Gabe Brown, a rancher in Bismarck, N.D., and part of Understanding Ag, LLC, a regenerative ag business that helps farms and ranches throughout North America become more profitable, spoke at the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition (NDGLC) meeting about the future of agriculture.
“Every single decision you make on your farm or ranch has either positive compounding effects or negative cascading effects,” Brown said.
Gabe and Shelly Brown and their son, Paul, are partners in a regenerative family farm/ranch located east of Bismarck, and together they have come a long way on their soil health journey.
Today, they raise many crops, including multi-species cover crops, and Salish Blue wheat, a perennial gluten-free wheat that is only allowed to be grown on regenerative ag farms.
They also raise grass-finished beef and lambs, along with hogs, pastured laying hens and broilers.
“The future of agriculture really begins with the past with farming and ranching in nature’s image,” he said.
Brown noted farmers and ranchers were being paid about the same today as they were decades ago. He looked at corn prices in 1980 and in 2020, and didn’t see a lot of difference.
“That is not very conducive to profitability, because we are basically being paid the same as we were 40 years ago,” he said.
He looked at annual operating costs on the ranch, as well.
“You can punch in your own numbers, but what does it cost you to run a cow for a year? It was $863 this past year, on average,” he asked. “That is considerably light if you take all costs to account.”
Steer and heifer calves, on average, are worth about $1.50 per pound right now.
“That really makes you excited about the future of ag, doesn’t it?” he asked.
Brown said according to Stats Canada, the trends in ag demonstrate input costs continue to rise.
“Everyone is farming for a reoccurrence of 2012 when corn prices went through the roof and livestock prices followed,” Brown said.
In addition, an increasing share of net farm income is farm subsidies.
“Do you want to farm and ranch based on the whim of the federal government?” he asked.
Farm subsidies are unlikely to stay at the same level as there is an ever-increasing federal deficit and less people that are involved in agriculture, “giving us less and less of a voice.”
In addition, many foreign countries are phasing out farm subsidies. That plan is already in place in England.
“There may be opportunities that will arise in carbon capture for farms and ranches, but be ready for farm subsidies to drop,” he said.
Another problem is an aging population of trading partners around the world. The only trading partner that has a younger population than the U.S. is Mexico.
“Are you studying trends in agriculture and do you understand what is going on? So, how are you going to stay profitable?” he asked.
Brown travels extensively and works with farms and ranches all over North America.
“This is where regenerative agriculture comes in. It is a thinking person’s game,” he said.
In agriculture, many times folks go to market their product. They will call the local elevator, call the local sales barn, find out the prices, haul in their products and “be at the whims of today’s prices.”
“We can no longer do that. We have to determine on our own operation how we can become profitable, knowing what we know about these trends that are occurring,” he said. “I like what Jerry (Doan) said, ‘You have to have the foresight to look ahead.’ You have to try new things and understand that is going to make a difference.”
Brown said he is frustrated by the number of farmers and ranchers who think their Schedule F (used to report taxable income earned from farming or agricultural activities) is a complete financial record.
“You won’t stay in business that way,” he said.
Brown often uses his own ranch as an example.
“If I ask my son what it cost to produce a hot dog, he could tell you down to one tenth of one cent,” he said. “You better know these things as a farmer or rancher or you are playing a losing game.”
Farmers and ranchers need to know the true costs of operation and then stop all unprofitable operations, according to Brown.
He said one of the least profitable operations he sees in agriculture is “carrying cows.”
Cows bring only $37 over carrying costs, not enough to be profitable.
“You may want to be a cowboy, but you are losing money doing it. Maybe your farm or ranch is not conducive to a profitable cow/calf operation. Maybe you need to go to stockers or switch to another species of livestock,” he said.
Brown pointed out that farmers and ranchers need to sell all equipment and supplies that are not necessary for the profitability of the business.
In 1997, Brown heard Don Campbell, a rancher from Alberta, Canada, say this: “If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things, but if you want to make major changes, change the way you see things.”
That statement changed Brown’s life, because he now always considers if he is looking at his operation from the right perspective.
“It forced me to learn to observe. Farmers and ranchers, as a rule, are terrible at observation. We lost the power of observation. I credit those early on with helping me understand rules of nature. You have all heard them, and these principles are constant,” he said.
Brown said he can take those regenerative ag principles, and he can enact them on any farm, any ranch, any place in the world, as long as it has to do with land-based agriculture.
“It will work and it will increase your profitability,” he said. “Building resilience and profitability starts with living plants and harvesting solar energy.”
Brown explained that what happens is essentially that plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and photosynthesis occurs. Part of it is converted into compounds for growth and part of it is exuded into the soil to be pumped out to drive a biological system.
“That’s what we are working with as farmers and ranchers. It is biological,” Brown said.
Agronomists should be talking to producers about the biology in the soil, because it is important as a biological system.
Brown said a large part of the profitability of the farm and ranch starts with the biology.
He explained that a large part of those exudates exuded into the soil are consumed by microbes.
“Protozoa trap bacteria around an air bubble. Once they do, they eat bacteria and release excess nitrogen and it drives the nutrient cycle. That is where your profitability starts on your farm and ranch,” he said.
Brown said they talked about this same biological system some 20 years ago.
“It is biology that supplies the nutrients to plants. It is not you going and paying for those nutrients,” he said.
Plants rely on microbes for nutrient acquisition, protection from pathogens and gene regulation.
“For years I heard, ‘Gabe, you are going to go broke. You are depleting the nutrients out of your soil,’” he said.
But Brown took a photo of a solid rock in Mexico, where grasses were growing out of that rock. “Is there a pocket of soil on that rock? No, a seed lands on it and photosynthesis occurs. I will run out of nutrients on my ranch when my roots get to China and there is no more.”
A large part of his business is working on a large number of farms and ranches all over North America. When Brown and the others in Understanding Ag, LLC, start out on a farm or ranch, they conduct “proper soil testing.”
“Soil tests are a snapshot in time of the inorganic fraction of nutrients that were available the day that test was taken,” he said. “Agronomists make cropping decisions based off that snapshot of inorganic nutrients.”
But they may be missing the mark.
Brown said people often think they are “geniuses” because they are able to save most of the producers’ money on inputs from the get-go.
“Our firm set out to find out how much nutrients are available on the average farm and ranch. We did something called ‘total nutrient extraction’ on 45 farms in North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which costs $50,” he said.
Brown said to think of total nutrient extraction as the “soil’s bank account.” They measured a foot deep in the soil profile and in the lab tested for total amounts of N, P, and K, as well as trace minerals.
In total, they have conducted the same soil nutrient test on more than 250 farms across North America.
The average pounds of N in the top 12 inches of soil came out to be 9,000 pounds. The least amount they found on any farm was 1,200 pounds of N.
For phosphorus, the average was 2,300 pounds, and for potassium, the average was 11,000 pounds.
All the micronutrients tested on average came out to be higher than what was needed for profitable crop production.
“We are not short of nutrients – we are short of biology. This is what regenerative ag is all about,” Brown said.
Biology is the interaction of life, and scientists are now finding out that plants are showing how intelligent they really are. They are able to direct their quest for nutrients.
Brown said his company was involved with a project, which is a collaboration that will be doing the largest biodiversity study ever conducted in North America.
They will be conducting testing on nutrients, soil carbon, greenhouse gas emissions, and examining the biodiversity of animals, insects, and plant species across the largest acreage in North America.
“This will drive the future,” he said.
Brown said producers need to farm and ranch in a regenerative way and “we are showing them the nutrients are there. It is simply a matter of getting the biology in order.”
Some other points:
- Cover the soil with a diverse variety of living plants. Plant and soil are one, and there is not healthy soil without living plants.
- You must have animals. The system will collapse without animals and insects. We need to get back to stock density. We need to understand the power of stock density.
Brown recommends increasing the stock density at the appropriate time to get a proper bite on plants. We need a short duration grazing time and an adequate recovery time.
- Brown believes that by selling the bottom end, expenses will stop.
- Farmers and ranchers need to educate themselves and talk to each other about regenerative ag.
- It is important to study markets and trends, and spend a minimum of 30 percent of your time with marketing if you truly want to be profitable. Become a price maker, not a price taker.
- Realize the pasture protein industry has increased 20 percent every year for past 20 years.
- One-third of Americans are now limiting gluten. If you are a wheat producer, you can take advantage of that trend.
- Remember to spend your time where it will profit you more.
- You need to decide what you can do on your operation that customers are demanding and it will bring you a fair profit. Nutrient-dense foods are where the market is headed. The Browns test all their products for nutrient density.
The Browns grow cereal rye, winter triticale, hairy vetch, oats, barley peas, flax, and recently, forage winter barley. They have added fava beans for their hogs and broilers, and they take advantage of synergy from diversity.
“You can write your own check by what you are doing,” Brown said. “Your farm, your ranch, is a reflection of you. Are you ready for it?”