Meredith Ellis harbors no illusions when it comes to the demands of running a cattle ranch. As she offers me a cozy blanket to keep warm during our “buggy” ride on her Kawasaki Mule around her family’s three-thousand-acre G Bar C Ranch on a crisp December morning, she tells me she has “about a hundred items” on her to-do list. Ellis, forty, isn’t complaining; she just knows what it takes to do what she loves, and to do it well. When I ask if she ever takes a vacation, she replies immediately, without a trace of regret: “There is no day off. Ever.”
G Bar C Ranch is nestled between Era and Rosston, about thirty miles northwest of Denton. Ellis is in charge of maintaining the land and the cattle, along with longtime ranch manager Mike Knabe; her dad, G.C., who is 69 and “trying to retire”; and ranch apprentice Jen Peterson.
Peterson sits in the back of the buggy during my tour, along with Ellis’s dog, Eva. Ellis’s seven-year-old son named the dog after a character in the Pixar film WALL-E, one of many facts and stories that Ellis shares as we navigate over steep, rocky drops on our way to see her cattle. On this winter day, the ranch has 146 pregnant cows, 62 young females, two Charolais bulls, five black Angus, and two horses that pretty much serve as “yard art.” They’re all off grazing in one of the many pastures whose grass height and soil health Ellis and Knabe watch closely, so they know when it’s time to move the cattle along. The ranch has about 58 permanently fenced pastures, plus several temporary pastures through which the animals are rotated, in keeping with the principals of regenerative ranching. In this increasingly popular, more-sustainable form of agriculture, hooves till the soil, manure provides the fertilizer, and the plowing is done by animals, not machines.
Family legend has it that forty years ago, Ellis’s dad, a longtime rancher who once owned a fishing-lure company and a pecan farm in South Texas, wore out two pickup trucks driving around the state in search of the perfect spot for his dream ranch. Now his daughter is becoming a powerful voice in the world of regenerative ranching. She’s on the board of the Integrity Beef Alliance, a group that advocates for sustainable, progressive ranch management and humane livestock handling, and she travels across the U.S. to speak about the benefits of eco-conscious ranching. Ellis tells me she’s given talks in upstate New York, North Carolina, and Las Vegas, of all places, which felt to her “like being on another planet.”
As we drive through the peaceful pastures of her ranch, Ellis points out her own temporary fencing, as well as the patches of peas and okra she plants as cover crops, which improve soil health and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
“My job is to try not to be a stupid human and to figure out what the cattle want and need,” Ellis tells me as she stops to point out a stag grazing nearby. She’s making it sound simple, but regenerative ranching—which prioritizes soil heath by discouraging chemical fertilizers and overgrazing, and instead advocates no-till principles and practices that mitigate the effects of climate change—is anything but. Like “organic” or “grass-fed,” “regenerative agriculture” is fast becoming a catchphrase that’s creating a rift between the large corporations that have dominated the industry for decades and the next generation of smaller-scale farmers and ranchers, many of whom are determined to do better by the environment and by the consumer. That said, the approach seems to be gaining traction. General Mills pledged to use regenerative practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. The Biden administration has also proposed creating a carbon market that could incentivize farmers and ranchers by paying them for the amount of carbon they trap in their soils. Closer to home, Willie Nelson is in the process of implementing regenerative practices on his five-hundred-acre Luck Ranch.
Ellis tells me that she did the math, and the amount of beef she produces on her ranch in a year is about the same quantity that McDonald’s uses globally in 45 minutes. “I’m this tiny blip on the radar,” she says. “But if I could get all ranchers across the nation doing the job sustainably, then we’d have a lot of clout.”
She says most consumers have no idea if their beef comes from a ranch with environmental goals. “I want to give them that choice.”
Ellis acknowledges her advantages: since her dad had already started the ranch, she didn’t have to purchase land or spend thousands on farm equipment and a first herd of cattle. Still, it’s a tough business. “Year to year, we run a narrow profit, ” she says. “We’re getting by.”
At the same time, she’s found that an eco-friendly strategy has distinct financial advantages: “A lot of the regenerative practices we’ve adopted keep us more drought- and flood-resistant.” That may increase profit margins, Ellis argues, as does not having to pay for huge amounts of fertilizer. “I don’t want people to think that converting to a more regenerative approach is costly,” she says.
Travis Krause of Parker Creek Ranch, located fifty miles west of San Antonio, has a more complicated view of this type of farming and ranching. Like Ellis, he knows better than to romanticize the work. Parker Creek has been in his family since 1846, and Krause says they’ve mainly been “dirt rich and money poor.” Still, after graduating from Texas A&M University and then working in India as a field director focused on the study of parasitic diseases in livestock, Travis (with his wife Mandy) headed back to the ranch with an ambitious goal: running a sustainable, profitable business based on the principles of regenerative agriculture.
“We were young and full of piss and vinegar, with lots of ambition and energy,” Krause says.
Add a few years of hard labor, with a newborn baby eventually thrown into the mix, and the couple’s dream proved much tougher to achieve than they’d expected. Krause sees regenerative agriculture not as a new, flash-in-the-pan trend, but as comparable to the way his grandparents and great-grandparents once worked the land. Back in their day, it was just a cowboy on a horse. When “progress” in the form of fertilizers and large-scale, fuel-burning machinery came into the picture, the old ways were, in a sense, turned to so much dust. During the second half of the twentieth century, these advances allowed farmers and ranchers to produce much higher quantities of meat and crops, keeping prices artificially low for consumers, but at a cost: more carbon dioxide was released into the air, tilling and pesticides depleted the soils, and water sources were contaminated by chemical runoff and drug residues. Krause, like Ellis, sees the principles of regenerative agriculture as being much more in line with the values of the ranching culture of his ancestors. Instead of being a threat to modern ranching, he sees the philosophy as a benefit. But that doesn’t mean it comes easy.
In 2020, Travis and Mandy Krause “semi-closed the doors” of their ranch after realizing that the around-the-clock stress, work, and financial instability was just too much. They still own and operate Parker Creek Ranch, but they’ve scaled back. In partnership with Soilworks Natural Capital, Krause is now CEO of Grazing Lands, a company he founded to help ranchers and landowners adopt regenerative principles. Krause says he still believes in regenerative practices “one hundred percent,” but that it does a disservice to novice farmers and ranchers to pretend it’ll be a simple, straight path to success.
“Let’s not romanticize it to the point that we are conveying a message that people can make a living,” he says. “You can do it, but let’s call a pig a pig and a unicorn a unicorn. On social media you always see the beautiful side of things,” he says of the dreamy, photo-ready back-to-nature farmsteads popping up all over the country. “You’re not going to be able to make a healthy living unless you’re at a certain scale.” Krause says that to make money, ranchers can reduce overhead, increase turnover of livestock (basically, add more animals), or add value via marketing. The biggest hurdle to profitability, though, is often “between people’s ears,” he says. “The ranching business is slow to change.”
It can be a full-time job trying to convince landowners who are skeptical about (or outright hostile toward) regenerative practices. Megan Clayton, range specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, helps landowners stay profitable while suggesting changes that can benefit the ecosystem. She says that sometimes she feels as though she’s talking to two clashing groups, and her goal is to bridge that divide. “This is not something new,” Clayton says of regenerative practices. “It’s what we should have been doing all along.”
Not everyone agrees. Critics argue that regenerative agriculture is merely a handy marketing term to make consumers believe they’re helping the environment, when in fact the only truly eco-conscious choice is to stop eating meat altogether. These skeptics point out that switching to non-meat alternatives reduces carbon emissions and water use, among other benefits. If you ask a proponent of regenerative practices, though, they’ll tell you that mass-producing plant-based alternatives can also negatively impact the environment, and that abandoning meat entirely is unrealistic. Unless you’re going to convince everyone on the planet (and in Texas) to stop buying and consuming meat products, maybe a middle ground between a fully plant-based diet and regenerative ranching is the answer.
From far away, it might look like Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest of Roam Ranch, outside Fredericksburg, have achieved that Instagram-perfect version of living off the land. When they sold their meat-snack company Epic Provisions to General Mills in 2016, they finally had the financial stability to turn their dreams into reality. They now manage nine hundred acres of multi-species, regenerative land, with 160 free-range bison, plus chickens, turkey, goats, pigs, ducks, and more. When I ask Collins how long it took to make a profit, he doesn’t gloss over the truth. “Three years,” he says. “I guarantee you’re going to be at a loss for at least three years.” He suggests that novice ranchers find creative ways to add to their revenue streams, such as offering vacation rentals or agritourism workshops. Roam hosts about two thousand guests annually for events such as a Thanksgiving turkey harvest, guided deer hunts, and farm-to-table dinners.
“You’re going to be working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life,” Collins says. During the winter freeze in February 2021, he, Katie, and their small staff were all outside, shivering, hauling water, and pumping what they could from the Pedernales River into their trucks. The well pump they used only had intermittent power. “It was a nightmare.”
Back at G Bar C Ranch, as we wind our way across the property, Ellis stops at an overlook so we can take in the valley below. It’s one of her favorite spots. When I ask if all that land belongs to her family, she tells me we’re looking down at part of the neighboring Dixon Ranch. Its late owner, Roger Dixon, founded the Dixon Water Foundation in 1994 to promote healthy watersheds and soils through regenerative practices. “They’re my idols,” Ellis says of the people who run Dixon Ranch. Does she admire them because they own the most cattle or make the most profit? Nope. She reveres them because they’re attempting to replace their land’s invasive Bermuda grass with native species.
“That’s a tough nut to crack,” she says.
At times, Ellis sounds like a Jedi of regenerative ranching. She utters such aphorisms as “Use your intuition and focus on your principles, and the answers will come to you.” Or, “Everyone is on their own regenerative journey.” To my surprise, she also told me that she believes in using the tools at hand, and if that means occasionally, sparingly implementing a fertilizer as a last resort if it allows you to stay profitable, she’s all for it. The ultimate goal for most eco-conscious ranchers and farmers is to move away from synthetic chemicals and fertilizers completely, but that takes patience, and time. “It’s not about being a better rancher than your neighbor,” Ellis says as we head back up to the house. “This is so much more than a piece of land. It’s a grand experiment.”