Restoring Native Grasslands in Northern Mexico
Grass land and desert
Hectares in the process of restoration so far
500 - 800,000ha
Measures used in this project
Rising from the ashes: A new dawn for the Chihuahuan Desert
Located in Northern Mexico, the Chihuahuan Desert is the second largest desert in North America covering nearly 647,500 square kilometres with over 90 per cent of its area within Mexico and 10 per cent in the southern United States. This arid eco-region is considered to be one of the most diverse deserts in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most diverse arid regions in the world. Unfortunately, however, the Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most endangered desert regions in the world. Water depletion and diversion, changes in the fire regime and increased fire frequency and intensity, urbanization, increases in agricultural and resource extraction activities, invasive exotic species, habitat loss and fragmentation and climate change are among the greatest threats to biodiversity in the eco-region. This desert ecosystem is also under threat from increased desertification, especially due to overgrazing from unsustainable ranching that has been taking place for at least 100 years, and particularly since the arrival of barbwire, that has halted the movement of cattle. This last challenge is what the Pasticultores del Desierto organisation is tackling through their regenerative ranching project.
Desert shepherds on a mission
Comprised of four "demonstration" ranches that collectively cover 70,000 hectares, the Desert Shepherds form part of a regeneration network that covers 500,000 hectares in total. Their project works towards reversing the process of desertification and helps to build up biological capital across arid zones e.g. quality soil and nutrients that help perennial grasses grow year in, year out. Thanks to the application of holistic grazing management, a systems thinking approach towards managing resources developed by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory, native perennial grasslands are starting to grow back on what used to be bare soils. Their goal is to restore 1 million hectares by 2030.
The inspiration behind the project
The current state of the ranching community in Northern Mexico is pretty sad
according to Alejandro Carrillo, one of the lead partners of the Desert Shepherds. Mr Carrillo has seen first-hand, how, over time, overgrazing, as well as over-resting of pastures, has led to increased land degradation across the Chihuahuan landscape as well as a huge loss of biological capital, which is not conducive for the growth of grasses. Typically ranchers only have three good growing months a year during the monsoon season (July, August, September) where there is a higher percentage of rainfall. This means that whatever grass they can grow in those three months needs to be enough to take them through to the next monsoon season. However if their land is not well maintained and degrading, these grasses don't grow as well. This already has had the effect that ranchers in the area have not been able to carry the same number of cows in their herds. To shore up numbers in their herds, ranchers have turned to feeding their cows through the dry or winter months – the non-growing season – with some ranchers even doing this year round. Spending more money on inputs like cattle feed has made ranching a non-viable business for many and much less profitable than before. A knock on effect of this means that ranching has become a much less attractive way of life, especially for the younger generations who are set to inherit their parents ranches. As Mr Carrillo notes:
That’s the case with many ranchers nowadays, where ranchers kids are not interested anymore in ranching because they only see the struggle and not much quality of life. There is also peer pressure, because the way we do ranching is so different than the conventional ranching.
To compound the issue, the increase in bare soils in the area has meant that the land and topsoil has become much more susceptible to the elements, including too much exposure to sunlight, being washed away by rain torrents and blown away by the wind. This then results in increased flooding or droughts - which can lead to less productive lands, an increase in food prices, a decrease in earnings, an increase in poverty, and migrations of people from the countryside to the cities. It is these issues which have provided the momentum for and inspiration behind the establishment of the Desert Shepherd organisation and the creation of their unique project, focussing on working specifically with local ranchers to improve land resilience against desertification and drought, boost ranch profitability and garner generational awareness around the importance of ranching and its role in maintaining landscapes.
Regenerative ranching in the spotlight
Let’s look at the various facets of the holistic grazing approach that regenerative ranching applies and why it’s an ideal tactic and indeed nature based solution for restoring grasslands and prairie ecosystems.
Unlike conventional ranching, regenerative ranching involves moving cattle across smaller pastures every day, mimicking the great bison migrations. To enable this movement, cattle are placed in smaller pens, moved per day (sometimes even more often), and not allowed to return to the same patch of land for 12-14 months. Owing to the dwindling number of wolves - predators to the force cattle into herds as a protection mechanism - electric fences are now used to bunch cattle together as a herd in one small area for grazing. Ranchers rely on water wells and water pipelines to take water to multiple troughs shared by at least four paddocks for drinking purposes. So instead of having four or five very big pastures, like conventional ranchers, there are hundreds of small paddocks to get the density and impact needed to make a difference. According to Mr Carrillo:
Using 100,000 head of cattle as the primary tool to build biological capital, ranchers now have a new opportunity to run a profitable and resilient operation that works in harmony with nature.
Cow manure and the dung beetle
The constant movement of the herds, thanks to the cow’s tools such as hooves, manure, urine and mouth, helps to break up the soil, enrich and aerate it and improve infiltration. At the same time, their manure fertilizes and restores the bare ground and, with the help of dung beetles, two thirds of that manure goes back into the soil. This helps with the regeneration of the grasses, which in turn protects the soil from overexposure to light and sun, cools soil temperatures, captures rainwater, recharges aquifers, and cleanses the atmosphere through increased carbon sequestration. According to Mr Carrillo:
The native perennial grasses are still there – in the bare ground - but nature is so smart that it creates a hard pan on top, so nothing really gets in. Not even water. But if you shoal up into that, you will find native seeds staying there for years, waiting for the right conditions to appear. By aerating the soil and allowing humidity to get in, that's when you got those seeds waking up and creating a more diverse range of perennial grasses and that's what we're striving for.
Zero inputs and low costs
Regenerative ranching (RR) uses no inputs but only sea salt for the soil. It also does not make use of any chemical or mechanical seeding to restore grasslands. The only tool that is used to regenerate grasslands is the proper management of the cowherds. Regenerative ranching practices can sustain three times more cattle than a similar size ranch under conventional farming. Initial investment costs are around 100 USD/ha for fencing, water infrastructure, and cattle.
Community spirit and learning
To enable project success, it has been important to share lessons learned among the ranchers as well as the different experiences encountered with the implementation of regenerative ranching and holistic ecosystem management. This sense of community has been key. As pointed out by Mr Carrillo:
We use Whatsapp to share videos and pictures and ranch tours and seminars to exchange ideas and learn from each other, which has been very helpful.
There are also several international events e.g. seminars or workshops that that take place each year in Chihuahua, providing a good opportunity for ranchers to learn from other ranchers from for instance the US or Brazil. By being part of a regenerative ranching community, ranchers can learn from each other, share stories and help raise awareness, not only among their peers but also within their families, thereby also encouraging ranch succession to younger generations.
And that's one of our objectives - for people to stay in their ranch communities. Younger people are not so interested these days in inheriting ranches as they want to stay in the city but if they knew the importance of regenerative ranching and grassland management then maybe we could change their minds. Restoring grasslands is for the benefit of the people after all.
Overcoming Obstacles & Impacts so Far The project has encountered many obstacles along the way since its inception which have been overcome and generated positive impacts:
Combatting land degradation
Thanks to initiatives like that of Mr Carrillo’s and his team, there are now more ranches in northern Mexico doing regenerative ranching and approximately 500 ranchers now in Chihuahua. Whilst this is only a ‘dot’ on the landscape, land degradation, in parts of the Chihuahuan desert at least, has been reversed or temporarily paused. As Mr Carrillo pointed out “things are moving now, but our initiative is still very small scale”.
Ranching has been a conventional practice for decades and it takes time to encourage ranchers to do things differently. Not all ranchers see the approach of the Desert Shepherds as an improvement. According to Mr Carrillo:
Many ranchers find it really hard to actually accept that what they are doing is actually degrading the land. They relate a lot of things happening to the rainfall. But when we go to ranchers and do a soil infiltration test, that's when they realize that they are infiltrating about 20% of the rainfall captured.
The demonstration ranches - which are also working ranches - are used for educational purposes, including ranch tours, to encourage other ranchers to learn new techniques around regenerative ranching and holistic grazing management. They help to encourage ranchers to move from conventional ranching to regenerative, particularly by being able to show them what is possible with grass growth and soil improvements. The project is privately funded and at the time of writing does not receive any government support.
Enabling a better understanding of how natural processes work
The project focuses on showing the ranchers how to have a more holistic view of the environment and their land, and to not only consider cow health and grass growth in their ranching practices, but also, and importantly, the soil health. This is done by introducing ranchers to a series of ecosystem health indicators that range from good soil quality to wildlife and insect counts on their land. As Mr Carrillo noted:
One of the very important things that we do as ranchers or regenerative ranchers is to try to create more soil. So by feeding the microbes in the soil, then we're feeding also the fungi, these fungi create these aggregates in the soil that will allow us to infiltrate more water. This helps with grass growth.
Boosting profitability and encouraging ranch succession
Both of these obstacles go hand in hand with quality of life. These are tackled by demonstrating to the ranchers that by switching tactics to regenerative ranching, they have to spend far less money on ranch inputs that are needed to feed the cows in the dry season and can actually boost ranch profitability. The project shows ranchers how to prioritize investments e.g. by finding the best grassy areas in the ranch and land that is more workable. By adopting this approach lowers risk and gives faster return on your investment.
Instead of splitting all of their investments across the ranch – across both good and bad land – ranchers focus their efforts on the most productive areas so they see the results within a year.
Spot the difference: Regular conventional ranching versus regenerative?
As Mr Carrillo summarised:
The beauty of what we do is restoring what was there before. So all this wildlife is coming. We're not bringing the wildlife, it is just coming because we're creating the habitat, their home. So I think that's the beauty of what we do, where it benefits both people and wildlife.
What does the future of the Chihuahuan Desert look like?
Regenerative ranching mimics the migration of bison that used to occur across the North American continent and helps to cut and fertilise the grasses, which encourages growth for the following year. If this stops, the grasses start to oxidise and desertification starts to happen. In order to scale up impact, therefore, it is important to communicate and promote the importance of regenrative ranching, not only locally but also nationally, regionally and internationally.
Alejandro Carrillo is president of Pasticultores del Desierto, a non-profit organisation based in Mexico which has a goal is to provide ongoing education for cattle ranchers as well as promote Holistic Planned Grazing across the world’s deserts. He holds a BS in Computer Science from the Monterrey Tech, and MS in Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University.