Farming to mitigate the effects of climate change

March 11, 2020

Update: In light of the latest guidelines from the CDC about COVID-19 and postponing gatherings of more than 50 people for the next 8 weeks, TLC has postponed the Grand Opening of Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve, which was scheduled for April 25.

Information courtesy of Regenerative Design Group

You might have seen the term “regenerative agriculture” lately — it encompasses farming methods that are a combination of practices and land ethics borrowed from indigenous and organic farmers, conservationists, and ecological designers. By taking a regenerative approach, farmers help build healthy soils, protect waterways, increase biodiversity, improve animal and crop health, and increase overall farm resilience. 

At Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve, farmers will be using regenerative methods to help mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change. Industrial-conventional agriculture models have focused on single-crop operations that have exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the land, ruining soil, water, habitat, and air quality. Regenerative methods seek to reverse some of this damage by rebuilding degraded soils, increasing biodiversity, and creating healthy, fair, and just food systems.

Already at Williamson Preserve, Jake and Catherine Newbold — owners of Newbold Farms LLC — are employing regenerative methods in their cattle operation. As Jake explains in more detail in the following Q&A, low tillage, diverse cover crops, and on-farm fertility like manure help build carbon-rich soil. According to Project Drawdown, a global research organization that reviews, analyzes, and identifies the most viable global climate solutions, farms employing regenerative agriculture methods are seeing “soil carbon levels rise from a baseline of 1-2% up to 5-8% over 10 or more years, which can add up to 25 to 60 tons of carbon per acre.” Having that carbon in the soil improves its overall health and water retention capacity while reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The Newbolds use strip grazing, so every weekend, they move the cows to an area — or a strip — with fresh grass to graze. They then fence off the area where their cows grazed previously so the grasses there can grow back. These methods will eventually be coupled with silvopasture, which integrates pasture and trees into a single system for raising livestock. This practice has been shown to sequester five to 10 times as much carbon as a treeless pasture of similar size.

Below, the Newbolds explain their farming operation. They have six cows at Williamson Preserve thanks to a partnership with TLC, NC State University, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and NC Choices. Their answers have been condensed and lightly edited. The full transcript is available at triangleland.org.

What drew you to cattle farming? And to using regenerative methods for your farm?

Jake: (My wife and I) were both raised very agriculturally minded to where we were both aware of where food was coming from and how it was produced. We’re also definitely animal lovers, and I’ve always had an attachment to cattle. As for regenerative methods, they lower our input costs. With the strip grazing lines out there, we’re making those cows eat all the grass in a certain section before they have access to a new section, so this winter, we haven’t had to feed them any hay.

Catherine: (Regenerative methods) are also helping build the soil back. It’s been sitting vacant, so with the cows being on it, we’re building up the soil’s profile in a natural way which decreases our cost with fertilizer and lime.

How many cattle would you like to have out at Williamson eventually?  What are your goals for your farming?

Jake: Right now with the pasture that TLC has slated for Newbold Farms, I think we can easily hold 10 brood cows, which are the cows that produce a calf for us every year. By the end of 2020, we hope to sell three steers directly to community members. Our claim to fame is going to be local beef!

What’s a typical day like for you at Williamson? 

Jake: Both Catherine and I have full-time jobs, so the farm is definitely part-time, even though it can feel full-time. I make it a point to lay eyes on every cow, every day. My wife and I refer to ourselves as flashlight farmers, because with the end of daylight saving time, we have to check cows in the dark. So as far as a day out on Williamson, I come in early in the evenings after work and check all the cows and make sure everyone is doing good. The second thing I always do is walk through the pasture. Some of the things I’m looking for are the length of the grass — I have to make sure nothing is getting overgrazed. The other thing I’m watching for is high traffic areas and if there’s anything I can do to control those. Another thing we always check on is making sure they have a good water source.

What do you want people to know about regenerative farming and cattle?

Jake: The four biggest things to know are: limit tillage, protect soil, biodiversity, and animal grazing.

When you till the land, you open the possibility of erosion. If you can limit that as much as possible, you’re doing yourself a favor, and it comes back to the next point, soil. The soil profile takes forever to create. The first couple inches of that soil profile are the most important, and if you haven’t been protecting that soil or if it has been in conventional tillage, that soil has been threatened and often it’s not as productive as land that hasn’t been tilled. The biodiversity aspect is when you can introduce different cover crops. You’ve got different forages that can aerate the soil, you’ve got legumes that can provide nitrogen and add carbon. I always like to refer to it as a salad bar for our cows. When introducing animal grazing, the cows are taking the forage or the green part of the plant off the pasture, but they’re returning it in the form of manure and even urine. All the excess forage gets trampled down; this and the manure is going to hold moisture in that soil. The moisture is important to allow microorganisms to work together, and everyone can be one big happy family.

Why do you think it’s important to raise and sell local meat?

Jake: I think when you can shop local, eat things local, it creates a sense of community and always helps those small communities thrive. Now for benefits to a consumer, whenever anyone comes to buy beef, they are invited out to the farm. We will roll out the red carpet and show them anything they want to see; they can come pet a cow if they want to. We’re going to be very transparent. I also know the quality is going to be better than store-bought.

Catherine: We’re farming in Wake County and bringing beef to people all throughout the Triangle, and it brings that sense of pride and shows that other people can do it. We hope that people will be able to see how we were able to start. We also really pride ourselves in taking care of these animals. All our brood cows have names!

Jake: The brood cows do all have names … and they’ll never go to a processor. We really do take pride in having happy animals. The bull calves, which get turned to steer calves, they get different names, like Rib eye, Steak fajita, and T-bone.

Catherine: We really do this for those animals. Everything we do is for them.

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