Cattle and Regenerative Agriculture

In this age of income inequality, there is no doubt that we need food safety nets. But, food stamps and food pantries are not enough. We also need locally financed, owner-operated farms and food companies that produce a wide variety of healthy, interesting and affordable foods suited to the soils, cultures and climates of nearby cities.

The most successful local farms and food companies will measurably reduce energy, water and grain consumption while raising farm and food industry profits along with wages. Cattle are essential to this process because they can speed the transition from continuous grain production and confinement feeding to efficient, pasture-based agriculture with diverse crop rotations.


Large ruminants quickly convert grass to high quality, edible protein – with little or no grain. This means that natural and organic beef and dairy farmers are in the best position to help rebuild soils that support new fresh fruit and vegetable production in the Missouri Valley.

Cattle farmers and ranchers are rebuilding depleted soil, water and wildlife resources by planting permanent pastures and using modern crop rotations that include limited amounts of grain for poultry and pork.  They can also produce high-protein pulses (chickpeas, lentils, etc.) favored by vegetarians and vegans.

Barriers to Regenerative Agriculture in the Missouri Valley

The conventional business model in agriculture (bigger is better) works against small and medium income cow-calf producers who want to buy or lease more pasture for their beef and dairy herds. As “price takers” in commodity markets, these producers cannot earn enough selling calves and yearlings to confinement feeders who also raise corn or buy it from conventional farmers. Further, ethanol plants compete for production space against pasture and rangeland by increasing the demand for corn.

In fact, Iowa State University researchers have stated that price competition from row crops combined with low cattle prices prevent small cow-calf producers from buying and renting pasture to expand their herds. These researchers estimated that 40-percent of Iowa’s small cow-calf producers are nearing retirement without succession plans. In other words, there is not enough money in the cattle business to justify continued operations. In fact, the USDA classifies most farms with sales of less than $350,000 as financially unstable (2017 USDA).

Confinement feeding is only part of the problem. Although consumers and investors are increasingly interested in sustainable agriculture and locally produced foods, local brands are not readily available in grocery stores, restaurants and cafeterias.

Local foods are largely invisible to consumers because investors and commercial bankers are not convinced that small farmers can make money as direct sellers or wholesalers. Direct sellers use CSA’s, the Internet and farmers markets while wholesalers rely on food hubs and local distributors that supply restaurants, cafeterias and grocery stores.  Although direct sales methods are essential to building consumer support for local food brands, they are not profitable for the vast majority of small farms that supply urban markets in the Missouri Valley. In fact, these poorly focused and funded marketing  strategies have been used for decades without meaningful social, environmental and  economic analysis.

The failure of the big-is-better and the small farms business models have allowed non-local brands (imports) to dominate retail sales. For example, imports cost Omaha and Kansas City area economies a combined 300 million dollars a year (USDA, Census and OTA).

A New Business Model

With more than 50 years of experience in and around Missouri Valley organic agriculture, we know that local growers must establish effective marketing programs and make better use of existing local food processing operations and management talent. Although small and unorganized, the existing production and processing base is sufficient to test new marketing and finance models. This base includes natural and organic producers who have been in business for many years, conventional producers who are interested in sustainable methods, local and regional food processors, and most important, local risk capital.

Measured growth in local food sales requires effective business models that bring sustainable producers and local risk capital to the same table. Pages 2 and 3 on this website introduce local, producer-controlled partnerships for regenerative agriculture.

Jim Steffen

Note: The above photo, circa 1950’s, is a courtesy of the Boys Town Hall of History.