Mimicking Wild Herds to Regenerate Ecosystems
By Doniga Markegard
Doniga Markegard trained as a tracker of wild animals as a teenager, which ignited a lifelong passion for the natural world. On the trail of a mountain lion on the California coast, she met Erik Markegard, a rancher with a similar reverence of the wild. They fell in love, got married, started a family and together they run Markegard Family Grass Fed, a pastured livestock operation in which Doniga blends her tracking, Permaculture and holistic grazing skills to regenerate coastal prairie lands.
My background is in wildlife tracking and Permaculture. I was immersed in the wilderness in high school in a special program in which we learned bird language, wilderness survival, and how to track animals. Tracking is probably the oldest science known to humans. It utilizes so much of your brain: you have to be totally in the present moment and yet be tracking the past; understanding what came before you and projecting into the future. Hunter-gatherers are able to pick up on very small clues in the landscape, such as a lizard darting 50 feet away and countless other subtle but significant clues.
Efforts to separate Indigenous people from the land was a big mistake. We need to bring Indigenous knowledge back and ask how we can learn from those who tend the wild and understand that humans are an integral part of the landscape, just as predators are. We largely removed humans and predators from the landscape, and that increased the stagnation and the sedentary behavior of prey species. I spent seven summers in the middle of the wilderness in Idaho during the re-introduction of wolves. In my book Dawn Again: Tracking The Wisdom of the Wild, I wrote about tracking an alpha wolf carrying just a water bottle and a radio. I set out on the trail at dawn and trotted along incredible, pristine meadows. I came up over a ridge and a feeling rose up through my legs, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It had just begun to rain a couple of minutes before, and there were raindrops on top of the tracks that I was following. I realized that I was very close on the trail of the wolf. I went over the ridge and came to the edge of the meadow. As a tracker, I learned to stop in the shadows and observe. The edges are where the most activity occurs—the edges of the forest and the meadow, the edges of water and land. I saw the wolf moving along in the shadows of the forest. My body filled with so much adrenaline that all I could do was sit and soak my feet in the cold stream. As I was doing that, wolves howled all around me.
I heard a raven call. I got up from the stream and walked over and found a bull elk, partially submerged in the ox-bow part of the creek. It had just been taken down by a pack of 11 wolves. That was the moment in my life, as a 17 or 18-year-old, when I internalized the cycle of life and death. I realized that the meadow was full of life. I could smell the elk. I could see the saliva on the grass. I could feel the energy of the herd moving through the landscape. I didn’t fully understand what I experienced in that meadow until many years later. I witnessed a phenomenon called the trophic cascade: when predators are introduced into a landscape, they affect the behavior of prey species. Their herds have to move more often, so they no longer overgraze plants, so vegetation thrives, and that brings the songbirds and beavers back; it boosts biodiversity.
I thought a lot about how we can mimic nature in our human activities and apply its models to something like regenerative agriculture. Regenerative farming and ranching involve moving animals around to prevent overgrazing, but many farmers are focused on just one aspect of the whole natural system. I study and teach Holistic Management, which involves studying how all of the environment is interconnected. You have to learn how to work with water and mineral cycles and with the energy flow of photosynthesis (the light energy from the sun that feeds plants and sequesters carbon). We try to work with the community dynamics of all the biodiversity on our lands. You can’t just focus on one element if you’re practicing authentic regenerative agriculture. If you’re going to steward your environment, you have to know your environment. You have to intimately know the plants and you have to intimately know the animals.
The settlers didn’t listen to the Indigenous people whose land they stole. Those first people understand that all life is kin. It’s a completely different approach to land. If you view all life as interconnected, why, for instance, would you deplete all of the underground life-forms that enrich the soil– the microbes and the nematodes – by turning that soil over with a plow? Another big mistake, over the past 30 years, was the idea that removing cattle to let the landscape “go back to nature” would improve the land. But what happens when cattle are removed? Many studies have shown that, especially on coastal terrace prairies, when cattle are removed, biodiversity plummets. One clear indicator is that the number of grassland songbirds plummets drastically. Conservationists are now beginning to realize their mistake and are starting to understand the need for ranchers and cattle as essential components of ecosystem management.
There’s a lot of bad press about cows, but the problem is not the cow, it’s the how; it’s the way humans manage the animals. Ecosystems have evolved with large herds of animals moving across the landscape—thirty million bison, ten million elk. I manage ranches on the coastal prairies north and south of San Francisco, and those prairies are the most biodiverse in all of California. We are proud of the fact that on our ranches we grow 157 species of plants without ever purchasing a seed. Not many farmers can claim that kind of productivity.
We raise cattle by moving them in a way that mimicks nature and the herd effect, i.e. large packs of grazing animals in constant movement. When we move cattle away from a piece of land, we follow that up with chickens. We raise about 8,000 broiler chickens a year. They add additional fertility to the land. The chickens mimic the massive flocks of band-tailed pigeons in the West and passenger pigeons in the East, which are now extinct. They once flew in such great numbers that when they would land on a tree, you couldn’t even see a leaf. When they flew, they would blacken the sky. What happens when you have that many birds flying through an area? They deposit a lot of droppings on the land, which is food for the soil. The land depended on those flocks, but since they’re gone, we use chickens that we move every day. We’re out there first thing in the morning, moving their shelters across the landscape. As a result, when spring comes, the pastures are vibrant.
We also raise grass-fed lamb. We work with an organic, diversified vegetable farmer in our area. He took a 75-acre farm that was farmed conventionally in Brussels sprouts that he is in the process of transitioning to organic. He called us up and said: “I need your sheep. I can’t afford to truck in massive amounts of inputs and compost to get my soil fertility up.” He planted different varieties of cover crops, and instead of mowing with a diesel-powered tractor, he used our animals to mow and mulch the cover crops down. Animals are incredible biological farming units with great microbiomes that provide fertilizer out of their back end. There’s no ecologically intact natural area devoid of animals. Animals are integral to healthy soils and to food production. Using animals properly is key to an agricultural system that mimics how nature functions.
Stagnation leads to oxidation and desertification. In the same way that if we’re not moving our bodies, we’re going to be unhealthy, if there isn’t animal movement on grasslands, they’re going to overgrow, and then die. Especially in an environment such as California that’s brittle and dry eight months out of the year, we need something to keep the cycle of decay and life active year-round. That’s where the animals come in: they enhance the cycle of grass plants from birth, growth, death, and decay. Using the principles of regenerative agriculture, we’re working towards having green, living plants 365 days a year. Before we leased many of the ranches we work on, the cattle had been removed, and the pastures had become predominantly one species of invasive grass that was oxidizing and releasing carbon. When we brought cattle in and moved them around in a holistic management system, native grass plants came back and biodiversity increased. The management system is based on knowing how native perennial plants grow and flourish. We now have 32 percent perennial grass cover; we never planted a seed. It’s all about management.
Holistic management is part of a suite of regenerative agriculture practices that capture carbon in the soil and ultimately result in soil full of water and life. It’s the best way to build drought resiliency.
On one ranch we manage, at the tail end of a five-year California drought, we saw an increase of shallow carbon of 3% and an increase in deep carbon of 7%. Those are impressive numbers. If just 10% of California’s rangelands were to sequester carbon at this rate, it would be equivalent to taking two million vehicles off the road for a year. It’s about a half-ton of carbon per acre sequestered per year.
When we regenerate perennial native grasslands, everybody benefits. We see a rise in grasshopper sparrows that are declining everywhere else in the state. We’re seeing an abundance of endangered red-legged frogs. We lease the Jenner headlands on the Sonoma coast, and there’s an endemic wildflower that grows there that is threatened with extinction. We manage the cattle to come in and graze the thatch right at the perfect time so that wildflower can thrive. The local conservation groups are very happy with the impact the animals are having on biodiversity.
We monitor carbon sequestration in our ranches and compare them to nearby ranches that are conventionally grazed or left fallow. In conventional grazing operations, cattle stay in one area for a for an extended period of time and aggressively graze down the plants. The areas that were fallow and conventionally grazed both lost carbon content in their soil, while some of our lands had up to a 25% increase in sequestered carbon. Stewardship that understands how nature works is key.
Wildfires in California are a big reason the state is not meeting its emission reduction targets.
California forests are dense with fuel loads that have a devastating effect on intensifying wild fires. Forest lands are choked with impenetrable walls of greenery, poison oak, blackberries and other undergrowth that add to the fuel load, but it’s not necessary to spray herbicides to kill that undergrowth. We raise pigs in forested lands, and our pigs eat the blackberry, the poison oak, and most all of the plants of that fuel load. We can go in after the pigs and seed any bare areas that the pigs left behind with native grasses, and we can let the grasses regenerate. We thin out the firs and steward for oak trees. The Indigenous people of California tended the oak trees because their life depended on that acorn harvest, and now all our lives depend on us tending to these forests correctly because we’ve seen how many people have died in the last few years in forest fires and how much pollution has resulted, and it’s a win-win: we can mitigate fire risk and grow food at the same time.
We also graze grasslands at the Jenner Headlands above the Russian River. The land is owned by the Wildland Conservancy, the largest private landowner in California. They wanted somebody who was raising grass-fed beef and selling it to the local community. It’s an important step for a conservation group to take: to stop supporting industrial feedlot animal-confinement agriculture. The Wildland Conservancy selected Markegard Family Grass-Fed because we’re part of only 2% of the production in the U.S. that raises animals 100 % on grass, the way they’re designed to be raised.
I personally think that the messaging that eating meat is bad for the planet should really be to stop eating industrial-raised meat, and it should also be to stop eating industrial-raised soybeans and corn. It shouldn’t be plant versus meat. It’s looking to how that plant or animal is being raised and how much harm is being done by the most common farming and ranching methods versus how much life is being nurtured by regenerative, holistic approaches.