Make the Message Clear

Garth Ruff, Beef Cattle Field Specialist, OSU Extension

As most of you know I live in Morgan County and while things seem to move a bit slower here, somewhere along the line I missed the change in terminology as it refers to agricultural practices. Recently we have stopped talking about sustainability and conservation and suddenly everything became about “regenerative agriculture.”

We’ve been teaching the concepts of Management Intensive Grazing for 30+ years. Photo C. Stivison

I’ll be the first to admit I was never a fan of the sustainability label because it had a different definition for everyone, both producer and consumer. When I was an Extension educator in Henry County, that disconnect was evident every day between the farmers in the Maumee watershed and the citizens of Toledo. But what does “regenerative agriculture” really mean?

I see cattlemen across the U.S who are part of the “Regen” movement on social media, and the best I can tell is that they are talking about another not so novel concept: Management Intensive Grazing. Within OSU Extension we have been teaching programs on Management Intensive Grazing for the better part of 30 years. The principles of Management Intensive Grazing are all about optimizing forage use, managing nutrients, and promoting soil health.

So, I ask is “regenerative agriculture” really something new, or are we all riding the same horse just with a different name?

As a student at Ohio State, my advisor made it very clear during my thesis writing that adjectives matter when describing what you are doing and what you are seeing. For example, the words greater, larger, longer, and heavier all implicate the size of something but the first two are very general and the latter two describe dimensions, length, and weight.

So do the terms regenerative agriculture, sustainable agriculture, conservation, and (in the context of raising cattle) management intensive grazing all refer to the same end goal? Nutrient management and carbon sequestration appear to be those goals. I think the answer to the previous question is important, because if I and others involved in agriculture are confused, what do you our consumers think?

Along the same lines, when did eating a vegan or vegetarian diet become “eating plant based”? I made the case to a family member that a diet solely of Little Debbie’s and bourbon could be described as “plant based”.  The more generic we get with terminology, the more we risk unclear communication. If we want to get technical, there is a case to be made that beef is plant based, converting plant energy from grain and forages into protein.

I’m all for telling our story, but the message needs to be clear. Word choice matters.

Usually, this time of the year I write often about preparing for the fall feeder cattle run and how to capitalize on premiums while trying to avoid discounts in the marketplace. I’ve seen where some of the western market reports have quoted 700-800 pound steers selling for around $2.50 per pound. While freight and fuel costs might keep us from some of the western highs, things are looking up for the cow-calf producer as we come down the stretch in 2023.

Many of the discussions I have had in the past couple of weeks have been with concerned farmer-feeders regarding the cost of calves this fall relative to live cattle futures in 2024. Add in the uncertainty of the corn crop in parts on the Cornbelt and there appears to be more unknowns on the fed cattle side of things, especially locally. With increased feeder cattle prices, the ability to manage feed costs has become even more critical.

Dr. Glynn Tonsor at Kansas State University, projects net returns for fed steers in Kansas to go from positive triple digits in 2023 to -$10 in January and $16 in March 2024. That’s a $200-plus swing in just a year’s time, driven in large part by increased value of feeder cattle.

Risk management tools are more important than ever, especially if you are handling any significant number of cattle.