Everything eats and is eaten, and a main indicator of effective livestock grazing is watching the biodiversity increase and flourish in a balanced way. As a regenerative rancher I look toward that principle of nature to steward the 10,000 acres of grasslands my family manages in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a family owned and operated ranch, Markegard Family Grass-Fed, we work to steward grasslands by mimicking natural ecosystems through regenerative agriculture systems. We could not accomplish that without a strong desire and commitment to raising our four kids with strong family values of love and care for each other and the earth.
Within our Holistic Context we aim to make a substantial impact for the future generations by influencing large-scale restoration of watersheds and the grasslands within them while producing nutrient dense foods for thousands of families. We raise grass-fed beef and lamb, pasture raised chicken and forest raised pork.
The grassland type, where we live and ranch, is coastal terrace prairie giving life to the most plant species per square meter than any other grassland type in North America. One of our ranches alone has 157 species of plants identified. One of our main indicators of effective livestock grazing is watching the biodiversity increase and flourish in a balanced way. How do we know if these species are balanced? We don’t.
Many of the relationships of these species are beyond human understanding. Each plant however serves a role within the community dynamics and the greater the diversity of plant life, the greater diversity of microbes and soil resiliency. According to Dr. Christine Jones, increased plant production in diverse communities is closely linked with the sequestration of both carbon and organic nitrogen. How all these species interact above and below ground is an infinite dance of life connected.
There are certain species that have increased and flourished in vitality as we apply holistic planned grazing. These include the native perennial bunch grasses such as Purple Needlegrass Stipa pulchra and California Oatgrass Danthonia californica. These deep-rooted plants have both ecological and economic benefits. In our Mediterranean climate, where we are prone to drought, these plants will continue to survive, stay green and provide sustenance to our cattle.
As I walk or ride my horse through our grasslands I observe abundant plant and animal life. I see birds of prey that are unprecedented to neighboring lands. Even in areas where our pigs grazed, I see increased diversity. Pigs are moved into a forest and they eat away at the tangled understory, opening it up to more light for seeds that have been dormant to germinate, not to mention help clear the fire ladders.
“The wolves would feed on the bull elk for several days before moving on to a new meadow where the elk herd had found temporary solace from the predator. The elk herds moved from meadow to meadow, driven by the pack of wolves and the need for fresh forage untainted by their dung and its accompanying flies. When they moved on to a new feeding ground, they grazed along the edges of the meadow, which kept the forest from encroaching on the grass. As I crossed the stream, I was reminded that this predator-prey relationship is how this land evolved: a constant pulse of disturbance and death resulting in growth and life.” — An excerpt from Dawn Again: Tracking the Wisdom of the Wild by Doniga Markegard
Prior to being a rancher I worked as a wildlife tracker. As a tracker I observe the landscape with all of my senses engaged, in the present moment while looking at both the past stories of the land as well as projecting into the future of what that land holds as potential. I look to the edges, the ecotone, or transition from one bioregion to the next. These edges hold the most abundant diversity. Edge is where the animals travel. It is where the predators hunt, because that is where the prey species travel, often living in the shrubs or trees and traveling to the open to graze. Edge is where the species that grow in the shade blend with those that grow in light or those that thrive in wet edge of a river bank meld with those that thrive in dryer grassland. If biodiversity thrives on the edge, then we want to enhance the edge in our grasslands.
I just returned from PolyFace farm in Virginia, where the Salatin Family farms. Each field has diverse riparian or wooded edges and I noted that they are more akin to meadows than grasslands. On our own ranches we make sure there is patches of brush and forest amidst the grasses and that the banks of the ponds and streams are full of vegetative life.
It is not the type of philosophy applied to the industrial food system. As lab grown meat begins to emerge in nearby Silicone Valley, showing up on menus alongside our Markegard Family Grass-Fed burger, we see how humans have become so disconnected with ecological understanding. Digging deeper we find that these startup companies such as Impossible Foods are funded by the same big agriculture players such as Tyson and Cargill.
Recently a food company figured out a way to have their chicken and eat it too. They took a handful of cells from the inner shaft of the feather of a chicken they named Ian. They then put those cells in a medium of plant proteins (none of which they disclosed the source of) and the cells began to divide and double growing into unspecified chicken-like substance. The happily every after video shows San Francisco tech millennials picnicking with their lab meat as Ian walks around nearby.
When biological function is replaced with industrial buildings such as confined chicken house, or labs full of beakers growing fake meat where does this leave our future generations? When I was mentored by a Lakota elder Gilbert Walking Bull in my youth, he taught me to pray for all species to flourish in a balanced manner. This indigenous perspective that we are related to all life and we must take our place as humans to tend to that life has been lost by most people.
Recently when speaking with Winona LaDuke, I asked her how as a rancher stewarding large landscape how we can do more for the earth. She confirmed that we need to pray and set our intentions for life to flourish. It is this deliberate attentiveness to each species from the microbes in the soil to the red-tailed hawk hunting the voles that will lead us to enhancing the communities we are part of.
Article by Doniga Markegard, author of Dawn Again: Tracking the Wisdom of the Wild and a regenerative rancher who brings a perspective rooted in nature. She has a background in wildlife tracking and permaculture. In her youth she was mentored by some of the leading wildlife trackers, naturalists and Native spiritual elders. She spent years alone and with a small group of passionate youth in the Western Washington Wilderness learning the ways of the ancestors, immersing in nature, bird language, survival skills and wildlife tracking. Along with her husband, four children and ranch hand Sue, Doniga owns and operates Markegard Family Grass-Fed LLC raising grass-fed beef, lamb, pastured pork, chicken and dairy supplying the Bay Area with local, nutrient dense foods. The family ranch leases coastal ranches throughout the Bay Area spanning over 10,000 acres. She is dedicated to finding ways to regenerate lands and community through ranching practices that build soil, sequester carbon, capture and purify water and enhance habitat.