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  • Jim Chamberlin

Ruminants for Resilience

The differences between conventional agriculture and farming systems that regenerate resources is somewhat deceiving. Today’s high-yielding cropping and animal production systems would seem to provide abundance. Technology has simplified farming systems, making them extremely efficient in providing food that is inexpensive. However, they require increasingly expensive inputs and costly, specialized equipment which limits a farmer’s ability to adapt. Consolidation of farms, processing, and distribution within our food system extract wealth and people from our rural communities. This approach degrades soil and water resources and provides food that is over processed and does little to support human wellness. This top-down approach has little resilience and, especially in times of stress, fuels scarcity.

Restorative farming systems work to build soil health through diversity and continuous living cover. These systems restore nutrient and water cycles, reducing the need for chemical inputs and irrigation. They improve wildlife habitat, restore landscape hydrology and return carbon to the soil. They provide a greater diversity of food that is more nutrient-dense, and provide greater resilience in response to stressors, be that natural or man-made. Locally derived soil nutrition and locally distributed food keeps money in our community, builds economic resilience, and restores food sovereignty--farming in a way that builds soil health fuels abundance.

Ruminants’ Role in Agriculture

Curt Pate leading a stockmanship workshop at Sunup Ranch sponsored by the Crow Wing River Basin Forage Council.

Ruminants--such as cattle, goats and bison--have evolved to forage. They have multiple stomachs to digest grass and browse, regurgitating their cud to be further chewed before digesting. They are the first trophic level up the food chain, eating only plants, the primary food source. Many of our native ecosystems evolved with ruminants and they serve as the biological driver of soil health. But to do this, they must be managed to mimic a time when they roamed the wild prairies and savannas. They must be kept in a tight herd, as they were under the threat of predators, and moved often, as they did across the prairie. The landscape was impacted heavily, and then was allowed a long time to recover, often a year or more. Ruminants are vital to restorative agriculture systems. Innovative technology in electric fencing and water systems allows us to efficiently manage livestock to mimic these conditions, building soil health and resilience in our communities.

Other Resilient Practices

HDT works to support producers in building resilient farming systems. Working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Pine River Watershed Alliance and others, we’ve helped farmers in Cass County plant cover crops on approximately 200 acres during the 2021 growing season. These cover crops will stabilize the soil over the winter, preventing erosion. They keep living roots in the ground and increase diversity, helping to feed the vital living ecosystem which allows soil to function. They provide livestock feed, much needed after the severe drought we had last summer. And these cover crops will help build soil nutrients for next year’s crops, reducing the need for purchased fertilizers. We’ve also assisted in the development of an adaptive grazing plan and supporting infrastructure on one farm, and conversion of 20 acres of row crops to perennial pasture. These practices are working to build resilience in our community.

Cover crop in corn. Photo courtesy of Kelly and Deanna Hedlund.

Looking forward, HDT and our partners will be supported by the University of Wisconsin as a Local Learning Hub through the Grassland 2.0 project. Learning Hubs are place-based focal points of activity that support two-way communication and co-learning between the Grassland 2.0 project and the local region and people. Our Local Learning Hub, focused on the Pine River and surrounding watersheds, will gain access to the expertise and resources of Grassland 2.0 to support local agriculture and food systems that support farm profitability, community vitality and environmental quality. We will be hosting a kickoff for the Grassland 2.0 program on January 28. Watch HDT social media for more details, and join us in support of local farmers, and clean water.

Businesses and local meat producers met recently to discuss meat processing capabilities in the Cass County area.

Past efforts to increase meat processing capacity in our region have gained additional traction recently with a $200,000 contribution from Cass County that will match state, federal and private dollars in support of meat processing equipment, market development, and a training program through Central Lakes College. It is still early in the process, but it looks like much needed processing will be coming to our area soon, thanks to this partnership that also includes Minnesota Farmers Union, Region Five Development Commission, Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and others.

If you would like to learn more about building soil health, Grassland 2.0 or local meat processing, contact Jim at or call 218-587-2303.


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