impact, managing costs is paramount. Careful prioritization and strategic utilization of available resources will help manage costs. 

GHG Protocol makes a clear differentiation between what is required and what is recommended. Prioritize the essentials to ensure your cost of carbon stays within budget. Additionally, public funding mechanisms or other financial partners can be leveraged to amplify the reach and magnitude of outcomes you hope to generate.  

> Watch the Evolving Standards: GHG Protocol has stated that their Land Sector & Removals Guidance is scheduled to be finalized for implementation in 2024. Focus on adhering to those requirements that should not change and those where multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Value Change Initiative are amassing valuable feedback.  

> Provide Programmatic Assistance to Farmers: Technical assistance is just one form of support that producers need to participate in sustainability programs. Most programs also require large amounts of data collection, data cleaning, reporting, and in some cases, audit time to allow buyers to claim outcomes. As GHG Protocol requirements become clearer, so will the need to help producers accomplish these tasks. 

About the Author

Director, Carbon & Ecosystem Service Markets

Zach promotes company strategy and client success by assisting industry groups, food and ag companies, and farmers on their sustainability goals. Zach has worked on carbon issues for stakeholders across the agriculture value chain and in a wide array of commodities, developing expertise in farm-level carbon accounting, MRV platform usage, voluntary and compliance market schemes, science-based targets, ESG reporting, and strategic planning.

First Practices Implemented Under USDA Climate-Smart Commodities Programs

After the announcement of the Climate-Smart Commodity projects last year, we’ve entered an exciting new phase of this work: implementation. Following a successful first enrollment season, the AgSpire technical assistance team is now working with farmers and ranchers enrolled in our programs to select and implement new practices like cover cropping, reduced and no-tillage, perennial seedings, holistic grazing, and nutrient management – among others. Our team works with each enrolled producer to help identify the best options and practices for his or her operation and goals. This month, we’ve seen the first cover crops planted, grazing plans implemented, and soil samples pulled.

During the winter season, cover crops are a primary focus. Cover crops are plants grown to produce living “cover” on fallow ground between subsequent cash crops. This living cover provides so many benefits: erosion is reduced, soil health indicators are increased, water availability and infiltration are enhanced, weeds are suppressed, pest and disease cycles are broken, and biodiversity is increased.

Despite these manifold benefits, matching the right cover with the right field at the correct time can seem complicated and overwhelming when first starting to use cover crops in a rotation. Timing, winter moisture, soil type, equipment needs, and need for forage can all factor into if, when, and how to use cover crops. We strive to help farmers overcome these challenges, focusing on the core goals they are attempting to achieve through the practice, while experimenting, learning, and adapting to what works the best for their farm. 

A Deep Dive into Cover Crop Benefits 

Typical fallow periods in the upper Midwest and Great Plains – where our grant programs are currently focused – tend to range from October to late May. Close to six months of the year with nothing growing!  During fallow months, soil erosion and movement is so evident and common place that there is a colloquial term for it: “Snirt,” the combination of snow and dirt. In most cases topsoil from nearby fields is blown into ditches where it mixes with snow, leaving a pile of soil in the ditch in the spring once the snow melts. The topsoil that is left in the ditch is the highest fertility, most productive soils. Some estimates indicate that the loss of major nutrients in one inch of topsoil costs farmers roughly $688.40 per acre (NDSU Extensions, Crop and Pest Report).

Cover crops play a major role in combating this erosion, helping ensure that the healthiest soils are held in place and available for spring planting. The vibrant, green, living vegetation growing in a winter field means the soil is covered and protected from the impacts of wind and water, holding the topsoil in place. 

While this above-ground benefit is easy to see, much of the benefit that a cover crop offers is found beneath the ground, not immediately visible to us: 

> Water Retention: Living vegetation and expansive root systems increase water infiltration and absorption by creating pores and channels within the soil profile, granting water the opportunity to soak in, like a sponge, and reduce runoff over the soil surface, directly into drainage ditches and waterways. When water is absorbed, it is conserved, and utilized by plants and other terrestrial organisms.

> Biodiversity: Typical ecosystems of the upper Midwest evolved with around 10-30 species of grasses, broadleaves, and woody species of vegetation covering the landscape. Countless species of insects, and various forms of wildlife co-evolved to develop natural ecosystems that were highly diverse and intricate. By grazing the high nutrient, protein packed forage provided during usually lean winter months enables producers to mimic mother nature and harness the positive effects of a healthy soil and ecosystem.

> Carbon Capture: Plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make carbon-based molecules through photosynthesis. Much of the exudates produced by plants are utilized by microorganisms within the soil. Over time, a buildup of carbon-based, humic materials increases and are gradually built into soil organic matter. These natural systems make agricultural soils a vast “sink” for carbon sequestration and contribute positively to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and climate change mitigation. 

About the Author

Senior Conservation Agronomist

Derek has over 15 years of experience working with landowners and corporations to design, manage, and validate research trials, maximizing short- and long-term crop outputs. With a continued passion for conservation and the natural ecosystem, he is focused on the natural symbiosis organisms have with one another in the environment. Always eager to learn, he is continuously expanding his knowledge of soil health, chemistry, and pest disease management.

Derek holds a bachelor’s degree in Biology from South Dakota State University and a master’s degree in Agronomy from Iowa State University. He is also a Certified Crop Advisor and Technical Service Provider through NRCS.

4 Considerations for Successful Farm-Level Interventions

In the private sector to date, more than 50 US-based food and agriculture companies have set rigorous greenhouse gas reduction targets – leading to a widespread focus on reducing the largest portion of their footprints: Scope 3 emissions. These include all upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions that fall outside of a company’s direct control, typically within their upstream or downstream supply chains.

As the largest source of emissions, Scope 3 also offers the greatest opportunity for reductions. For the ag and food companies we work with, farm-level interventions hold immense potential both for reductions and removals. Despite this potential, successful farm-level interventions can be complex and challenging to design and implement. Many companies have conducted supply shed hotspot analyses and even identified strategic interventions to implement – but are struggling to truly generate results on the ground.

At AgSpire, we drive success down to the ground level with a simple approach: putting the producer first. By using that as our guide, we are able to amplify and accelerate results – delivering benefit throughout the supply chain, from the farmers and ranchers on the ground, to the companies we work with, and ultimately to our environment at large.

When designing a farm-level program, here are four ways in which putting the producer first can lead to measurable progress: 

  1. Get Regional: The US EPA currently breaks ecosystem management into 12 ecoregions across the continental US – each with different climates, weather patterns, soils, water sources, and plant species. As such, growing corn in South Dakota, for example, looks very different than growing corn in Kansas. In a Scope 3 program, this may mean approaching growers in different regions with entirely customized opportunities, practices, and incentives – based on the context, markets, and ecosystems of those localities. This regional approach helps accelerate adoption and lead to better outcomes.
  2. Design for Resilience: It is imperative to remember that implementing practice changes of any kind creates financial risk for the farmer – including additional input costs or investments in new equipment or other infrastructure, for example. This risk can create challenges for program recruitment, enrollment, and even program retention. That said, designing programs that simultaneously reduce GHG emission and create on-farm benefit through a positive return on investment in the form of improved profitability, enhanced farm resilience, shrunken costs, or greater productivity go a long way to creating producer motivation and interest.
  3. Build with Empathy: Despite the credibility that comes with rigorous models, standards, protocols, and verification practices, these requirements don’t always align with how a producer runs their operation. For example, not all producers keep 3-5 years’ worth of records on file at any given time at the level needed to enter the most rigorous carbon programs. Understanding these realities and adapting program requirements helps lower barriers that might keep an interested farmer or rancher from participating or changing practices.
  4. Provide Support: On-the-ground success is dependent on helping connect producers with the right practices, programs, and incentive mix for their operation. Providing producers with technical assistance to successfully implement the practices and financial assistance needed to cover the financial burden of tackling the change can be a significant motivator for participation and on-going retention.

About the Author

Director of Carbon & Ecosystem Service Markets

Zach promotes company strategy and client success by assisting industry groups, food and ag companies, and farmers on their sustainability goals. Zach has worked on carbon issues for stakeholders across the agriculture value chain and in a wide array of commodities, developing expertise in farm-level carbon accounting, MRV platform usage, voluntary and compliance market schemes, science-based targets, ESG reporting, and strategic planning.

Facilitating Landscape Change

As a trusted advisor to the ranchers we work with, my goal is to understand the ranching operation, its business goals, and the environment where it exists. With that baseline understanding, I help the ranchers find the best path to reach their goals and improve their long-term sustainability and resilience.

This spring, that work took me to a small community in the Northwest US, where I worked with several ranchers in the same geographic area. Ranging in size and approach, I worked with them to meet their goals: enhance biodiversity, improve weather resilience, conserve grazing land, and simplify operations to improve management.

Despite operations that looked and functioned very differently, each rancher was affected by a common concern around the availability of irrigation water. In this project cohort, each rancher was located within a few miles of each other, where they shared one reservoir for irrigation. The irrigation practices they used at the time were water-intensive flood tactics, contributing to the depletion of the reservoir each summer. This limited forage output – affecting the viability of their ranching operations. By coming together as a group, the ranchers were able to learn about water conservation opportunities from one another, including potential ways to upgrade their irrigation equipment.

While individual efforts make a difference, the collective impact of working in a clustered geographic area revealed the power to bring about landscape-level changes. This collaborative approach enables producers, organizations, communities, and/or governments to pool their efforts and tackle complex challenges. The cumulative effect of these endeavors leads to significant impact, especially for shared resources like water.

About the Author

Grazing and Rangeland Advisor

Matthew brings vast experience managing and restoring rangeland ecosystems and an excitement to expand his knowledge of restoration and sustainability on working landscapes. Prior to joining AgSpire, he was a rangeland management specialist at USDA-NRCS Field Office in California.

Matthew holds a bachelor’s degree in Rangeland conservation and agricultural economics from the University of Idaho. He also holds NEPA and Wildland Restoration certifications and is a certified Technical Service Provider (TSP) through NRCS in 10 states and across 6 practices.

He maintains strong ties to his family’s ranch operations in California where they raise cattle, sheep, hay, and timber.

AgSpire Launches The SustainAg Network

AgSpire unveiled our latest initiative – The SustainAg Network – which connects farmers and ranchers who are interested in conservation, sustainability, and regenerative practices with the programs and market opportunities that incentivize and reward those positive practices.

“As the implementing partner on multiple USDA Climate-Smart Commodity Grants and other grants, and with clients leading the way in launching on-the-ground sustainability projects, AgSpire is uniquely positioned to bring opportunities to producers and partner with them to deliver meaningful results for their operations and the environment,” said AgSpire CEO, Aline DeLucia.

AgSpire offers holistic, end-to-end sustainability services, to drive real progress on the land through implementation of regenerative agriculture practices. With this formalized network of producers, we will be able to accelerate adoption of practices, matching interested farmers and ranchers with opportunities that advance sustainability goals for our partners.

Enabling On-the-Ground Impact

“The producers we’ve met with are eager to invest in their land, improve their natural resources, and implement new and better management practices. The programs offered within The SustainAg Network help producers do just that – giving them the resources and technical assistance needed to succeed,” said Ryan Eichler, Director of Producer Programs at AgSpire.

In his capacity at AgSpire, Ryan is responsible for growing the reach of the network. He kicked off this effort last week at the 100th annual meeting of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, meeting with ranchers around the region. With our soft launch, more than 50 farmers and ranchers in the Northern Great Plains have already indicated their interest to join The SustainAg Network. Our team of advisors will work with those producers to learn more about their operations, providing guidance on the programs they could qualify for and that would be most beneficial on the ground.

Realizing Real Outcomes

Our initial programs are heavily focused on grazing systems, forage, specialty oilseeds, and climate-smart corn in the Great Plains and Midwest, and are expected to impact over four-million acres over the next five years. Our commitment to thoughtful program design, MMRV, and successful on-the-ground implementation results in measurable and claimable environmental outcomes, including captured and stored carbon, improved water usage and quality, enhanced biodiversity, and healthier soils.

“With the interest that The SustainAg Network has garnered through this initial launch, we are well on our way toward meeting our first-year enrollment targets for our program offerings – with many more producers looking for additional opportunities and programs to participate in,” Ryan continued.

To learn more about The SustainAg Network, our services, and how to partner with our network:

Supporting Pollinators with Regenerative Agriculture

As crops are planted and start to emerge across the country, the critical role of pollinators are ever more evident. These beneficial insects play a critical role in our global ecosystems – and especially in our agriculture and food systems.

Regenerative practices like cover crops, diverse seedings in pastures, and insectary strips are ways that farmers and ranchers can help support pollinators, providing food and habitat for them to thrive.

AgSpire’s Dale Strickler works with farmers and ranchers around the country to find the best management practices to build resilience, conserve natural resources, and improve sustainability. In this Mini Podcast episode, Dale shares more about supporting pollinators – and some of the other benefits that these management practices offer to our agricultural lands.

YouTube >>> How Regenerative Agriculture Supports Pollinators with Dale Strickler

Designing for Drought Resilience

by Dale Strickler 

Less than 100 years ago, the Dust Bowl wreaked havoc on our nation’s farms and ranches, with drastic and lasting impacts across the land. While this prolonged time of drought underscored just how important water is – we also learned about the critical role that agriculture management plays in capturing and using rainfall when it does come for improved climate resilience.

Capturing Rainfall  

Research by Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service found that, on average, only 18% of rainfall is being captured by crops and used to grow food. A staggering 59% evaporates, while 23% falls prey to run off. The year that study was conducted, Oklahoma farmers produced an average of 33 bushels of wheat on only 6.2 inches of soil moisture, after factoring in what was lost to run off and evaporation. 

These figures help us understand that practices that improve water infiltration would allow farmers and ranchers to capture and use five times as much naturally falling moisture.

Of course, better utilizing rainfall would have an incredible impact on yields – but there are also important co-benefits for our environment and society.

Improved water infiltration lessens the dependence on additional irrigation, preserving fresh water sources for needed drinking water. At the same time, we see decreased run-off and erosion, keeping rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water cleaner.

As we collectively asses water risks and their role in resilience, geographically-specific interventions to improve water infiltration are critical.

A Case Study 

For inspiration on designing for drought resilience, let’s look at one of the driest and hottest places: Al Baydha, Saudi Arabia. There, the average rainfall is just 2.5”, while temperatures can climb to 120°F in the summer.

In 2011, a project was launched to design terraces, turning the bare rock and dirt into a thriving pasture for grazing. Capitalizing on every drop of rain, the landscape was transformed in just a few short years. 

 Lessons Learned 

While terraces aren’t the solution for every farm or ranch facing drought conditions, this project inspires us as to what is possible. There are hundreds of other techniques that farmers and ranchers can deploy to capture the full benefit of their natural rainfall. Some of these techniques include:

  • Eliminate Soil Tillage: Tillage exposes the soil to the pounding effects of rainfall, which leads to compaction layers at the soil surface that impedes the further downward movement of water.
  • Leverage Crop Residue: Another major step is to leave as much residue on the soil surface as possible, to cushion the impact of falling raindrops and reduce erosion. 
  • Utilize Cover Crops: A third major action to benefit infiltration is the replacement of fallow periods with cover crops. While cover crops use more moisture during their active growth than a soil that is being fallowed, the difference is not as great as many might expect.

Especially when used together, these practices help compound rates of water infiltration over time. For example, even after termination of the cover crop, the much higher rate of infiltration from the cover crop residue will make each successive rainfall event more efficient, if the mulch is left intact and not tilled under. After they decay, cover crop roots can leave large macropores in the soil that act as easy entry points for rainwater to enter the profile.  

These solutions, along with many more in a regenerative toolbelt, help farmers and ranchers maximize the benefit of natural rainfall – which lessens the environmental impacts on aquifers, rivers, lakes, and local drinking water.

Next Steps and Learn More

To learn more about the right water-wise management solutions to reach your business and land goals, Contact Us.

For Companies: Water stewardship throughout the value chain is a key part of climate resilience and action. The practices outlined in this article provide a plethora of benefits – from improved water infiltration as mentioned, to carbon sequestration and soil health, to enhanced biodiversity. Our team helps drive results toward these commitments, finding the right solutions to meet your goals.

For Farmers: Capturing and using rainfall to its maximum benefit has lasting benefit, economically and agronomically. Our landowner advisors help assess your land and goals, creating a customized plan to optimize water availability for crops and lessen downstream water impacts.

Additional Resources:


About the Author


Landowner Advisor

With more than 30 years of experience in agronomy, pasture management, and soil and crop advising, Dale brings an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge to AgSpire’s work.

With a keen curiosity to find innovative solutions, combined with a thorough understanding of the realities of modern production agriculture, Dale is especially adept in developing highly effective management systems in challenging climates and soil types

He has also authored three books, including The Drought Resilient Farm, Managing Pasture, and The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil, which was named a top ten farming book for 2021 by Modern Farmer.