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TomKat Ranch
TomKat Ranch

TomKat Ranch: Measuring the Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture with Precision Ag Tech

August 2, 2017

Regenerative agriculture is a method of farming that aims to restore the fertility of the soil and the overall health of the land it’s conducted on. There are various ways this can be done that are consistent with sustainable agriculture practices more generally such as limiting the use of synthetic inputs like pesticides and fertilizers and limiting tillage of the soil, which can negatively impact soil health. But often regenerative agriculture involves livestock.

This might seem confusing if you’ve read the countless headlines that livestock farming is the biggest culprit of greenhouse gas emissions — according to the FAO it accounts for 18% of emissions — but there is a school of thought that’s gathering momentum and evidence that managing livestock in certain ways can not only reduce the negative impact of livestock farming on the environment but actually regenerate the land and have a positive impact.

Through what’s called holistic planned grazing, or rotational grazing, ranchers strategically move their cattle around the land so that no one area is too depleted, yet every inch of rangeland is trimmed and fertilized by the cows.

These methods can lead to increased forage production, soil fertility, resistance to drought, water retention, and the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, among other benefits.

TomKat Ranch, a proponent of regenerative ranching, is betting that the rise of precision agriculture and big data technologies could help prove the financial viability of regenerative ranching, as well as the environmental benefits. The idea of adding only what is absolutely necessary to an agricultural process is a fundamental principle behind precision farming, and TomKat is working to apply these principles to cattle grazing.

Kevin Watt, land and livestock manager at TomKat Ranch, thinks that once the benefits of regenerative ranching can be fully quantified — through soil carbon measurements,  forage density, and more — it could become a mainstay of both ranching and soil management.

“When you’re doing something that is regenerative, you’re basically saying that my productive asset should not be losing value. My productive asset should be gaining value, and that appeals to everybody,” Watt told AgFunderNews.

TomKat was founded by Tom Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital, one of the largest hedge funds in the world with roughly $20 billion under management. Steyer left Farallon in 2012 and founded Next Gen Climate, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. Though the grazing cattle on his ranch were originally planned as a conservation tactic and not a business, TomKat is now known for its high-quality beef, sold under the brand Leftcoast Grassfed.

Watt started out as Steyer’s neighbor and would take his chickens onto Steyer’s ranch land after the cows had moved off it, so they could feed off the bugs attracted by the cow dung. Then in early 2014, he joined the TomKat team while still running his own Early Bird Ranch and now leads TomKat’s efforts to quantify and justify regenerative ranching in both economic and ecological terms. We caught up with Watt at the Forbes Agtech Summit in Salinas California to find out what kind of technology he’ll need to make his case, and what challenges are standing in the way.

How are you working at TomKat to measure the benefits of regenerative agriculture?

What is really exciting is the fact that we see precision farming booming; the idea of ‘Let’s not use more than we have to. Let’s apply only what we need to at the perfect time. Let’s truly understand the ROI for every input in our operation and capture every co-benefit that we possibly can.’ That is also regenerative agriculture. And so what is exciting is that as we’re better able to quantify and capture what those co-benefits are, whether it’s humane animal treatment or nutritional density, or whether it’s carbon sequestration or watershed services. Our instrumentation is getting better, and we are more effective at quantifying and predicting those things.

So when I manage my cattle in such a way to get the most forage production over the entire year or over the entire decade, what ends up inevitably happening is, like a financial portfolio, I also want to bring in new grass species, new flora, new fauna, to diversify my risk portfolio and in doing so, the photosynthesis through that increased forage production keeps the soil covered, keeps all of that microbial life booming and also grabs atmospheric carbon, transitioning it into sugar through photosynthesis. Typically speaking about 60% to 80% of that sugar is being fed into the microbial community because of its incredible benefits for the plant, but that is building this organic matrix that will hold water and grow me more grass next time.

So like a really good financial portfolio, biomass grows me even more biomass next year. My profits compound.

We have onsite conservation scientists from Point Blue Conservation Science doing very meticulous technician-driven soil tests, vegetation surveys, and wildlife surveys that we can compare to our very rigorous management records and see what strategies grow us more grass, which ones grow us more beef, which ones keep our streams running longer. For every 1% of soil organic matter change, or growth, we get an extra 25,000 gallons of water per acre being stored (and that’s a USDA figure so people know about this).

We’ve learned that if you can get that feedback from your landscape, whether or not you share a philosophical interest in environmentalism or humane treatment of animals, you start to see that it really makes sense to evolve with your landscape; to see what the ROI is on every one of your management choices. That’s why precision ranching could be so transformative.

We are working with partners in aerial monitoring and satellite monitoring to see if there are cheap, effective, and accessible tools that would democratize monitoring. Because currently, rangeland monitoring is very costly because it is so complex.

How many different elements do you have to monitor in order to have a complete picture of what’s going on in the soil and on the land in general?

We are experimenting with what is necessary. Our best hypothesis right now is that you’re going to get a huge chunk of feedback by seeing changes in bare ground overtime. What’s neat about bare ground measures of forage density and photosynthesis like NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) is those things can show me overtime both visually and qualitatively if I am getting more photosynthesis, more forage production or not. And what is great is with Landsat, [the image-taking satellite] which has been going since 1985, is we have a worldwide database that can easily show not only what I’m doing over time, but show me how other people with my same soil type, my same rain fall, my same solar hours, are doing it.

That will start up a conversation in rangeland management that is pretty unprecedented because the general feeling is that you kind of inherit from the weather and from the land how much grass you’re going to get. Management has always been seen as sort of marginal and ineffective, but it can play a significant role, and up until now, all management advocates could offer were anecdotes. And anecdotes are certainly data, but they’re not the kind of rigorous experimental data a board needs to see to change how it’s currently doing things. So this is what we’re trying to do: an agnostic search of what strategies provide overall societal value from rangeland management and then build the case so that people who are skeptical or who have boards or constituencies have the evidence that they need.

Are you working with any agriculture technology startups to help with this monitoring?

We currently work with a great app called PastureMap. We’re also working with a neat aerial imaging company called Terravion, and we’re hoping that we can bring all of this information into a single unified platform eventually.

So far PastureMap has been amazing because they built mapping software to show where your animals are, then the ability to track herd health and performance, then features where you can do user-generated metrics of land health and performance. We’re pushing them even further to start importing quantitative, non-user-generated feedback, which will be what builds that scientific case for the skeptics.

We really try and show the long-term potential of unifying that information and showing people that it’s not just about any one data point, but it’s how they all relate, because ranchers and farmers, and most consumers, aren’t really interested in a single tool for a single purpose.

The other big challenge is that ranching has been either intentionally or unintentionally pushed into being a hobby. Most ranchers live by subsidizing their ranching with outside jobs, and that benefits a lot of the big buyers. So there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm for empowering ranchers to really think about their operation like a business and ponder ‘for every unit of labor, for every dollar that I’m investing, am I getting back what I need?’

Are you doing a lot of passive data collection right now?

Yes, that’s our big thing now. We are trying to figure out what are the right passive monitoring tools that can be standardized across the entire country, and the entire planet. Our current big partner is the Yale forestry school — its Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative — and they have been working on this same question over on the East Coast. At TomKat ranch, they are doing a pilot with a handheld soil spectrometer. So they can walk out in the field, take a core and get an instant soil carbon reading instead of drying it, grinding it, shipping it to a lab and writing a big check. But they have also been playing with Google Earth Engine and have developed a very sensitive and impressive tool to evaluate, with existing Landsat data, changes in bare ground and biomass production. We had them show it to some neighbors and our other staff yesterday, and even the most diehard cowboys were leaning in asking about Google Earth Engine because they were captivated by this way to look over everybody’s fence line!

If we can raise the stakes of beef production, then we can really show that land management, cattle production, ranching, is a white collar job. It requires amazing skill, and amazing incite but they need the tools to actually back them up. And then hopefully the compensation and the value will follow as we’re able to really showcase it.

Who is leading the way on data analysis?

That is something that we are funding Point Blue to start into. Also, being next to Silicon Valley, we have begun conversations with IBM Ventures and with Google X. If we can find those metrics globally, they can mine the entire globe’s data and say ‘Where are we producing more biomass than we would expect?’ based on soil type, solar hours, rainfall. Those areas could be where management is really exceptional and surpassing our expectations, and then we could just go straight there and accelerate this very quickly.

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