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Rearranging chairs on the Titanic

From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon

We need a breakthrough that is a completely new idea from our current production practices.

Every once in a while, I feel the need to put something out there that I know will offend people. In today’s world, it is easy to offend, so this should be easy. There is a lot of controversy over climate change and every organization is trying to climb aboard this sinking ship to make it look like they are doing their part. Our world of big industry is very keen to use a disaster as a marketing ploy to increase sales and improve its image. Don’t get me wrong, it is just business and I understand that the marketing division is just doing its job. It is not just businesses but also industry groups, organizations and even individual farmers who are doing their best to “look good.”

Here is the problem with just looking good:

“The light bulb did not get invented by incrementally improving the candle.” — Oren Harari

We did not make a better candle. We had a completely new idea: a light bulb. An interesting concept when you look at it within agriculture. I disagree with the concepts of variety trials and I get frustrated with the huge emphasis that we put on the importance of bull selection (as just two common examples). Our farmers are not going to dramatically start making a profit by incrementally improving yields because they bought the latest and greatest seed variety. That new bull might increase weaning weights by a few pounds, but will that really get the banker off your back? These are only minor improvements to your bottom line or maybe not even an improvement at all.

What we need is a radically different direction. A breakthrough that is a completely new idea from our current production practices. Can we break out of the paradigm that we need incremental increases? What about eliminating your fertilizer bill? How about repairing your water cycle and doubling the amount of effective rainfall that your crop has available to it?

How does this work with climate change? If we need to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, do you think incremental decreases in emissions are going to help? Buying an electric car is going to save us? Do you think that we can fix the problem by not using plastic straws? Instead of saving the turtles, let’s swing for the fence and save the ocean.

Let’s look at the beef industry. We can improve the vaccination and antibiotic strategies in the feedlot. We can improve genetics for better feed efficiencies. We can improve yields. We can adopt better nutrition plans and optimize animal productivity with better rations. We can use new technologies in traceability and animal welfare throughout the beef industry.

We can say we are doing all of these things to do our part in the name of climate change. Are we just rearranging chairs on the Titanic? Do we want to aim for carbon neutral? Or should we actually make a difference and start sequestering more carbon than we are emitting? Slowing it down is a waste of time when we have the ability to reverse it. Do you want to plant one tree in the middle of the desert and watch it die, or should we improve the entire ecosystem?

To be blunt, to fix the beef industry to help climate change, we need to eliminate the feedlot. The animals need to be back out on the land where they belong in order to heal the soil. With proper regenerative management, we can be carbon positive by using animals to manage the plants which can grow the soil. That is the light bulb in the beef industry. It would heal the soil, build biology and repair the water cycle. That would be a huge step forward in climate mitigation.

How about in the grain industry? We can improve the efficiencies through GPS mapping and “save the planet” with variable rate technologies and plant the latest and greatest varieties to “feed the world,” but if we are not building the soil in the process, we are missing the boat entirely. I have seen a lot of zero-till fields that have huge erosion issues and still have a broken water cycle. I know that there are a lot of organic producers out there that feel that they are saving us all because they don’t use chemicals on their land, but they brutalize their soil with tillage over and over. Again, if you are not using regenerative principles in your management, you are just treading water.

Yes, that was a bit too blunt. I know that it takes a long time to turn a ship around and I know that as an industry we are very slow to accept new ideas. If we are going to be stuck in the paradigm of incremental improvements, can we at least make small improvements in becoming regenerative? Regenerative agriculture is the farmer’s new light bulb!

The Titanic is going down but we do have a lifeboat sitting right here in plain sight. Climb aboard and grab a paddle.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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