Canadian rancher Steve Kenyon touts the benefits of regenerative grazing

Dan Hansen
Steve Kenyon operates a custom grazing business in Alberta, Canada, running just over 1,200 head of livestock on 3,500 acres of leased land. Kenyon says his business is more about building the soil and protecting the environment than it is about raising animals.

“Modern agriculture grows plants from the soil, regenerative agriculture grows soil from the plants.”

That was at the heart of the message Steve Kenyon delivered to those participating in a recent Internet seminar sponsored by GrassWorks, a grassroots membership organization that provides leadership and education to farmers and consumers to help advance grass-based agriculture.

Kenyon operates a custom grazing business in Alberta, Canada, known as Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. He runs just over 1,200 head of livestock on 3,500 acres of leased land. “Our farm is more about building the soil and protecting the environment than it is about raising animals,” he said.

The Mission statement of Greener Pastures is: “Economic and Environmental Sustainability for Generations.” Kenyon believes that to be profitable in the long term, farmers and ranchers must use sustainable agriculture practices. “You have to work with nature, not against it,” he stressed.

Kenyon says the agriculture industry today is addicted to quick fixes. “But that’s not what we’re about. We believe in dealing with the problem instead of addressing symptoms,” he asserted. “You can buy something in a box, bag or bottle to treat symptoms, but the problem is still there. Weeds in the pasture is a symptom of overgrazing. If you solve the problem of overgrazing then the weeds will go away.”

Growing soil

“Modern agriculture assumes that plants grow from the soil,” Kenyon said. “People put in a seed, it grows, uses nutrients from the soil to produce a plant. Then we harvest that plant and take the nutrients away.”

He believes that approach is wrong. “The elemental make-up of any plant – any grass, crop, tree, or shrub – is 45% carbon, 45% oxygen, 6% hydrogen, and 1.5% nitrogen,” Kenyon noted. “So 97.5% of every plant is made up of these four elements on a dry-matter basis, and we get every single one from the air, not the soil.”

The plant uses photosynthesis to pull carbon out of the air and transforms it into glucose, which also transfers to the roots. “As it’s growing and photosynthesizing the plant is also taking this sugar and pushing it out to the roots and feeding the soil. The glucose is gluing the soil together by adding carbon to the ground,” he explained. 

“We’re not only building soil on top of the ground, we’re actually going down into the clay and converting it into better soil. So we’re really using plants to grow the soil,” he stated.

Grazing principles

Kenyon has developed his regenerative management approach around five basic principles: Improving the water cycle; capturing sunlight; recycling nutrients, building biology and creating a polyculture.

Improving the water cycle requires reducing runoff. “When the first raindrop hits bare soil, it damages the soil structure and caps the soil. When the second drop hits, it can’t penetrate and can only run off. If the raindrop hits plant material, it will burst into tiny droplets and can flow down gently into the soil,” said Kenyon.

Reducing evaporation also is a key factor in improving the water cycle. Once in the soil, moisture moves from wet to dry areas. “If we can keep the soil covered we’ll hold that moisture in and not let it evaporate,” Kenyon said. He also wants pasture plants to capture and utilize as much rainfall as possible.

“I’m in the business of harvesting sunlight – not in the cattle business, not in the grazing business,” emphasized Kenyon. “That’s where we get our energy for life on the planet. Nothing else on the planet can do this other than plants. I need to collect a lot of sunlight to make my business profitable.

“I don’t want sunlight coming down and hitting bare soil, I want it hitting green, growing vibrant grass, legumes, shrubs plants or trees. I want a bigger leaf area with bigger, more efficient plants to catch every sunbeam I possibly can,” he said.

According to Kenyon, nutrient recycling is effective only in a grazing system. “The advantage of livestock is that they’re 80% inefficient, which is perfect for us because we’re recycling the nutrients back into the soil,” he said.

Building biology starts with biology from the herbivore and continues with earthworms, dung beetles, bacteria, yeast, and fungi. “They’re my employees, and if I give them food, water and shelter, they’ll work tirelessly for me,” said Kenyon.

One of his favorites is micromiaragic fungi. “It’s an extension of the roots and can extend the reach of the plant roots about a thousand fold. It actually connects plants together, transports nutrients, and it’s really good at finding and utilizing phosphorus,” he said.

Kenyon emphasized the importance of creating a polyculture in the pasture. “Nature will always fight against a monoculture; she will send in a weed, a pest or disease to get rid of a monoculture,” he said. “Modern agriculture uses pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to try to get control of one species, one plant. That’s not what nature wants. Polyculture plants give you polyculture roots which gets you polyculture soil organisms, which gets you free fertility.”

Grazing concepts

Kenyon has developed five grazing concepts that enable him to successfully apply his grazing principles: graze period; rest period; animal impact; stock density and soil armor.

He noted that plants have three growth stages: In Stage 1, the plant comes up as a perennial from the root reserve energy stored in the plant. In early Stage 2, photosynthesis is occurring and plants are starting to increase growth by utilizing the sunlight. Later in Stage 2 the plant gets more productive, has more vegetative growth and is getting more sunlight. Now the plant will grow more leaves and start replenishing its fuel tank in the roots. In stage three the plant is maturing and going to seed.

The ideal graze period occurs during late Stage 2. “We have to have a short enough graze period to not allow animals to take a second bite,” Kenyon remarked. “If we graze it and then take the animals off the field, the plants start to regrow but if we put the animals back out there too soon when plants are in early stage 2 we’re going to cause overgrazing.”

Animal impact is the physical impact of the hooves on the soil. It can affect the water cycle by breaking open the cap soil to let water in, and animals can recycle nutrient seedling development. 

Biology between the herbivore and the soil is vitally important. “The best biology you can have is manure and urine from the back end of a cow, and it’s a lot cheaper for her do that for you,” emphasized Kenyon. “There are symbiotic relationships that have existed for centuries that we don’t know anything about, so we need to keep those animals on the land.”

Stock Density is defined by how tightly the animals are bunched together when grazing. “A higher density is better for plant utilization and better manure distribution. That way no plant gets to go to seed, and everything gets eaten or knocked down,” he said. “Our goal is to give plants an even playing field to regrow.”

Building soil armor is basically leaving plant residue on the land, according to Kenyon. “I need to feed the livestock and the soil organisms, and I need to leave the soil armor to do that and help improve the water cycle. Leave as much plant residue as you can cash flow,” he advised. “Soil armor also regulates temperature and provides shelter for the underground army of workers that are adding biology in the soil.”  

Summing up, Kenyon said, “Regenerative agriculture can help solve many of the problems farmers and ranchers face today. We need to be building the soil, not mining it, which is what much of modern agriculture is constantly doing.”