Texas cattle ranchers using regenerative agriculture to restore land, aid in water conservation
By Chuck Blount, Chuck’s Food Shack
June 1, 2022
June 1, 2022
Jeremiah and Maggie Eubank’s 2,000-acre Pure Pastures cattle ranch near Canyon Lake is unique by Texas ranching standards. For starters, their herd is grass fed, but the land is green with tall, native grasses and wildflowers that attract an array of butterflies and other pollinators — especially notable given the drought.
Texas cattle ranchers using regenerative agriculture to restore land, aid in water conservationMaggie and Jeremiah Eubank move cattle from one part of a pasture to another during a ranch tour to highlight regenerative agriculture methods as part of an ongoing process to prevent overuse of the fields and to maximize water conservation.
The herd’s, ahem, “contributions” to the pastures attract something else entirely: dung beetles, as pointed out by Jeremiah on a recent drive around the ranch. He watched as a beetle about the size of a pinky finger rolled up a small ball of animal waste that Jeremiah said was going to contribute to the greater good of the land that he and his wife manage.
“You see things like this, and it’s the reason why we do what we do,” he said. “You need everything in nature to come to form and act like nature, because it all has a purpose. These beetles are hard to find, but they are coming back. It’s a sign that we are doing something right.”
Pure Pastures practices regenerative agriculture, a type of ranching that aims to be more ecologically responsible by bringing back old methods of land management used by cowboy-era ranchers before industrialization. Livestock feed on native grasses, rotating from pasture to pasture to prevent the animals from eating all the way down to the roots and to allow the plants to recover and grow back — with a boost from the natural fertilizer left behind by the herd.
Unless a rancher has access to tens of thousands of acres, herd sizes have to be limited to make this kind of agriculture work. The Eubanks have just about 100 cattle, about 200 pigs and 200 sheep — significantly smaller than usual for 2,000 acres. Because of that, it’s less profitable than large-scale industrialized ranching, but regenerative agriculture ranchers believe the overall benefits far outweigh the smaller profits.
Practitioners say regenerative agriculture reduces or eliminates their feed costs as well as the costs of chemical fertilizers to keep the grass growing. They say the animals are healthier, their meat is healthier for humans and the land is healthier as there are no chemicals used to manage the grass and a more natural ecosystem is restored.
The practice is getting more popular. In a 2021 piece in Forbes, it was cited as the “next big trend” in the retail food business, with companies like General Mills, PepsiCo, Walmart and other companies pledging to source products from regenerative properties. In Texas, there are more than 150 properties in the database at texasrealfood.com.
At Pure Pastures, the Eubanks also manage a flock of free-range ducks and chickens. They sell the ranch’s meat and eggs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at their market store located on the property at 598 Thumper Lane. They also sell direct to consumers through their website, purepasturestx.com. But that’s secondary to what they see as their responsibility as stewards of the land.
“I tell people that we are primarily grass farmers, and everything else is supplementary,” Maggie said.
At Pure Pastures, the ranch is segmented into various pastures marked off by a miles-long network of electric fencing. A phone app tracks when each pasture was last used for grazing so the Eubanks know when and where to move their herds.
Travis Krause, co-owner of Parker Creek Ranch near D’Hanis, was one of the first in the region to use regenerative practices on his land. On his 400 acres, he has a herd of about 50 cattle, and he’s considered an authority on the practice in Texas and advised the Eubanks early on.
He said that while regenerative agriculture has a big impact in the land on which it’s applied, it may not be enough to turn back to the clock. Texas has more than 130 million acres that are used for farming and ranching, and much of the natural terrain has been scarred from that.
“When you plow up a field, you are essentially nuking the ecosystem, and it can take years to recover,” Krause said. “We have degraded these landscapes to such a degree that most of us cannot comprehend. Everything has changed in the past 100 years, and we aren’t even old enough to see the scope of it. Regenerative practices may not be enough to fix it, but it’s a start.”
Water conservation plays a large part in the regenerative agriculture business — especially key now as the Texas Water Development Board has labeled half the state as being in extreme drought.
“Ranching, no matter how you do it, is a complex business, and water is always the key,” Krause said. “Texas has always been considered the land of floods and droughts, and we are in a big drought now. We have to hold that water whenever and wherever we can.”
When there are abundant rains in South Texas, the excess water tends to run off into creeks and rivers, eventually draining into the Gulf of Mexico. Krause digs deep trenches to retain what water he can. At Pure Pastures, there is a network of reservoir ponds fed by creek beds when they fill up with rain.
While there’s a lot of information out there about regenerative agriculture, most of the studies and research were done in other parts of the country that receive more rain. So in 2021, Texas A&M University received a $10 million grant for a five-year study to examine ways to improve and implement regenerative agriculture practices throughout Texas and Oklahoma.
“We want this (study) to be as real as possible,” said Katie Lewis, a soil scientist with A&M who is heading the effort. “There’s just so much information that is not suited for our regions. This project is going to result in the optimization of practices for semi-arid regions that will result in profitable and sustainable practices.”
That study is in its infancy, but the Eubanks and Krause are on the front lines, and every day brings new lessons.
“In ranching, there’s always something,” Jeremiah Eubank said. “But our goal is to bring this land back to the state it was designed to be in naturally. It’s a passion.”
And that’s something every animal on the ranch, from the cows to the dung beetles, can appreciate.