Mark Lohrding calls himself a beginner at regenerative farming who has knowingly taken advice from a “hippie writer.”
“I think my neighbors shake their heads and wonder what I’ll do next,” says the fourth-generation rancher from Comanche County. “But I think there’s merit in doing what other people say you can’t do, and not doing what they encourage you to do.”
Primarily, though, the self-described conservative rancher says he bases his agricultural practices on a simple fact: What he’s doing is turning a profit, and what he used to do was losing money.
“The land in this part of the country was meant for growing grass to feed large ruminant animals,” he says. “Before white settlers moved in, it was a sea of mixed-grass prairie that fed thousands of head of bison, pronghorns and white-tailed deer. Periodically, nature provided a wildfire to cleanse it of woody brush and keep the springs and streams that watered the wildlife flowing.”
Unlike the rocky Flint Hills, the mixed-grass prairie can be tilled for crops such as wheat, corn or alfalfa. Early Kansas pioneers tried that. Some are still trying. But Lohrding, like some of his neighbors, kept watching the bottom line thinking there had to be a better way.
From crops to forage
Lohrding farms with his parents, his wife, Sindi, and their children, Cole, Cade, Cody and Hadley, in the Red Hills of southwest Kansas. He has operated an intensive management grazing system for more than 20 years. More recently, he decided to add his cropland to his grazing program, planting three forage cover crops over a two-year period without using any fertilizer and only one chemical application.
“Input costs for crops were killing me. This is marginal land that in most years gets limited rainfall. I can grow 40-bushel wheat in a good year. But I can grow high-quality forage for cattle year in and year out,” he said. “I started doing some research and going to the No-till on the Plains Winter Conference.”
Lohrding said it was there he learned that it takes nature a thousand years to build one inch of topsoil. But it takes only about 20 years of conventional farming with tillage to lose an inch of topsoil.
“Over the last 100 years, we’ve seen a third of our topsoil used up and 50% of the organic matter is gone,” he said. “That is not a sustainable thing. What we were doing was using up our resources.”
To reverse that trend, Lohrding decided to follow the advice of sustainable agriculture gurus such as David Montgomery, whom he calls a “hippie writer,” along with researchers such as Dwayne Beck, Jill Clapperton and others. For the 2019 Winter Conference, Lohrding was in the speaker line-up.
He has also worked extensively with Comanche County ag agent Aaron Sawyers, who says it has been interesting to watch the progress that Lohrding has made with the transition.
“I actually worked for a while for Mark before I got the job offer here,” Sawyers says. “We grazed cattle we I was there, but he wasn’t doing the stockpile grazing with the forage grasses at that time. It’s been neat to watch his transition.”
Sawyers says there are a few other ranchers in the area — including him — who are experimenting with converting farmland to forage crops.
“It takes a lot less inputs,” he said. “It mimics nature. And it’s really not all that new. It’s what my great-grandfather did. We also have more ranchers who are doing intensive management grazing on native grasses that have never been plowed.”
More cover, minimal disturbance of the soil, living roots in the soil year-round, diversity of plant species and, finally, livestock to “harvest” all that forage make it all work. Lohrding’s payday comes from heifers and cows to sell to other ranchers or steers to send to the feedyard.
Wildfire brings tragedy, renewal
In 2017, more than 70% of the rangeland on the Lohrding Three Bar Ranch burned in the Starbuck wildfire. He lost half of his hay piles and several cows. The devastation was followed by a summer of D4 drought that further devastated the grass.
“It was awful,” he says. “It was a land of blowing ashes.”
But the comeback after the plentiful rainfall of 2018 has been astonishing. The fire destroyed thousands of red cedar and cottonwood trees. Springs have come back to life and streams flow though the pastures where Lohrding plants mixtures of seasonal forage grasses and grazes cattle year-round.
“It’s really been a reminder that the fire that brings devastation to homes, barns and fences also brings renewal to the grass and the land,” he says.
Calving when grass is best
The Lohrding ranch calves in the spring, with the exception of a few fall calves that came from replacing cows killed in the fire.
“We are mostly calving in April and May and moving toward May and June,” he said. “The reason for that is the cow needs the most energy for lactating and breed-back. So it makes sense to calve just as the grass is the richest.”
The ranch has more than 100 permanent paddocks, and Lohrding practices strip grazing year-round, moving cattle every couple of days by stringing new braided cable wire on fiberglass poles.
“It also provides plenty of exercise, so I don’t need a gym membership,” he says.
Lohrding describes his ranching model as “female-based,” with steers being a sideline. “What we primarily want to market is bred heifers and cows,” he says. “But we do market steers and the 17 we sold last year graded 98.8% choice or better.”
He is also noticing signs of a healthier soils.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed is that in our mixed forage fields, there are no sugar cane aphids,” he says. “Aphids are a problem in all the neighboring fields.”
Lohrding adds that he has also eliminated the use of pour-on insecticide on the cattle and is seeing dung beetles and earthworms returning to the soil.
“You know that your soil is coming back to life when you see that,” he says.
A ‘greener’ method of agriculture
Comanche County rancher Mark Lohrding sees plenty of room for conservative principles and greener agriculture.
For one thing, he says, “green” describes money as well as the environment, and what he’s learned is that there are some facets of friendlier environmental practices that also yield a healthier bottom line.
“I don’t think the push of the younger generation toward wanting to know more about their food, how it’s produced and their concerns about it being environmentally friendly is not going to end,” he says. “I see it growing in the coming years. And I think that as agricultural producers, we need to show off what we do to take care of the land, the water and the air and still produce high quality food that everybody in America can afford.”
Lohrding is all about educating consumers about what he, and other farmers and ranchers, do to make that happen.
“I really feel that if you are worried about showing off what you do, then maybe you need to re-think what you are doing,” he says. “If you are doing the right thing, you should be proud of it. I am happy to say that I am proud of what I’m doing,”
There are aspects of agriculture that need to be re-examined in that light, he says, including the need to produce the right crops on the right soils and in the right climate conditions.
“In Iowa and Illinois, thousands of acres of row crops make sense,” he says. “You have deep, rich soils. In the marginal prairie soils of southwest Kansas, nature meant you to grow forage grasses and that’s what we should be doing.”
He also thinks there is room in the commercial supply chain for grass-finished beef.
He says that he finishes some steers on grass for the family’s beef supply and is fascinated by the project that partners Pharo Cattle Co., Cactus Feeders and Tyson Foods to produce and market grass-finished beef.
“There is definitely an art to grass finishing,” he says. “I have had grass-finished steak that was really good, and I’ve had some that was really bad. The work that is being done with the Pharo project is looking at what kind of genetics works best. It’s fascinating research.”