Story Science: What Ranchers are Saying about Water
Updated: Oct 21
The storyline of water, told by ranchers, as a tool for science communication.
When I applied and chose a graduate school, I intentionally avoided Land Grant universities because I didn’t want to work in agriculture or research “dirt.” I made my way to University of South Carolina, a school without an agriculture program, only to find myself working in SoilHealthLabs. I found myself loving the impact soil health could have on our water systems and environment, but I was still focused on mostly urban settings like parks and athletic fields. The longer I spent in the lab and the more I learned about soil health in relation to agriculture and food production the more I really learned to enjoy it, appreciate it, and even love it. But, I still wasn’t working with livestock. As my story of resistance to exactly where I am supposed to be would have it, I’m now diving into interviews with ranchers, talking to my family and friends about the benefits of regenerative grazing practices, and learning how to move cattle.
I’m Lacy Barnette, a PhD candidate in the Soil Health Labs in South Carolina and part of the Growing Resilience team. My research focuses predominantly on science communication in agriculture. Part of my project involves analyzing interviews with producers. I started this work with the 12 interviews from the 2019 Our Amazing Grasslands videos. In digging through the transcripts, the role of water in grazing management really shined through.
All 12 producers discussed water in their interviews, and it was the top referenced theme (referred to as “nodes” in the software). The theme of water in these interviews provides a great window into the holistic nature of regenerative management far beyond any one particular practice.
First, producers highlighted the need for water as a resource. While this is true for almost all agriculture, this became particularly clear when discussing rotational grazing. In order to rotate cattle (or any other livestock), they had to have the ability to provide water in each parcel of land. Producers discussed the infrastructure and resources needed to do this such as wells, pipelines, (sometimes tankers) and livestock watering facilities.
Then, with the ability to rotate the animals, the positive impacts on their land and water became clear. Producers noted improvements in water quality especially in conveying how clean water improved livestock health. The biggest improvement they shared was resiliency of their land, particularly related to both water extremes – drought years and wet years. Infiltration improvements kept more water on the land and grass growing in drought years and it led to less flooded fields in wet years.
Ultimately, to see the benefits rotational grazing offers to not only the soil but also the water, producers need water access and infrastructure. Simplistically, they need water to in turn help the water. Producers shared key partners, organization, and resources for their support in sharing management practices like rotational grazing and for helping them get set up for success.
Producers highlighted the benefits of rotational grazing and also what is needed to get it implemented, which was further unpacked through the interview analysis. Engaging with producers and stakeholders gives research and management practices context. It also helps uncover producer needs and motivation. For example, family was another big theme from the analysis with producers discussing family operations, goals to leave land for their children, and how the time to rotate livestock has played into lives. My deep dive into these interviews helped me better understand meaningful ways to communicate science so that it’s usable, helpful, and ideally leads to implementation.
I had the opportunity to share some of this work with poster presentations at 2 conferences this past summer. My hope is that I not only shared the stories and successes of regenerative producers, but that I also encouraged more scientists to engage with and really listen to producers.
You can download the full document here:
Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:
1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts and more.
2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.
3.Follow Growing Resilience on social media:
4. Our homepage: www.growingresiliencesd.com