Calling his operation a “solar-powered protein factory,” Courtland farmer and rancher Dale Strickler prepped the audience for information on how cattle create a healthier planet.

Some 60 folks, most of them cattle producers, learned from Courtney White, keynote speaker at the 2016 Winter Grazing Conference on Saturday at the Salina Ambassador Hotel, that livestock play an important role in improving soils and trapping carbon.

An author and environmental activist, White, of New Mexico, dispelled the notion that beef is bad, along with eating red met.

“That’s not true. It’s exactly the opposite,” he said.

Now a member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, White started the nonprofit Quivira Coalition in 1997 to “get below politics and push for a common goal to improve the environment.

“Ranching has a place culturally, ecologically and economically,” he said.

“There is a way to manage these animals,” White said.

He showed slides of pastures that were grazed correctly, next to barren federal wildlife areas that had not been grazed by cattle in years.

“We need to start over with soil, grass and water. Ask if the land is healthy,” White said. “Grazing is a natural process by wildlife.”

The key is controlling the timing, intensity and frequency of grazing, he said.

Another focus is on creeks, rivers and streams running through pastures, and in some cases causing erosion.

White unveiled efforts to “re-meander” the streams and turn water away from the banks by building simple structures of rocks and wood to deflect streamflow from the banks.

He implored ranchers to “think like a creek.”

Poorly designed roads are also culprits, White said.

“Treat water as a resource, not as a nuisance,” he said. “It’s healing by using natural systems.”

White added that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Mexico is “undoing” some of the creek and river straightening that it did in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fire and grazing are tools, he said.

Progressive cattle management and creek restoration impact the release of carbon into the atmosphere. No-till farming, planting perennials and rapid rotational grazing are part of the recipe.

“Mitigate climate change through food and land use. Only land-based carbon sequestration offers large-scale reversal of carbon,” White said. “My role is to get the word out about regenerative agriculture.”

Answers to problems have been vetted, he said, and are more sustainable, but the system is nowhere close to success.

“We need to link ideas together to produce an economy,” White said. “There are obstacles, pretty big ones.”

One main barrier is getting those concepts into the mainstream.

“Maybe ditch the plow, and eat red meat from a ranch that’s managed well,” he said. “Are we wiling to pay a little more for the stewardship? I’m willing to, but a lot of folks don’t have the money and they’ve got to buy cheap food.”

He steers clear of politics.

“I’m fairly disgusted with it,” White said.

Speaker Gail Fuller, a farmer-rancher from the Emporia area, said cheap food is merely subsidized.

The operation still has to cash-flow, said Matthew Brent, a farmer-rancher from Osborne County.

A good start is in the soil, Fuller said. Without that, you have “no grass and no hope,” he said, and livestock grazing is a component to building healthy soil.

Creatures underground, among them earthworms, are essential to creating that base, Fuller said, reminding that insects are a friend, so are chickens and guineas. Since he quit using insecticide, dung beetles have come back. They’re helpful in keeping flies off of cattle.

“If you’ll just be a little patient,” Fuller said, “Mother Nature will help you.”

– Salina Journal reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 822-1419 or by email at tunruh@salina.com.