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Farmer finds raising cattle improves soil

CLEARWATER, Minn. (AP) — Cattle perked up and started to moo as Matt Maier fired up his tractor to bring over a fresh roll of baleage for his herd.

Maier raises 300 cattle in Clearwater. And he owns Thousand Hills, a Becker-based, grass-fed beef distributor and marketer that requires its farmers to use regenerative practices that benefit the land.

He calls himself and other Thousand Hills farmers “regenerative renegades.”

Regenerative agriculture made headlines last spring when General Mills announced plans to source from 1 million acres of farmland using regenerative practices, which include keeping soil covered and minimizing soil disturbances, diversifying crops, integrating livestock and keeping a living root in the ground.

General Mills wants to reach that million-acre goal by 2030.

Maier wants to reach 1 million acres for Thousand Hills by 2022 because, he said, “I’m competitive,” the St. Cloud Times reported.

Maier has seen his regenerative practices change the land. Native grasses like blue stem returned on their own from old seeds in the soil. Water in a Mississippi River tributary became more clear. A bald eagle took up residence, along with myriad other wildlife.

“It never gets old,” Maier said. “Every day I’m out here, it’s beautiful.”

And, most importantly, the soil has changed.

He watched one of his pastures absorb 7 inches of rain in two days while other fields flooded, Maier said. Regenerative practices focus on soil health and that makes the soil more stable and more absorbent.

“What we’re really trying to do is regenerate our soils,” Maier said. “That’s our biggest mission.”

What’s so special about soil?

In fall 2017 Minnesota launched an Office of Soil Health. And one year ago, Anna Cates started as the state’s first dedicated soil specialist.

“Working on soil can be a win-win-win for a lot of parties,” Cates said.

Improving soil health can make fields more efficient for farmers and it can improve groundwater quality, which is something the public wants, she said. Plus it’s natural: Plants know how to work in soils, soils know how to support plants.

Regenerative agriculture and practices to improve soil also appeal to people, because they focus on the positive — regeneration of the land, Cates said.

Maier launched his farm after researching ways to improve food systems, he said. He kept returning to grass-fed beef as the single best way he found to do that.

He returned to his hometown of Clearwater around 2000 after living and working in the Twin Cities. He started his herd; then he met the founder of Thousand Hills and they became partners. Five years later Maier took ownership of the company.

It now spans 600,000 acres across 50 farms and ranches, Maier said. “We’re seeing double-digit growth every year.”

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