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What is it? Why is it critical to reversing climate change? And what is Fischer Farms doing?
Regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity - resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. It is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.
Graphic Source: www.grainmillers.com
Yes, you read that right.
Responsible beef production has the potential to be CARBON NEGATIVE. When we look at carbon emissions, it's important to understand the entire carbon cycle. Where is the carbon coming from? Where and how is it released? Let's take a look at the beef carbon cycle below (graphic source: sacred cow.info)
The first and maybe most important concept to note is that all carbon (methane and CO2) emitted by cattle is part of the natural, "biogenic", carbon cycle. This is in contrast to fossil fuel carbon which is referred to as "locked" carbon because it has been stored deep in the ground for millions of years. It is adding net new carbon to the natural cycle that ruminants, such as cattle, are part of and have been part of long before climate change and greenhouse gases became a concern.
The second component to understand is that we need to look at not only the emissions of cattle but the ecosystem as a whole. We can't zoom in on just one small section of the graphic above and claim that cows are the primary source of carbon emissions, we need to look at the carbon captured relative to the carbon emitted by the whole cycle. The photosynthetic cycle of capturing atmospheric carbon is not all released directly back into the air as the burps and farts that the mainstream media has led us to believe. A large amount of carbon is captured by the plant's roots, stored as meat/milk, and reapplied to fields as manure. All of these outlets are effectively pulling carbon out of the air and storing it! By sequestering carbon in the ground, agriculture acreage can be used as a carbon sink to combat the negative effects of other industries that utilize fossil fuels.
At Fischer Farms, we're continually looking to push the limits of the positive impacts of regenerative agriculture
Two of the key components of regenerative agriculture are: keep soil covered and maintain living roots year-round. We at Fischer Farms actually started introducing these practices somewhat on accident. We wanted to get the most out of our fields and to do that, we wanted to have the best forage/crop for that time of the year in each field. Plants that are at optimal growing times are capturing the most carbon. The faster the growth, the more carbon is captured.
An acre of corn captures 18 tons of CO2 in it's short growing season of 90 days (Source: Michigan State University). We can compare this to an acre of trees that only captures 4 tons of CO2 per year! But the carbon capture doesn't stop there. After the entire corn stalk is chopped for silage (taking the carbon with it), ryegrass is planted and immediately starts growing in its place.
Ryegrass is a great fall - spring plant because it grows any day over 45 degrees (and grows quickly!). Ryegrass grows quickly both above and below ground (more on this later). The quick growth also means that the fields are continually covered which minimizes carbon leaching. Ryegrass adds over 4,000 lbs of roots per acre (i.e., organic matter) in a growing cycle. This number doesn't even include the above-ground carbon stored in the grass that makes tasty, nutritious food for our cattle to graze on. Ryegrass actually grows at a rate that is faster than our cattle can consume so any "extra" ryegrass is chopped and stored to be fed to cattle during the winter months. One way to think of silage is like saving your grass clippings in an air-tight container that results in fermentation that preserves a higher percentage of the nutritional value of the grass (compared to dry hay).
Through rotational grazing, our cattle are also directly applying their manure back to the field. The average cow produces 86 lbs of manure a day, much of this is water but there is also a lot of carbon and nutrients being added directly back to the soil for the plants to use and store that carbon back into the ground.
The other side of the "carbon capture coin" is reducing emissions. We look at emissions both on and off the farm to fully understand our impact on the environment.
On the farm: To reduce the methane emissions of our cattle, we feed them kelp which was shown in a UC Davis study to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 82%! Fuel used on the farm (tractors, equipment, etc.) is primarily soy biodiesel which is a fuel made with soybeans. We have also added an all electric side-by-side (UTV).
Off the farm: By buying locally, consumers are reducing the miles that their food travels before it gets to their plates. It is estimated that processed food in the United States travels over 1,300 miles and "fresh" produce travels over 1,500 miles before being consumed! Our butchering/order fulfillment facility is only 2.8 miles from our farm. From there, it is picked up by our distributors on their backhauls. All of our distributor partners have restaurants/stores in the area that they deliver to. After their truck is emptied from their deliveries, they pick up our meat and haul it back to the warehouse so the truck is full both ways and there is very little extra mileage (and corresponding emissions).
Water continues to be in headlines more and more as we face droughts across the world. Thankfully, Indiana is generally an area that receives a lot of rainfall each year relative to some of the western states.
Cattle Water: About 15 years ago, we installed a water system on our farm that provides fresh drinking water to all of our fields via underground pipes and concrete water troughs built into the ground. These troughs are fed entirely by a pond on our farm that is filled by very little runoff (picture below). The water input is ~2 feet from the surface of the water where the cleanest water is (free from sediment on the bottom and floating leaves/sticks/etc. on top of the water). About half of the farm's water troughs are 100% gravity fed, water for the remaining troughs is pumped "over the hill" to the parts of the farm that are unable to be gravity fed. By using natural rain-collected water, we are able to avoid using treated "city" water.
Cleaning Water: We built a network of seven ponds, strategically placed across the farm to capture runoff from nearby fields. These ponds are connected via creeks that allow the water to slow down. Our goal is to slow down the movement of water so that sediment and any other runoff (e.g., manure) is captured and has a chance to be cleaned before it leaves our farm. At the end of this network of ponds is a man-made wetland (picture below) that is the final step of cleaning before leaving the farm. Wetland grasses and duckweed use the nutrients in the water to grow and filter the water, visibly cleaning it before it leaves. We have had our system reviewed by environmental government agencies and other water sustainability groups and they are very supportive of our system and resulting clean water!
Soil Water Holding Capacity: Another important component of water conservation is that by increasing our top soil and subsoil depth, we are increasing the water holding capacity of each of our fields. It is estimated that for each inch of topsoil and subsoil that is added, you increase the water holding capacity by 1 day. Through our corn silage / ryegrass rotation we have increased the depth of our top soil and subsoil by 13 inches! We have seen this in action by noticing how much more drought tolerant our fields are relative to other fields in our area. Additionally, these soils are more flood and erosion resistant because the soil can absorb the water.
Increasing Topsoil and Subsoil: For many years, conventional agriculture practices failed to prioritize the conservation of topsoil. Many fields, including the fields on our farm, fell victim to years of erosion. This left behind very shallow topsoil (~3.75 inches). Fields that were unsuitable for row crops (steep hills) were planted in crops to try to squeeze out crop profits in fields that should have been used for livestock. Over the past 10 years, we have transitioned to very purposeful management of fields. Over this time period, we have increased our topsoil to 10" and our subsoil from 15" to 22" which was previously thought to be incredibly difficult to achieve. We take a very hard look at what is the best plant to be growing on each field at each time of year. Plants grow at different rates at different times of year. For example, sorghum Sudangrass grows at up to 5" per day during the summer but dies quickly when it gets cold. Forages such as ryegrass can grow on any day above 45 degrees so we try to utilize it in pastures in late fall through spring because it doesn't die when cold/snow hits. Through this purposeful management of fields, we are not only able to get better utilization (and yields) of our fields, but also promote healthy soil ecosystems because we always have active root growth in all our fields and the ground is always covered. If the ground is left uncovered, captured carbon is able to leach back up into the atmosphere. We want to keep it in the ground as organic matter!
Increasing Soil Bio-Diversity: Soil biodiversity is incredibly important to healthy plants and a holistic ecosystem. We are still learning the comprehensive impact but it is well documented that healthy microscopic fungi and bacteria ratios in the soil help with plant growth. We have recently started using Johnson Su biologicals which we created through a special composting technique that creates a high fungi to bacteria ratio. We then spread these biologicals in our fields to promote better plant growth and increase the fungi/bacteria levels in the soil.
By minimizing our use of fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers, we also give worms, insects, bees, etc. a healthy ecosystem to live. We always joke that it's easy to go fishing because with just a few scoops of a shovel in any of our fields you'll find lots of worms! The organisms such as fungi, bacteria, and worms all play a role in making nutrients more readily available for the next organism to use. That includes nitrogen and other nutrient fixation but also carbon/organic matter as well.