Private working lands account for more than 141 million acres in Texas, making up 82 percent of a state that’s 95 percent privately owned. These lands provide food and fiber for the world, and also provide critical wildlife habitat and ecosystem services to millions of Texans. From 1997–2017 there was a net loss of 2.2 million acres of working lands to non-agricultural use. Texas ingenuity within the agriculture industry is helping produce more with less, while increasing environmental stewardship.
Cactus Feeders, an Amarillo beef and pork production company, is utilizing intensive rotational grazing of cattle to build soil, help pull carbon from the atmosphere, and increase the soil’s water retention capacity.
On a former corn and cotton farm where fences were mostly non-existent, Cactus Feeders is utilizing 5,600 acres surrounding two of its feedyards in Moore and Sherman counties in the Texas Panhandle for an experimental approach that it believes will benefit the entire industry. Cactus Feeders planted the acreage with annual forages and grazes cattle at high stocking rates for short periods of time before moving them to fresh paddocks. So far, the results are promising.
“Now we must determine if these assumptions endure, and to what extent we can maintain and grow this improvement. Through research can we build confidence that our observations are not the result of chance and that the decisions we make address the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and societal,” says Paul Defoor, Co-CEO.
Organic matter is a large part of what makes healthy topsoil hold water, and since rainfall is unreliable in Texas, building it up is of paramount importance. Cactus Feeders conducted a test in 2018 that showed a single grazing season added 0.33 percentage points of organic matter to the soil. Every additional percentage point increases the soil’s water-holding capacity by up to 20,000 gallons per acre, a significant gain in an area of limited soil moisture.
Keep that up for seven to ten years, and the gains in organic matter could massively increase water retention in the soil. If the system works, it would draw less water from the Ogallala aquifer than irrigated crops.
“Developing production systems to efficiently produce quality protein from arid and semi-arid lands such as the Texas Panhandle, using little or no groundwater irrigation will be a true value to society,” Defoor says. “It begins in the heart of cattle country, with what helped establish Texas, and will keep our state strong, resilient, and productive into the future.”