West of Austin and just east of Fredericksburg, nestled between wineries and hay fields, is a tract of savanna grassland — an ecosystem defined by grasslands dotted with oak trees. Historically, the movement of large ruminant animals and unrestricted wildfires helped architect this fertile region. Today, Katie Forrest and Taylor Collins, owners of Roam Ranch, are helping to restore this region through the practice of regenerative agriculture. At their 700-acre ranch, the bison truly do roam, and the deer certainly play.
Forrest and Collins, both Austin natives, began their foray into food with Epic Provisions, a company producing high-quality meat snacks that are sold nationwide. When searching for ingredients to put into their Epic bars, they got a peek into regenerative agriculture. Forrest recalls the feeling of first meeting those farmers: “I wish this was my life ... I want to wake up like you. I want to have the purpose you have.” When the couple sold Epic, they eagerly picked up a pair of ranch boots, bought a parcel of land in the Post Oak Savannah and started Roam Ranch in 2017. “There was this missing link, which was actually participating in the solution to all of these problems we were witnessing within our agricultural space,” says Forrest. “We always knew that one day we wanted to do this.” There is a plaque zip-tied to the back of their ranch-mobile that reads, “What Good Shall I Do Today?” It’s this attitude that seems to have fueled the couple’s leap into regenerative agriculture.
The nuances of regenerative agricultural are complex, but the basic idea is simple. Model your operation after nature by increasing biodiversity and reducing mechanical and chemical disturbances to the soil. Farmers who use these methods treat their soil and pastures like another member of the herd and are just as concerned with the health of microorganisms as they are with their bison calves. It is a holistic system that can actually sequester carbon and regenerate the land it occupies.
And on Roam Ranch, regenerate it has. Stepping onto the parcel of pasture that Forrest and Collins’ bison currently occupy is like stepping into a scene from “The Lion King” (during Mufasa’s reign, to be clear). There is an astounding amount of life there, and the area’s classification as a savanna suddenly makes sense. The green vegetation in this pasture is waist-high. When you walk through the grass, surprising clouds of grasshoppers and other winged insects jump out before you. It’s the heat of the day, and the bison are lethargic, but above them a large flock of brown-headed cowbirds dart around, flying from a fence post to a bison’s hindquarters and then back again. By the afternoon, the cowbirds will be replaced by sparrows, which will eventually make way for swarms of bats — all there to feast on the insect life that the herd has stirred up. And that’s just the beginning.
Once the bison “migrate” to another section of pasture (they are moved about once a day), ranch managers Cody and Julia Spencer help Forrest and Collins bring in Roam’s flock of chickens and an impressive group of turkeys sporting breed names like Royal Palms and Chocolate Turkey. These birds eat worms and parasites from the bison patties and do some general scratching around, dispersing the freshly plopped fertility as well as the recently deposited grass seeds. Conveniently, the seeds land on topsoil that was already aerated by the tromping of 400 bison feet, priming them for germination. The iconic bison, the noisy chickens and even the guardian dog, named Cabbage, are working in synchronicity at Roam Ranch.
Land stewardship is at the forefront of Forrest’s and Collins’ minds, but they’re also running a business. “The animals are the tools to make this ecosystem function better. All of our management decisions are based on that. But recently, our ‘tools’ started getting mature enough that we had to start making harvest decisions.” Roam Ranch sells their bison meat through Farmhouse Delivery, Central Market and Wheatsville, where they even offer an “Ancestral Blend” that features ground bison mixed with liver and heart meat for a true nose-to-tail experience. Forrest and Collins host tours as well as harvest-your-own chicken and turkey events, and they sincerely want to share their savanna with consumers.
Collins and Forrest do not dream small. They dream in thousand-pound increments, and they have big plans for the future of Roam Ranch. Collins says they hope to become prominent advocates for the regenerative movement, contribute to scientific literature around the subject and do it all on an epic scale. “The more supply chains we can affect,” he says, “the more positive animal impact we can create.”
If you’re lucky, a trip to Roam Ranch might include a sunset mission of moving the bison herd. For ranch managers Cody and Julia Spencer, coaxing this ambling group of giants is unusually usual. In between operating a vehicle and some casual conversation, Julia whistles to the bison, patiently waiting for the herd to follow her. What starts off as a slow shuffle escalates to a full-on run as soon as the animals see their fresh pasture. As the Texas sky explodes in pinks and oranges, bison wallow and frolic amid a blanket of green grass, and everyone truly seems at home on the range.
Story by Ada Brussard