Values and adoption in regenerative grazing practices and associated wellbeing outcomes for cow-calf producers

Progress report for LNC20-437

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $249,999.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Jennifer Hodbod
Michigan State University
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Project Information

Summary:

Cattle production accounted for $67.1 billion in cash receipts in 2018 and supported 913,000 US operations, of which 728,00 were small beef farms and ranches, commonly cow-calf operations on grass with under 50 animals (NCBA, 2020; USDA, 2020).  Therefore, grasslands are a crucial part of the US agricultural sector and yet demonstrate increased degradation and thus decreasing ecological wellbeing. The difficulty of making management decisions on this degraded resource base is compounded by decreasing social and economic wellbeing for producers. However, given the cultural importance of cattle production, producers continue to engage with it, putting the resource base and their livelihoods at potentially greater risk.

Regenerative grazing has been posited as a solution to this environmental, social, and economic risk. However, although the evidence base of successful regenerative management is increasing, particularly in grazing, there is little long-term study of the environmental, social, and economic benefits following adoption, and none within the North Central region. There is also little adoption of regenerative grazing across the producer population in the US. It has been hypothesized that barriers to adoption include a lack of knowledge about wellbeing outcomes (including ecosystem services, producer quality of life, and economic profitability), producer values, and uncertainty around how to adopt.

Our research and education project, ‘Values and Adoption in Regenerative Grazing Practices and Associated Wellbeing Outcomes for Cow-Calf Producers’ will create knowledge, awareness, and skills for 15-20 cow-calf producers by training them in regenerative grazing. In order to explore suspected barriers and conduits to adoption, a long-term approach is proposed including training in self-monitoring of economic, social, and ecological wellbeing and values. A control group of non-adopters and a group of established adopters (10+ years) will also participate in wellbeing training and monitoring, creating further knowledge, awareness, and skills amongst these groups. Values are crucial as there are no studies monitoring how values change through the adoption process - a long-term project will show whether values change as producers adopt regenerative methods (i.e. becoming more open to change) or whether producers need to hold these values to consider adopting such adaptive methods.

Understanding barriers and conduits to adoption will allow us to tailor education materials, fostering increased adoption of regenerative grazing in the medium-term benefiting stakeholders such as Extension and the beef and regenerative agriculture sectors, but in the long term benefiting wider society through a more sustainable cow-calf sector.

Project Objectives:

Our objective is to understand pathways to the adoption of regenerative grazing. There are multiple outcomes for multiple audiences:

  • Learning outcomes:
    • Knowledge, awareness, and skills for cow-calf producers:
      • Regenerative grazing methods
      • Methods for monitoring wellbeing:
        • Ecological - Ecological Outcomes Verification
        • Economic - enterprise budgets and improved record keeping
        • Social– values and quality of life
    • Knowledge and awareness for Extension, university researchers, beef and regenerative agriculture stakeholders:
      • Values and wellbeing
      • Barriers and conduits to adoption
  • Action outcomes:
    • Regenerative grazing adoption
    • Wellbeing monitoring
    • Regenerative grazing network
  • System outcomes:
    • Extension tools to increase adoption and wellbeing
    • More sustainable grazing practices.
Introduction:

Producers rely on grasslands – almost half of US farms have cattle, with an above-average number in the North Central region where livestock spend most of their lives on pasture. However, there are multiple challenges to the sustainability of grazing-based cow-calf operations. This project explores how different grazing management strategies influence wellbeing outcomes, to build a holistic sustainability on cow-calf operations.

Cooperators

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  • Crista Derry
  • Florencia Colella
  • Jonathan Vivas Aragon
  • Sarah Hubbard

Research

Hypothesis:

We are implementing a systems-based approach to ask two main research questions:

  • What are the pathways (conduits and barriers) to adoption of regenerative grazing practices? i.e. how do values, recruitment style, and ecological, social, and economic wellbeing, and knowledge of regenerative grazing influence adoption?
  • How are ecological, social, and economic wellbeing and values influenced by adoption? i.e. are producers’ values and wellbeing measures static or dynamic?
Materials and methods:

For our context, regenerative grazing is defined as practicing Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG), the grazing method within Holistic Management. HPG utilizes multiple paddocks to control livestock movements and requires the development of grazing plans of when and where to move animals with an emphasis on recovery periods for the paddocks rather than grazing periods. A crucial aspect to HPG is monitoring to adjust grazing plans given changing conditions. We will work with three cohorts, starting with 20 Michigan residents in each, anticipating some attrition to 15 – our required sample size.

C1. 15-20 new regenerative grazers, who adopt regenerative grazing through this project.

C2. 15-20 regenerative grazers with 10+ years of experience, who have previously participated in MSU-run regenerative grazing programs.

C3. 15-20 continuous (non-regenerative) grazers, our control.

Our general approach is to treat farms as social-ecological systems, which requires understanding the ecological, social, and economic components of the system, and how they are connected. To understand this, based on previous work by this team, three established wellbeing tools will be used in a longitudinal manner:

Ecological wellbeing: We will use the Ecological Outcomes Verification (EOV) Short-Term Monitoring tool, a practical and scalable soil and landscape assessment methodology that tracks annual outcomes in biodiversity, soil health, and ecosystem function (water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow, and community dynamics) (Xu et al., 2019). Co-developed by Raven, a key principle of EOV is that it is outcomes-based – any producer can utilize it, no matter their practices. EOV measures key indicators of ecosystem function resulting in an Ecological Health Index (EHI) score, which in the aggregate indicates positive or negative trends in the overall health of a landscape. If a producer is using practices that increase the ecological wellbeing of their land, their scores will increase year-by-year. The empirical and tangible outcomes of EOV provide the producer, as a steward and manager of the land, with ongoing feedback from which to make better management decisions. By monitoring land regeneration trends, a farm or ranch is eligible for EOV verification and associated incentives if land health moves in a net positive direction, through the Land to Market Program. We will train all cohorts in EOV, so they can assess their own land’s ecological quality, and will work with them on an annual basis to monitor their land, with on-site assistance during the early years and assistance through an online platform in all years. Having gone through the EOV training, all participants will be qualified as EOV Short-Term Monitors and can then earn additional income from verifying others’ land.

Social wellbeing:  Historically, wellbeing metrics originate from within economics and derive wellbeing from census data and global surveys, conflating wellbeing with socio-economic indicators such as income, assets, and social status. This approach is lacking, as a high level of income does not necessarily reduce stress or increase happiness – indeed, often the opposite is true. Therefore, to truly measure wellbeing we have created a tool to monitor what we see as the three core components of social wellbeing - psychological, subjective, and physical wellbeing. The tool combines the Satisfaction with Life Scale developed by Diener (1994) with the Scale of Psychological Wellbeing developed by Ryff (1989), incorporating both subjective and psychological aspects. Given that psychological wellbeing is based upon the idea of ‘living within your value’ we also include a validated held values survey tool, that of Schwartz (2012), and a set of grazing-specific relational values created from our previous work (Mathison and Hodbod, 2019). Finally, we also included questions about indicators of physical wellbeing - financial status, education, sense of community, anxiety, and physical health (sleep, exercise, healthy eating), that are typically found on rural mental health surveys such as the one developed by Kelly et al. (2010). The tools will be introduced to all cohorts in a training about wellbeing and values, with a pre/post evaluation of their knowledge. We will then introduce the survey tools for annual completion, building participant’s skills in monitoring and analyzing their own wellbeing.

Economic Wellbeing: Economic wellbeing is a synonym of present and future financial security and as such, it depends on two main variables: income and wealth. However, there is a subjective aspect to it: the degree of satisfaction or fulfillment. With each cohort of farmers, we will ask them to use their records to develop a cow-calf enterprise budget at the baseline in Y1, and in every successive year. Once per year, they will receive training in record keeping, developing coordinated financial statements (i.e. balance sheet, income statement), and financial ratios, which can be tracked over time and benchmarked against other farms. Depending on their degree of comfort with computers, they will be asked to use digital or paper spreadsheet templates, which Collela and McKendree have already developed for other studies and farm consultations. The enterprise budget will give us information on the cow-calf enterprise economic profitability, including opportunity costs (land, labor, capital). We will also track their off-farm income, health insurance coverage, perceived economic wellbeing, and their degree of comfort with their finances in general, and with those of the cow-calf enterprise in particular – i.e. economic wellbeing measures that are not included in the farm finances. Knowing their income and their satisfaction information will allow us to look for correlations between these two variables and make programming and management recommendations.

There were some delays in Y1 given the travel and research restrictions in place at Michigan State University during 2021 given the COVID19 pandemic. This project requires trust between the participating farmers and the research team to support asking about social and economic wellbeing, and trust-building requires face-to-face communication. Because this wasn’t feasible, we have been delayed in recruitment which is occurring in first quarter of Y2. To use our time efficiently, we spent Y1 preparing research protocols, priming for recruitment in cohort 1 and 2 via ecological wellbeing monitoring on farms we have previously trained in EOV, and relationship building through our MSU Extension colleagues and their networks.

Below is the adapted outline for our project, anticipating a No Cost Extension for Y4 which we will apply for in Spring 2022 now we have a better idea of the timeline for the remainder of the project.

Year 1 (2021):

  • Winter and Spring: team building at MSU – We partnered with MSU Extension (Lake City Research Center; LCRC and Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center; UPREC; Farm Management Unit; Beef Team), building relationships and familiarity amongst the team.
  • Summer: EOV (ecological wellbeing) data collection on 17 farms by Raven and Derry. 14 have been previously introduced to EOV where their long-term monitoring was completed, so monitoring in 2021 was the short-term EHI monitoring. 3 were new participants for whom Raven and Derry oversaw long-term and short-term monitoring. All 17 are likely participants in our project, likely to be members of Cohort 1 and 2.
  • Fall: Onboarding of student researchers (Jonathan Vivas Aragon and Sarah Hubbard), including their education in wellbeing theory. Deeper development of conceptual framing for the project. Literature review of wellbeing tools released since proposal was submitted. Revision of social wellbeing tools. Developing new record-keeping training modules and tools to complement established tools for economic wellbeing monitoring.

Year 2 (2022):

  • Winter:
    • We will use our relationships with MSU Extension (Lake City Research Center; LCRC and Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center; UPREC), and, if needed, Thousand Hills, MN to identify the three producer cohorts. During this process we will discuss with participants what they would like to achieve through the project and integrate further components if feasible or connect them (through MSU Extension) to relevant programs or staff.
  • Spring:
    • Pre-test all participants with grazing knowledge instrument and New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) Scale
    • Record keeping training 
    • Collect social and economic wellbeing data (i.e. psychological, subjective, and physical wellbeing; values; budget assessments) to establish baseline social and economic wellbeing levels through on-farm interviews to complete survey-based tools. Through doing so, build knowledge in C1-3 of economic and social wellbeing concepts.
  • Summer:
    • EOV training for C1 and C3 (3 days, at LCRC, free to attend, July).
      • Opportunity for all participants to have additional monitoring conducted, including soil-testing (the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health), done at reduced rate through MSU which will establish baseline lagging ecological indicators such as soil health beyond that which the EOV Short-Term Monitoring will collect. This would allow producers to join the Land to Market program, the world’s first verified regenerative sourcing label, if they so desire.
    • Visit farms in C1 and C3 through July-Sept to work with participants to establish own baseline ecological wellbeing outcomes (C2 will already be collecting this data, having received this training previously through MSU)
    • Holistic Management training course for C1, with specific focus on Holistic Planned Grazing (June – Sept)
  • Fall:
    • Distribute micro-grants to C1 
    • Record keeping check-in via phone/email/zoom/mail
    • Analyze annual social, economic, and ecological wellbeing data

Year 3 (2023):

  • Spring:
    • Online record keeping training
    • Collect social wellbeing data (i.e. psychological, subjective, and physical wellbeing; values) to annual social wellbeing levels through online or telephone-based survey, depending on comfort of producer.
  • Late summer:
    • EOV assessment by C1, 2, 3. Participants will carry out assessment by themselves and submit photos to online platform, MSU team will do quality assurance looking at photos on the platform and follow up in-person with any required producers.
  • Fall:
    • Record keeping check-in via phone/email/zoom/mail
    • Analyze annual social, economic, and ecological wellbeing data
    • Conduct online survey with larger cow-calf producer sample in the North Central Region.

Year 4 (2024):

  • Winter:
    • Analyze larger survey data
    • Facilitate online network event.
  • Spring:
    • Collect social (via online or phone) and economic wellbeing data (via electronic or paper)
    • In-person one-day record keeping training for all cohorts. This training will be hands-on in a computer lab with their own accounting records. During this training the main goal will be to learn how to develop financial statements. They will be required to turn in their third-year enterprise budget, balance sheet and income statement one month after the training. Certificates of completion will be provided in exchange for all completed budgets.
  • Summer:
    • EOV assessment by C1, 2, 3. Participants will carry out assessment by themselves and submit photos to online platform, MSU team will do quality assurance looking at photos on the platform and follow up in-person with any required producers.
    • Analyze annual social, economic, and ecological wellbeing data
    • Overarching evaluation to answer research questions:
      • Analyze relationships between cohorts – how does management relate to social, ecological, and economic wellbeing?
      • Analyze within cohort temporal patterns - How are ecological, social, and economic wellbeing and values influenced by or influence adoption? i.e. are producers’ values and wellbeing measures static or dynamic?
      • Synthesize the pathways (conduits and barriers) to adoption of regenerative grazing practices.
  • Fall:
    • Record keeping check-in via phone/email/zoom/mail
    • Dissemination of initial findings at in-person network events with participants and representatives of our secondary audience, i.e. Extension educators, university faculty & researchers, beef sector stakeholders including the Cattleman’s Association, consumer representatives, and policy makers, SARE.
      • During this event we will host a private networking event to introduce C1 and C2 in person
      • We will also hold evaluative focus groups within these events for representatives from primary and secondary audiences.

Overall, we will conduct five producer trainings and over 180 producer check-ins with our participants, as well as a regional online survey to understand social/economic wellbeing and views on regenerative grazing across a representative population of cow-calf producers. Inputs required to achieve this are SARE grant funds; land, facilities, and equipment of two MSU Research and Extension Centers; time, labor, and expertise of the researchers, Extension personnel, and producers.

Research results and discussion:

No research data yet.

Participation Summary
17 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

No education in 2021, first sessions will be in 2022.

Project Activities

Wellbeing guide for participants – in preparation, to be completed in Spring 2022 and disseminated with social wellbeing tools
CANR MSU News article
Voices of Sustainable Agriculture
Integrating wellbeing into resilience assessment for working agricultural landscapes
Presentation to President Stanley, MSU
Preparing research materials
EOV monitoring
Record keeping course

Educational & Outreach Activities

17 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

49 Farmers
35 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

EOV (ecological wellbeing) data collection was carried out on 17 farms in Summer 2021 by Raven and Derry. 14 have been previously introduced to EOV where their long-term monitoring was completed, so monitoring in 2021 was the short-term EHI monitoring. 3 were new participants for whom Raven and Derry oversaw long-term and short-term monitoring. All 17 are likely participants in our project, likely to be members of Cohort 1 and 2. 

We also carried out education and outreach through the project activities described above - presentations to audiences in MSU as well as at international conferences, MSU news articles, and tours of Lake City to senior leadership at MSU.  

 

Learning Outcomes

Key areas taught:
  • Holistic approach to wellbeing
  • Social wellbeing
  • Economic wellbeing
  • Ecological wellbeing
  • Regenerative agriculture

Project Outcomes

Key practices changed:
  • Record keeping

  • Regenerative agriculture

  • Ecological Outcome Verification monitoring

  • Increased consideration of wellbeing when making farm management decisions

2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
30 New working collaborations
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.