Porcupine grass
Porcupine grass Porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea) seeds. Griffith Prairie north of Aurora, Nebraska. (Prairie Plains Resource Institute prairie). © Chris Helzer/TNC


Q&A: Protecting Grasslands, Supporting Ranchers

Working on the Range

Nancy Labbe Nancy on a horse named Tess. © Michael Unge

WORKING ON THE RANGE | Nancy Labbe, co-director of The Nature Conservancy’s North America Regenerative Grazing Lands Strategy, grew up on her family’s ranch in Nebraska and worked for several years in corporate and nonprofit roles focused on sustainable beef production.

Those experiences allow her to build trusting relationships to promote regenerative grazing practices that support people and the planet. 

What exactly is regenerative grazing?
Regenerative grazing is a suite of science-based, field-tested practices that improve plant community and soil health and overall ecosystem resilience. But at its core, it is a mindset. It’s about looking at the resources you have and figuring out how to use them to produce food and generate income while also making things better—on your land and beyond.
How can working with ranchers support conservation?
Keeping grasslands as grasslands is the goal. And whether we are talking about cows, sheep or bison, grazing animals on the land are critical to healthy grasslands. These landscapes provide so much—food, cultural connections, carbon storage, wildlife habitat, water filtration. We encourage the adoption of grazing practices that help maintain those functions.

What challenges do ranchers face when evaluating sustainable practices?
One that is top of mind for me came from a recent conversation with my brother, the fifth generation to manage our family’s ranch. When I asked what advice he would give ranchers considering new practices, he said, “You better have a good banker.” Regenerative grazing strategies can mean upfront costs and potentially slow short-term income, which affect how a rancher thinks about managing investments and debt.


Nancy Labbe
Nancy Labbe Co-director of TNC's North America Regenerative Grazing Lands Strategy © Nancy Labbe

What is TNC doing to address that barrier?
There are a few banks that are developing loan products to help people adopt regenerative grazing, but they need investments to do that. Many corporations are making conservation a priority in their business models and looking for new ways to achieve their goals. We are beginning to connect those interests to create full-circle relationships that benefit everyone.

What makes you optimistic for the future of grasslands and ranching?
So many ranchers who might not think of themselves as environmentalists are already doing amazing things. I see my family, our neighbors, interested in land and water conservation practices. Because of their dedication to place and each other, I have confidence these productive lands will endure.

The Nature Conservancy has set out to improve management on 240 million acres of intact North American grazing lands by 2030. Discover how we are achieving that goal at nature.org/grazing.

A western meadowlark perches on a fence post in a Colorado prairie.
Grasslands A western meadowlark perches on a fence post in a Colorado prairie. © Sidra Monreal/TNC Photo Contest 2019