The Regenerative Ranching Data Round Up
Megan Shahan is a regenerative food and agtech consultant with The Mixing Bowl, Better Food Ventures and TomKat Ranch.
Continuing Farm Foundation’s work to advance data interoperability in agriculture, The Mixing Bowl, Purdue OATS, Centricity, and other collaborators hosted the Regenerative Ranching Data Round Up on August 24, 2021.
Regenerative ranchers manage grazing and/or browsing animals (such as cattle, sheep, or goats) with the intent to achieve specific ecological, economic, social, and management objectives. Regenerative grazing (or prescribed grazing) is recognized by the USDA as a climate-smart agriculture practice. The growing pool of scientific studies and farmer/rancher case studies quantifying the ecological, economic, and social impact of production methods—as well as the increasing urgency of addressing climate change—is adding to the mounting interest in climate-smart practices, like regenerative grazing, among scientists, policy makers, producers, eaters, and businesses.
Numerous corporations have announced significant investments and initiatives designed to support and scale regenerative practices across their global supply chains, including Cargill, General Mills, Land O’ Lakes, Danone, McDonalds, PepsiCo, and Nestlé among others. These initiatives signal a notable shift in how companies are planning for and adapting to future climate risks across food and agriculture supply chains and are critical efforts to build resilience into our food system. And yet, regenerative grazing is practiced on only about 1% of US rangeland today1. Access to locale-specific information (including technical assistance) and improved data flow are necessary to scale this practice both in the US and abroad.
To that end, the Regenerative Ranching Data Round Up gathered a large, diverse, and global group of regenerative ranchers, landholders, value chain partners, software providers, conservationists and land trust representatives, scientists, academics and more to link the information flows necessary to implement and scale the practice of regenerative grazing. Participants placed ‘sticky-notes’ on a virtual whiteboard to develop a community-led understanding of the regenerative ranching sector and highlight common data challenges.
The next event, The Regenerative Ranching Data Rodeo, will gather coders to write real world code to make real world software to help solve some of the data challenges identified in the Regenerative Ranching Data Round Up.
Farm Foundation and its partners are in the planning phases for the Regenerative Ranching Data Rodeo. If you or someone you know would like to be involved in the Rodeo, please contact Martha King or Todd Price.
Data interoperability for regenerative ranchers
The ability to move data between systems and devices remains a sticking point across the agriculture industry, impacting established commodity production models and diverse, more localized regenerative production models in much the same way. The resulting data bottlenecks limit insights, innovation, and efficiency throughout the supply chain, hindering daily farm or ranch operations and contributing to a food and agriculture system with lesser agility and resilience to adapt, withstand, and respond to future shocks and disruptions.
In my work with TomKat Ranch, a regenerative ranch in Northern California, I see the need for data interoperability firsthand. Regenerative management is a continuous cycle of taking action, measuring results, and refining new actions based on the outcome of previous actions. Rather than maximizing a single goal, regenerative ranchers use careful adaptive management to best align timing, location, duration, and intensity of grazing and other agricultural activities with the multiple economic, social, and environmental goals of the rancher and other stakeholders. Investments in these goals must be justified or paid for primarily through the sale of cattle, and hence planning and goal setting is an ongoing process of optimizing a system subject to the constraints of trade-offs between goals.
Consistent monitoring protocols can help reduce uncertainty, quantify the outcomes of management practices, and track changes over time. Monitoring efforts vary by ranch, but typically include a mix of visual assessments, manual data gathering, sensor data, and lab analysis, which are themselves a function of available ranch time and resources. TomKat Ranch, in partnership with Point Blue Conservation Science, collects data on soils, birds, rainfall, streams, pasture management and forage production, animal performance and other metrics, in addition to standard ranch and business data. None of this data is (easily) connected electronically, a common struggle for ranchers and farmers across the country.
Connecting these disparate sets of data to enable an integrated view of a regenerative ranching operation will help illuminate real world interactions and trends, allow ranchers to gain actionable insights for responsive adaptive management and improve outcomes from soil to steak. At scale, data interoperability in regenerative ranching supports beneficial outcomes across the multiple interrelated systems that touch—and are touched by—food production on rangelands: healthy animals and nutritious food, healthy soils and diverse microbial communities, and resilient ecosystems, businesses, and communities.
Event storming: regenerative ranching
Through a process known as event storming, collaborators articulated events, decisions, people, and information related to planning, managing, evaluating, and improving four interrelated areas of regenerative ranching:
- Soil and Pasture Health / Environment
- Cattle / Herd Management
- Daily Logistics / Business Success
- Certification / Regulatory
Participants placed ‘sticky-notes’ on the virtual Miro board to develop four “big picture” timelines, or industry maps. The industry maps provide insight into what happens on a regenerative ranch, who is making decisions, what questions need answered, and what data is needed at which points in time.
In an effort to produce robust industry maps during our limited time together, the scope of the event storming session was narrowed to a single livestock species: cattle. Regenerative ranchers often graze multiple species of livestock to vary the animal impact on the land and leverage differing forage preferences of the animals (cattle and goats, for example). Insights from this event can be applied broadly to regenerative ranching, but specifics may vary.
The event storming process highlighted the vital connection between ecological health, animal health, and economic health. Core to successfully managing the herd is managing the environment to improve soil health, increase water availability, and produce diverse, high quality forage to ultimately foster a resilient, profitable regenerative ranching business.
Data is critical in goal setting, planning, measuring outcomes, and adapting to improve outcomes on a regenerative ranch. The sheer number of metrics being tracked, coupled with the long time horizon of ecological change and the delay in realized impacts of management decisions, make it difficult for a human to keep track of mentally—data recording, storage, and analysis methods are key to success.
The motivation for data collection ranges from ranch management insights to certifications or participation in carbon markets; the cost and time commitment of monitoring efforts also vary, with carbon markets typically requiring the most intensive and expensive monitoring protocol. Some metrics can be measured digitally via sensors, visually or manually (e.g. forage height, soil structure, soil cover, “fullness” of the cattle, weight gain, conception rate), and others require lab analysis (e.g. water quality, soil organic matter, manure samples).
There was a clear message from many participants that regenerative practices, if properly communicated through the supply chain, should be able to garner premiums and additional market benefits. Improved communication of data throughout the supply chain, from the ranch to consumers, is critical.
Certification efforts appear to coalesce around two goals: 1) the opportunity to increase demand among eaters through education and marketing of regenerative practices, and 2) the production of certifications necessary to communicate those practices to eaters. There was a sense that the necessary standards are still lacking for regenerative beef and much work is yet to be done to create standards, relate new standards to existing standards, market those certifications, and simplify/streamline reporting, sharing, and record keeping. Participants clearly felt that ranchers need to work together and be included in the certification discussions, enabling them to influence the standards dialogue during such an evolution.
The Regenerative Ranching Data Round Up ultimately highlighted a distinct gap of data capabilities and calibrations, a gap common in younger industries. Various projects to tackle “low-hanging fruit” are necessary to digitize regenerative ranching in a meaningful way, such as:
- providing digital tools to ranchers working the land and caring for the cattle;
- improving digital communication between ranchers and processors;
- developing accessible public datasets for calibration between soil labs and sensors; and
- simplifying the ability for data used in software for operational decision-making to be automatically re-used for certification data.
For more information on the event storming process as well as a detailed summary of the industry maps, challenges, and ideas that emerged, see the Regenerative Ranching Data Round Up Summary.
What’s next: The Regenerative Ranching Data Rodeo
Just as the event storming process was community-led, so too is the finalization of next steps. Two high-impact challenges stood out for folks to wrangle at the follow up event, the Regenerative Ranching Data Rodeo:
- The standardization and calibration of soil sampling data and analysis; and
- Enhancing the communication of the value of regenerative ranching practices (through digital certifications) to buyers and eaters.
The Regenerative Ranching Data Rodeo will likely involve 1) the production of soil lab analysis data in a standard, machine-readable format, 2) utilizing that data to compare and calibrate, and 3) consuming the resulting data via a standardized API to produce privacy-preserving certifications that can be automatically communicated through the supply chain.
Learn more about Farm Foundation’s work to advance data interoperability in agriculture here.
1 US Ag Census (NASS, 2019); ERS (2017)