Noble Institute refocuses on soil

The regenerative ranching movement got a huge boost when the Noble Research Institute announced in February that it will “focus all of its operations on regenerative agriculture and set its primary goal to regenerate millions of acres of degraded grazing lands across the United States.”

The announcement was the culmination of a series of internal discussions the Ardmore, Oklahoma-based organization has been having for several years. The decision means the organization will be winding down the plant science and plant breeding side of its research activities.

The U.S. has about 655 million acres of grazing lands across all 50 states, Noble says, making grazing the nation’s single largest land use.

This commitment to making regenerative ranching part of the solution to soil degradation is a bold move at a time when livestock ranching and meat production itself has come under politically motivated attack. Noble Research Institute and other practitioners of regenerative grazing put livestock raising squarely at the center of climate solutions.

Regenerative ranching, they say, can restore soil and boost its carbon-sequestering potential because of the integration of livestock. A 2018 study suggested that “more extensive (grass-based) but intensively managed beef finishing can deliver environmental benefits (such as soil C[arbon] sequestration and other ecosystem services) with less environmental impact per kg CW than intensive [feedlot] finishing.” More of this study can be read at

The Noble Institute points out that 85% of land that is grazed cannot be used for food crop production. “All this means that we feel Noble can have the most impact on society through our work on grazing land,” said Hugh Aljoe, director of producer relations for Noble. Those discussions led to the current focus on regenerative ranching, said Aljoe.

Aljoe portrays the move as a return to the principles of its founder, Lloyd Noble. Rebuilding the soil of the Dust Bowl-devastated heartland, including his native Oklahoma, was why Noble created the organization with the profits of his successful oil drilling business. When Steve Rhines came aboard as president in 2019, he initiated a series of “deep dive” discussions with the board—the majority of whom are direct descendants of Lloyd Noble—to determine how the organization could best fulfill Noble’s original mission. Those discussions led to the current refocus, said Aljoe.

In the past, the institute has worked with growers as well as ranchers. Rhines has presented the shift to regenerative ranching as a way to help producers manage the entire system. “If you look at a farmer and rancher’s operation, they have to manage all pieces of the ecosystem–including soil, water, land, animal, markets and themselves,” Rhines said. “For the past three decades we’ve been focusing on the individual pieces of that puzzle. Regenerative agriculture looks at how you manage the whole system so our research will be at the landscape scale.

Jimmy Emmons has been practicing regenerative ranching and agriculture since 2010 and has been working with the Noble Institute ever since. “It’s very much a two-way street,” he says, and Aljoe said the institute has learned as much from Emmons as her has from them. Emmons and his wife, Ginger, farm 2,000 acres in Leedey, Oklahoma, and his family has farmed for more than a century. He also serves on the board of the Dewey County Conservation District and is the current president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.

Emmons’ farming operation includes rotations of wheat, canola, rye, sunflowers, peas, soybeans, milo, sesame and alfalfa, as well as a cow-calf operation. Those rotations have more to do with restoring and improving the soil than they do with the market prices of any of those crops, Emmons told High Plains Journal.

There’s no question that regenerative practices require some investment upfront as well as more work and closer daily involvement with the land, Emmons said. Groups of cattle or other livestock must be rotated at just the right time to optimize soil health. This involves the use of movable fencing and portable water troughs in areas with insufficient water. It also requires constant attention to soil condition, rainfall, microbial action, grass heights and other variables.

But if more work and some investment is required, the method also offers greater benefits and financial return. Not only does the improving soil health allow native prairie species to reestablish themselves, the carbon-retention capacity of the soil improves as well. It also increases the carrying capacity of the rangeland, as well as introduced pastures and grazed croplands.

Emmons noted he had to rebuild his herd after a big wildfire in 2018 destroyed some of his infrastructure. But he said his land recovered in better shape than that of some of his neighbors. When he began applying regenerative principles, he said, his soil infiltration rate increased from a half-inch an hour to 7 or 8 inches, so his soil was storing more water.

The refocus to regenerative grazing practices aligns Noble with other organizations that have been promoting regenerative ranching, such as Understanding Ag, led by Allen William; Ranching for Profit; Holistic Management International and the Savory Institute founded by Allan Savory, the “godfather” of regenerative ranching and farming practices in the U.S. Savory emigrated from Zimbabwe to the U.S. after serving as a game warden and livestock farmer in his native country, observing the degradation of grazing land first-hand and learning through trial and error which responses to it worked and which did not.

One of the sayings on the Noble website is “principles, not practices.” Because there are many different types of grazing land, with different latitudes, weather patterns, rainfall and ecologies, there can be no one list of uniform practices that will protect and ensure soil health in all of them.

These include: know your context, a new principle developed by Understanding Ag; keep the soil covered at all times; minimize soil disturbance; increase plant diversity; keep living roots in the soil at all times, and integrate grazing livestock properly. Integration of livestock speeds up healthy breakdown of plant material and reintegration of manure into the soil. All of these principles help build soil organic matter and biodiversity, making it healthier and more productive. In the end healthy soil is more drought- and flood-resistant; requires fewer chemical inputs with their subsequent pollution; provides cleaner air and water; enhances wildlife habitat; and captures carbon in the soil to combat climate variability.

Much of what is called regenerative agriculture today is a return to what many farmers and ranchers were doing generations ago. Aljoe said the Noble Institute will be gathering metrics on the institute’s 13,500 acres of research ranches. “We’re not reinventing ranching,” said Aljoe, “we’re being more intentional about improving the soil.”

Although both Aljoe and Emmons stress that implementing regenerative ranching requires hard, intentional work and close-to-the-ground monitoring, Emmons said technology may have an increasing role to play. Many companies are working on types of virtual fencing, in which electronic signals would be used to move groups of cattle, similar to how invisible fences keep dogs within a yard without a visible fence.

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Some companies use a collar that delivers a mild, non-threatening shock. According to Emmons, the Massachusetts of Technology is working on a system that would use implanted chips. The chip would include a sensor that would allow a screen to display the location of cattle, we well as monitoring their temperature. As these technologies spread, they may give rise to large datasets that will help producers do a better job of monitoring their land and fitting the right practices to it.

Emmons says that livestock become healthier when the soil is healthier, and the public has rediscovered the taste (and nutrition) of grass-fed beef. The Niman Ranch, headquartered in Northglenn, Colorado, has long promoted grass feeding for meat. Yet regenerative ranching, with its focus on soil health, doesn’t require finishing cattle on grass, or preclude finishing them in feedlots.

“Land stewardship is a core value held by many farmers and ranchers,” said Rhines. “Regenerative agriculture is the next step in the land stewardship journey wherein farmers and ranchers reduce their reliance on conventional practices and concentrate on restoring or regenerating the soil. The soil is the cornerstone of a healthy ecosystem and a productive farm or ranch.”

The release November 2020 by Netflix of a documentary film on regenerative ag practices, “Kiss the Ground,” has brought these issues more into the attention of the general public. Although the film received a mixed reception from farmers and was accused of oversimplifying some issues and sometimes mocked for its use of non-farmer celebrities like quarterback Tom Brady, it did bring ag experts in soil improvement onto center stage and introduced the public to the issues. It may have convinced some that livestock grazing must be part of the climate solution.

Emmons believes the public perception is changing and awareness is spreading that “good grazing management is good for the animals, the producers and the soil.” It’s an approach that may be welcomed by the Biden administration, which is being careful to include farmers and ag interests in its recent climate discussions.

“This is really an exciting time for us at Noble,” said Aljoe.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].