Two Dot rancher Shane Moe and apprentices Leah and Jesse stand in a field of sainfoin, an alternative grazing grass.

Shane Moe points with pride to a flexible water tank on wheels, a bag of water with a solar panel roof. A cautious black cow eyes a crowd of spectators, then drinks deeply. This mobile stock tank allows Moe to move water from irrigation ditches to the cows, keeping his cows out of seeps and wetlands and reducing his impact on the Musselshell River.

Shane is a third generation rancher who, in the past eight years, has begun using regenerative ranching practices. Regenerative ranching refers to a combination of practices ranchers use to ensure soil, livestock, the water table, and ecosystems as a whole are working together. It has goals of restoring a source of ethically raised and slaughtered meat, improving soil health, and keeping water tables full.

Regenerative agriculture is used to keep and sequester carbon in the soil as well, possibly a high-yield way to address climate change. On Shane’s ranch, this means using a solar pump for cattle watering, using no-till sowing, planting a diverse variety of cover crops, and implementing high rotational grazing.

Cycle the Rockies students ride away from Shane Moe’s portable livestock watering tank.

It was Day 8 of Cycle the Rockies. Bike touring was something that was no longer strange or foreign to our group, and we were growing more comfortable around each other. We worked pace lines to reduce headwinds, and we sang to boost morale.

On our way to Shane’s ranch we pedaled on a highway that cut through vast fields of monoculture crops, thousands of acres of the same color green. Then the fields changed. The singular green became a field of different shades of green dotted with tiny pink flowers.

When we arrived at Shane’s place, he told us the pink flowers in the pastures were sainfoin, a species used by ranchers for cattle grazing and cover cropping. It’s less common than alfalfa on the ranches we cycled past, but it uses less water and is easier on cow digestive systems. Moe said he has noticed better water retention and less soil erosion since he started using a mix of seeds, including sainfoin, as a cover crop, to make sure no soil is left bare. It helps that his cattle love the mix of grasses. Cover cropping with a diverse variety of crops makes sure the soil doesn’t release sequestered carbon into the atmosphere and keeps rain from running off the fields.

Moe, a veterinarian in an earlier life, has clearly found his calling with regenerative ranching. Moe takes pride in raising his cattle on a mixed-blend that includes native grass species and rotational grazing. In fact, Moe has taken on two apprentices with the Quivira Coalition to help teach the next generation of ranchers.

Until his cattle are a year old, they spend their time in a process called rotational grazing. The cows spend a limited amount of time in a pasture confined to a smaller space than convention ranching so that the ground is adequately, but not excessively, tamped down.

Despite his best efforts to finish his cattle locally, he cannot slaughter his own beef. He has to send his beef to overcrowded feedlots since there is no local slaughterhouse near him. Ideally, he would finish his beef on grass and slaughter them humanely in his own way. The meat processing systems in place do not support regenerative ranching.

Moe’s community of regenerative ranchers in central Montana is small. “It is a lonely world,” he said. Many neighboring ranchers still practice conventional ranching and aren’t necessarily open to many of the practices he uses. In fact, he doesn’t speak openly about some of his practices, even if those ideas might be catching on. He said it is getting harder to get access to the no-till drill, which sows seeds without plowing up much soil. Other farmers in the area have seen his success with no-till and have started renting the county drill. It’s a sign of slow change in the agricultural community in central Montana.

The solar pump we stood in front of with Shane was not just a portable swimming pool with two solar panels attached to the top. It was a representation of everything Shane has done so far to bring health back to the land he ranches. It’s a way of thinking about the land and how farming and ranching affects whole systems. It’s not just single practices or certain tools being used. “Regenerative ranching is probably the only way to save the world,” Moe said.

Seneca Norvell is a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she is majoring in Studio Art.

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