Soil for Water

Progress report for LS21-345

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $1,000,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2024
Grant Recipients: National Center for Appropriate Technology; Understanding Ag, LLC; Holistic Management International; JG Research and Evaluation; Mississippi State University; University of Arkansas; Virginia Association for Biological Farming; Virginia Tech University
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Mike Morris
National Center for Appropriate Technology
Dr. Eric S. Bendfeldt
Virginia Cooperative Extension
Dr. Dirk Philipp
University of Arkansas
Dr. Rocky Lemus
Mississippi State University, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences
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Project Information


In this systems research project, we are identifying practical and regionally appropriate methods of regenerative grazing--by which we mean grazing that improves soil health and enables soil to catch and hold more water. We are trying to accelerate adoption of these methods in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, especially on small- to mid-sized, family-owned farms and ranches.

Despite considerable efforts by many groups to promote regenerative grazing (under various names) over the past 30 years, adoption rates remain low in many parts of the United States and may actually be falling in much of the Southern SARE region. Controlled studies have often failed to validate the claims of proponents, and many barriers to adoption persist.

With a talented interdisciplinary team that includes six universities, three NGOs, and eight farmer cooperators, we are carrying out participatory research, facilitating peer-to-peer learning, and providing support for pasture and rangeland monitoring. We are giving special attention to the needs of underserved and limited-resource farmers—not only for reasons of fairness but because widespread adoption depends on showing that regenerative grazing can be done affordably and at any scale.

The Soil for Water project started out as a pilot project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) in 2015, working with about 20 Texas ranches that ran on-farm experiments, monitored their soils and vegetation, and shared their findings. (Watch a video about the Soil for Water Project.) From NCAT’s regional offices in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia we are now expanding that effort to include more research, peer-to-peer learning (via the Soil for Water network and Soil for Water Forum), mentoring, educational events, and one-on-one technical assistance. We are creating educational materials in multiple formats, including podcasts and professional-quality videos. We are featuring success stories in a new Regenerator's Atlas of America. We are welcoming collaborators from Land Grant universities, NRCS, and grassroots organizations in all four states.

Project Objectives:

(1) Identify practical and regionally-appropriate ways of improving soil health and catching more water in soil.

(2) Launch a new multi-state network of landowners who are conducting on-farm trials.

(3) Improve communication and information-sharing among producers and agricultural professionals who are interested in regenerative grazing.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • James Burch - Producer
  • Larry Holland - Producer
  • Adam Isaacs - Producer
  • Servando Leal - Producer
  • Emily Jost - Producer
  • Doug Myers - Producer
  • LeVonna Uekman - Producer
  • Tony Uekman - Producer
  • Guille Yearwood - Producer
  • Ralph Arrington
  • Dr. Barbara Bellows - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Eric Bendfeldt - Technical Advisor
  • Erika Berglund - Technical Advisor
  • Brandon Bing - Technical Advisor
  • Philip Boyd - Technical Advisor - Producer
  • Lauri Cellela - Producer
  • Dr. Ken Coffey - Technical Advisor
  • Lucille Contreras - Producer
  • J.B. Daniel - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Mike Daniels - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. David Fernandez - Technical Advisor - Producer
  • Dr. John Fike - Technical Advisor
  • Matt Fryer - Technical Advisor
  • Jacob Gilley - Producer
  • Dr. Leonard Githinji - Technical Advisor
  • Juan Gonzalez - Producer
  • Johnny Gunsaulis - Producer
  • Kason Haby - Technical Advisor
  • Michael Harlow - Producer
  • Jeremy Huff - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. John Jennings - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Kristal Jones - Technical Advisor
  • Kara Kroeger - Technical Advisor
  • Garrett Kunz - Producer
  • Dr. Kelly Lyons - Technical Advisor
  • Sarah Jewell Morton
  • Lindsay Newsome
  • Dr. Kim Niewolny - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Mike Popp - Technical Advisor
  • Brad Prewitt - Producer
  • Kimberly Ratcliff - Producer
  • Al Shiyou - Producer
  • Kenny Simon - Technical Advisor
  • Katie Trozzo
  • Dr. Ann Wells - Technical Advisor - Producer
  • Claire Whiteside - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Allen Williams - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

Research approach

This systems research project includes:

  • Knowledge systems research. For example: Where are producers getting their information, and what sources do they trust? Which soil tests are most informative and cost-effective for landowners who want to establish a baseline and measure their progress? What pasture and rangeland monitoring methods generate the most useful information?
  • Social science research. For example: What sort of peer pressure do early adopters face, and how can we reduce it? What land stewardship attitudes motivate landowners to regenerate damaged and depleted land? Why do so few graziers monitor their land, and how can we make this easier and more attractive? How can we accommodate legitimate needs for privacy and confidentiality while encouraging a free exchange of ideas and experiences?
  • Economic research. For example: Is the regenerative grazing model financially feasible and profitable? What up-front investments are needed to implement a regenerative grazing system, and what is the rate of return? Are regenerative grazing systems affordable for small farms, or those with limited resources? What is the consumer demand for sustainably-produced meat products in these states, and how can producers tap into these markets?
  • Farming systems research. For example: Why have controlled studies so often failed to validate the claims of regenerative grazing proponents? What methods work well in dry climates, and which ones work better in wet climates? Does soil moisture reliably increase with frequent short-duration grazing periods?

Why we focus on water

Healthy soil carries out many other functions besides regulating water cycling, but we return persistently to the topic of water. The Soil for Water Project began during the Texas drought of 2010-14 to spread the positive message that livestock can (when properly managed) be a powerful tool for improving soil health and increasing infiltration rates and water-holding capacity. An acre of healthy soil holds tens or hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in each foot of soil depth. From a landowner’s perspective, there are multiple benefits to catching and holding more water in soil.

 A state-by-state approach

In our project, each state has its own semi-autonomous working group that's focused on how to improve support services and increase rates of adoption. In each state, a coordinator leads group meetings and serves as a resource person for anyone who wants to try on-farm research or begin measuring changes in their soil health and vegetation. The coordinators are familiar with a wide range of monitoring tools and methods and work closely with Cooperative Extension, NRCS, Land Grant schools, grazing groups, and other farmer membership organizations in their state.

 Our team

Our project team includes agronomic, ecological, economic, and sociological expertise. We have two sociologists, two soil scientists, a philosopher, a veterinarian, a rangeland ecologist, and eight experienced grazing researchers on our team. All team members were chosen because of their openness to new ideas, their curiosity about regenerative grazing, their interest in working on an interdisciplinary team, their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and their desire to take a fresh approach. Farmers participate as equals, and all team members are expected to be innovators.


 Methodology and cooperating partners for each objective

Objective 1: Identify practical and regionally-appropriate ways of improving soil health and catching more water in soil.

  • Conduct on-farm research on the impact of grazing methods on soil health in all four states (Dr. Lemus, VABF, cooperating farmers).
  • Conduct controlled studies on the impact of grazing height on soil gravimetric/volumetric water content over time. Researchers will use a 12-acre novel endophyte tall fescue area. Each experimental unit will be approximately 0.15 acres in size and grazed by sheep during variable-length grazing cycles and defoliation treatments, with ongoing measurements of seasonal water use efficiency, soil water, and soil health (Dr. Philipp and Dr. Coffey).
  • Demonstrate the effects of best management practices on cooperating farms, including soil water content and soil quality (Dr. Philipp and Dr. Coffey).
  • Offer pasture walks and field days (Dr. Lemus, Dr. Wells, cooperating farmers).
  • Annual rangeland monitoring and research at 20 Texas ranches that are conducting on-farm trials, summarizing the results in an annual report for the landowner (NCAT Texas office).
  • Soil sampling and testing at a minimum of 20 participating farms or ranches (about five in each state). Analyze soil samples and monitoring data, and assist with preparing landowner reports (NCAT).
  • Study the use of drones for rangeland monitoring (Dr. Lemus).

Objective 2: Launch a new multi-state network of landowners who are conducting on-farm trials.

  • Recruit at least 120 new participants in the Soil for Water peer-to-peer learning network, include at least 12 African American, 12 Hispanic, and 12 veteran participants (all partners).
  • Offer workshops, webinars, and other trainings on use of the LandPKS phone app for land monitoring. At least eight trainings will take place, reaching at least 240 people (NCAT staff in all four offices).
  • Reach out to existing grazing networks (such as the Grassroots Grazing Group in Arkansas), inviting their members to help us evaluate the LandPKS monitoring app. At least 15 farms in each state will test the app and give us feedback, a total of at least 60 producers who will learn about land monitoring through this experience (NCAT staff in all four offices).
  • Evaluate quality of life aspects of regenerative grazing, including economic benefit for participants, diverse and intergenerational participation and relationships, regenerative, resilient capacity of chain elements, and relation to health, wealth, and capacity (Virginia Tech, Dr. Jones).

Objective 3: Improve communication and information-sharing among producers and agricultural professionals who are interested in regenerative grazing.

  • Create a discussion forum for project participants and other interested persons (NCAT).
  • Compare the effectiveness of in-person trainings, live webinars, and one-on-one technical assistance. At least 100 producers in Arkansas and Mississippi will receive one, two, or all three modes of training, and their changes in knowledge, attitude, and intention will be evaluated and compared (Holistic Management International). 
  • Offer at least 16 workshops, webinars, or other educational events per year: four per year in each of our four target states. At least 480 producers from the Southern SARE region will attend these events and be invited to join the Soil for Water network (NCAT staff, Dr. Lemus).
  • Give workshops at the Texas Hispanic Farmer & Rancher Conference in 2022-2023 (NCAT Southwest office).
  • Offer three intensive, two-day workshops on regenerative grazing, including both classroom and field experiences (Dr. Allen Williams).
  • Hold quarterly meetings of project partners in each state that focus on improving technical assistance and removing barriers to adoption. Partners have been chosen to represent widely differing backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs about regenerative grazing (all partners).
  • Create 10 professional-quality videos focused on land stewardship and stories from producers who have adopted regenerative methods (Virginia Tech, VABF).
  • Create multi-media stories, profiles, and success stories for posting on NCAT’s Atlas of Regenerative Farms & Ranches (all partners).
  • Hold four storytelling events in Virginia, to catalyze community capacity and cultural understanding of experiences and realities of food and farming system stakeholders (Virginia Tech).
  • Encourage cross-pollination of ideas through the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation (Virginia Tech).
  • Strongly promote existing relevant resources and services of NCAT’s ATTRA information service in all four target states. (NCAT staff in all four offices)
  • Present project findings at professional meetings (Dr. Lemus).
Research results and discussion:

Project partners at the University of Arkansas observed visible effects of different grazing intensities at the end of the 2023-grazing season. Fully grazed plots showed higher weed incidence than 50%-grazed plots, and non-grazed plots showed more senesced tall fescue plant tissue through shading of lower plant parts. Through intensive soil moisture monitoring, researchers hope to learn more about how these vegetation changes will affect soil moisture.

Project partners at Virginia Tech have completed seven audio and video interviews on Regenerative Grazing, Soil Health, and Agroecological Values, with five more farms scheduled to be interviewed in the spring of 2024. These interviews will be edited into short video case studies for education and outreach purposes, and researchers hope to learn more about how and why producers adopt regenerative grazing methods.

Project partners at Mississippi State University have conducted pasture evaluations at four cooperator sites, in Michigan City, Tupelo, Beulah, and Tylertown.  "At each location, a pasture was selected to determine pasture composition and species diversity along with compaction readings to a depth of six inches.  Soil samples were also collected across three transects and sent to the Cornell University Soil Health laboratory for analysis.  Preliminary data indicated that each system is very different and specific management approaches will be necessary to balance soil nutrient levels and improve biological activity by shifting species composition and grazing management strategies."

Project partners at Holistic Management International (HMI) report that their Regenerative Agriculture Mentoring Program (RAMP) program has been successful in both Arkansas and Mississippi: "We witnessed significant breakthroughs in producer engagement and planning capabilities and motivation. Remarkably, over 75% participants from the Mississippi RAMP group and over 85% from the Arkansas RAMP Group completed their programs, reporting substantial learning and implementation success. Participants highlighted newfound clarity of purpose, enhanced environmental understanding, and the transformative power of Holistic Goal setting."

Project partners at the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) have given many workshops, made dozens of farm visits, and offered Regenerative Grazing Tracks and their annual 2022, 2023, and 2024 winter conferences. These Regenerative Grazing Tracks included over 20 workshops sessions attended by over 500 persons. Funding from this Southern SARE grant has allowed VABF to increase the emphasis on regenerative grazing at its annual conference.


Below is a high-level summary of what we've learned from the activities of our four state working groups, with quotes from participants:

(1) We’ve confirmed the value and effectiveness of peer-to-peer and social modes of learning. Producers learn eagerly and readily from each other.

  • “We’re seeing peer-to-peer learning happening at pasture walks really effectively…This includes informal networks, people who text each other.”
  • “I have found peer-to-peer learning very beneficial in our pasture walks…putting the producer forward, putting the champions on the stage. They learn from each other a lot better."

(2) We've confirmed the importance and value of face-to-face interactions, as opposed to Zoom calls or webinars.

  • The project began under COVID-19 restrictions that eased in late 2022, creating an opportunity to compare virtual (online) interactions with field days and face-to-face events. Although we've held many successful online events, we saw the striking advantages of face-to-face meetings where team members enjoyed getting to know each other, became more comfortable working together, and established many friendly working relationships.
  • Especially in rural Mississippi, some of our participants did not have reliable Internet access or were not comfortable meeting online, making face-to-face meetings essential.

(3) We’ve seen the value of connecting producers and researchers who do not ordinarily talk to each other, including across state lines:

  • “This project has really seemed to create some intentionality and a collaborative focus in the region…harnessing collective energy towards the building of a movement.”
  • The grazing school “brought in people from all over,” and teachers were also diverse, causing “spinoff effects” and a “breath of fresh air.” “We can learn so much when we get out of our own level.”

(4) We’ve confirmed the value of personal relationships and working groups that provide a welcoming atmosphere, mutual support, ready access to like-minded peers and experts, and a refuge from negative peer pressure.

  • Our state working groups in Arkansas, Texas, and Virginia have been highly successful, meeting at least quarterly and hosting educational events.
  • We identified the Arkansas-based Grassroots Grazing Group as a successful model of peer-to-peer learning and studied the factors that have enabled this all-volunteer group to persist and be effective for over 25 years.
  • “The process of putting on a grazing school really brought a lot of people together that wouldn’t normally work together…And the grazing school itself was a huge success because of all those different voices and inputs…Women were more represented than usual maybe in grazing things, and that made it comfortable for women participants. Participants from that group have continued to keep in touch.”
  • Working groups should always seek the best available knowledge. “You ideally need both: supportive, like-minded peers who have practical, real-world experience and researchers who can get into the nitty gritty of the science.”
  • “What stands out to me is the success of the state leaders in building relationships and trust…really embedding yourselves in your region.”

(5) We’ve confirmed the effectiveness of small "safe to fail" grazing trials as a way of encouraging on-farm research.

  • “In general, on-farm trials are super hard …People have good intentions and then they can’t follow through.”
  • “We need to help them design it so it’s small enough and easy enough that they can follow through...A safe-to-fail grazing trial is a one-day event…It’s a very easy trial.”

(6) We’ve seen the value of long-term relationships and support.

  • Change takes time. “We live in a microwave society, but nature works at a crockpot pace."
  • "Important that we have long-term relationships and do a little bit of hand holding.”
  • Although it has taken many years, networks built by the Soil for Water program in Texas are “crossing into the mainstream” and "on the cusp of becoming really powerful."

(7) Through long-term rangeland monitoring in Texas, we've seen direct evidence of the drought-resilience benefits of healthy soil. As extreme drought conditions continued to grip central Texas in 2023, we measured higher indicators of rangeland health (such as species diversity and the presence of native plant species) at well-managed locations that scored high on soil health indicators such as organic matter levels and aggregate stability.


Participation Summary
62 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

We are guided by the five principles from the Northeast SARE publication “Sustainable Agriculture through Sustainable Learning: Improving educational outcomes with best practices for adult learning” (Bell, 2012):

  • Provide a safe environment for learning.
  • Identify learners’ prior knowledge and personal views about the content.
  • Link the content to learners’ prior experience.
  • Let learners work together to experiment and solve problems with the content.
  • Give learners choice in content, process, and outcomes.

We are strongly emphasizing peer-to-peer learning through workshops, field days, pasture walks, and participation in the Soil for Water Network, Forum. We also believe in the power of stories, which we are collecting in the Regenerator's Atlas of America and in a series of videos featuring producers who talk about the personal journey that led them to adopt regenerative methods.  

Educational & Outreach Activities

150 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
17 On-farm demonstrations
17 Online trainings
42 Published press articles, newsletters
6 Tours
32 Webinars / talks / presentations
50 Workshop field days
53 Other educational activities: 22 blogs, 20 videos, and 11 podcasts

Participation Summary:

1,519 Farmers participated
911 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Educational and outreach efforts have included a peer learning network, newsletters, educational events, blogs, videos, and podcasts. 

We've recruited 254 members to join the Soil for Water Network, exceeding our goal of 120. This has included 22 new members in Arkansas, 6 in Mississippi, 83 in Texas, 9 in Virginia, and 162 from other states.

We've published 42 issues of the monthly Soil for Water newsletter, as our subscriber list grew to 5,149.

We've offered 132 educational events  (workshops, webinars, field days, pasture walks, and farm visits) attended by about 1519 unique producers, with at least 750 of these from the Southern SARE region. This exceeds our goal of 48 events attended by at least 480 producers from the region. Here are some highlights:

  • 49 workshops, field days, pasture walks, or farm visits in Virginia, 27 in Arkansas, 22 in Mississippi, and 17 in Texas. Many other regional or national events also took place.
  • Presentations about the project at NCAT's Soil Health Innovation Conference in 2021 and 2022, attended by 240 people.
  • Presentations about the project at the August 2022 Southern Family Farmers & Food System Conference, attended by 150 people. 
  • Regenerative Grazing tracks at the 2022, 2023, and 2024 Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference, offering 23 workshops attended by about 500 people.
  • Presentation about the project at the 2022 Texas Hispanic Farmer & Rancher Conference, attended by 100 people. 
  • Scholarships awarded to 6 limited-resource producers, enabling them to attend the Soil Health Academy offered by Dr. Allen Williams (Understanding Ag) in Alabama, May 2022.
  • Three other workshops given by Dr. Allen Williams (Understanding Ag) in 2023 in Virginia, Arkansas, and Mississippi, attended by around 140 persons.
  • Two Plant ID and grazing planning workshops at the Roberts Ranch (Comfort, Texas), attended by a total of 85 people.
  • Ogallala Field Day at Tierra de Esperanza Farm (Hereford, Texas), attended by 55 people.
  • Five-part webinar series, "Landscapes that Work for All Life," given by Didi Pershouse and attended by 160 people.
  • Three-part webinar series, "Agriculture in a Water-Scarce Future," given by Dale Strickler (October 2022) and attended by about 300 people.
  • Mailing list for the monthly Soil for Water newsletter grew to 5149.
  • Soil for Water film premiere event, attended by 350 people.

We've posted 22 blogs on the ATTRA and/or Soil for Water websites:

We've posted 20 videos on the ATTRA and/or Soil for Water websites:

We've posted 11 podcasts on the ATTRA and/or Soil for Water websites:

Some of the educational activities above were partially funded by NRCS, the Jacob & Terese Hershey Foundation, and/or three related Southern SARE grants led by NCAT during the reporting period: "Regenerative Land and Livestock Management for Women" (EDS 21-28), "Demystifying Regenerative Grazing and Soil Health" (ES20-154), and "Scaling Up Production and Local Marketing for Minority and Limited Resource Farmer" (EDS20-18).

Project Outcomes

3 Grants received that built upon this project
7 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Increasing the adoption of regenerative grazing has significant economic, environmental, and social benefits. Economically, regenerative grazing has the potential to increase forage production, drought resilience, animal weight gain, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it has the potential to improve soil health and biodiversity. Socially, it has the potential to facilitate decentralized local and regional food systems by enabling more producers to offer healthy, sustainably-produced meat products to local consumers.

At the end of its second year, our project has supported agricultural sustainability by: 

  • assembling an interdisciplinary team of experts and starting research on the environmental, social, and economic aspects of regenerative grazing;
  • launching a new collaboration of eight organizations, many of whom had never worked together before; 
  • bringing together diverse stakeholders in state-specific working groups focused on improving technical assistance and increasing rates of adoption for regenerative grazing;
  • offering educational events that reached about 2300 people; and
  • facilitating three new peer-to-peer learning opportunities: the Soil for Water network, forum, and Regenerator's Atlas of America.
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.