Can Grazing Be Carbon Neutral? New Evidence.

April 14, 2018

I’ve posted Alan Savory’s talk before – he advocates grazing practices that he claims can save soils and sequester carbon. He has many critics. 

Recent research, while not going as far as Savory – does support the idea at least in part.
I’m going to find out more in coming months.
Civil Eats:

There’s no denying Americans eat a lot of meat. In fact, the average U.S. citizen eats about 55 pounds of beef a year, including an estimated three hamburgers a week, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) expects that amount to increase by about 3 percent by 2025. This heavy reliance on animal protein carries a big environmental footprint—livestock production contributes about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with beef constituting 41 percent of that figure, thanks to the methane cattle produce in the digestion process and the fact that overgrazing can release carbon stored in soils.

Though most livestock production impacts the climate, the regenerative agriculture movement recognizes many benefits to properly managed livestock grazing, including carbon sequestration, restoring topsoil, improving ecosystem biodiversity, reducing pesticide and fertilizer inputs, and producing more nutritious food.

Yet despite the benefits of careful grazing, the question remains: Can cattle be raised, fed, and slaughtered in a way that reduces their greenhouse gas emissions to a tolerable level?

A new five-year study that will be published in the May 2018 issue of the journal Agricultural Systemssuggests that they can. Conducted by a team of researchers from from Michigan State University (MSU) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the study suggests that if cattle are managed in a certain way during the finishing phase, grassfed beef can be carbon-negative in the short term and carbon-neutral in the long term.

The research, led by Paige Stanley, who earned a Master’s degree in 2017 from MSU and is now a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, states, “it is possible that long-term [adaptive multi-paddock grazing] AMP grazing finishing in the Upper Midwest could contribute considerably more to climate change mitigation and adaptation than previously thought.”

Rather than using the common method of continuous grazing, in which cattle remain on the same pasture for an entire grazing season, the researchers used the more labor-intensive method of AMP, which entails moving the cattle at intervals ranging from days to months, depending on the type of forage, weather, time of year, and other considerations. A herd of adult cattle on MSU grazing land served as their test population.

Though the study’s finding that strategic grazing can make a dent in the overall environmental impact of cattle runs counter to the widespread opinion among other researchers and climate activists, it is welcome news for advocates of regenerative agriculture.

Christine Jones, an Australian soil ecologist, believes the MSU paper makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discussion on the role livestock can play in mitigating climate change. “The research clearly demonstrates there are no net emissions of greenhouse gas with well-planned AMP grazing, due to the sequestration of soil carbon,” Jones said. AMP grazing provides “countless other ecosystem services,” she added, “including improved biodiversity, erosion control (soil is by far America’s largest export), increased soil water-holding capacity, and greater drought resilience.”

Managed Grazing in the Finishing Phase

Beef cattle’s lives are divided into three phases: the cow-calf phase from birth to weaning, which the animals generally spend in pastures, paddocks, or rangeland; the growth phase, which they often pass in open grazing areas; and the “finishing” phase in the three months prior to slaughter, during which 97 percent are fattened up with grain in feedlots of confined animal feeding operations.

While currently only 3 percent of cattle continue to graze during the finishing phase, earning the title of grass-fed beef, this sector is growing: Retail sales of organic, fresh grass-fed beef grew from $6 million in 2012 to $89 million in 2016, driven by consumers concerned about sustainability, health, and animal welfare.

The study authors chose to focus on the finishing phase because it represents the largest contrast between two livestock production methods, as the first two phases are broadly similar. To conduct their research, they measured methane emitted from the cattle’s digestive tracts and manure and added it to existing lifecycle data on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the production of cattle feed and mineral supplements and the amount of energy consumed on the farm and in transporting the animals.

Applying the manure to the pastures, adding no pesticides or soil amendments, they also tracked soil organic carbon and nitrogen levels. To see how their grazing method contrasted with feedlot finishing, they compared their data to the same parameters from a previously conducted two-year MSU feedlot study.

The extensive analysis showed a significant reduction in GHG emissions under the AMP grazing system, because the soil absorbed enough carbon to cancel out the methane emissions. (By contrast, the calculated carbon loss from soil erosion during feed crop production made for slightly higher feedlot emissions.)

“This carbon sequestration rate allowed us to turn a carbon positive into a carbon negative compared to the most common management system in the finishing phase,” explained Stanley.

The reason for the decreased GHG emission is this: soils tend to sequester more carbon when their microbiota and root systems remain intact; at the same time, manure left on the ground, rather than sluiced out of a feedlot and sprayed on a pasture, releases less nitrogen. (In addition to methane and carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas, comprising about 18 percent of total beef cattle emissions.)

Overgrazing has long been observed to severely damage soils, with the implication being that the damage is caused by too many animals in an area. But, said Jason Rowntree, a study co-author and animal science professor at MSU, “It isn’t the amount of animals [that should determine grazing patterns], it’s the amount of time the animals spend in a certain spot.” Moving the cattle when they have eaten just enough forage to stimulate grass regrowth and prevent the incursion of woody plants and trees preserves the soil structure and doesn’t liberate the carbon already stored in the soil.

The study’s results apply only to the last part of the animals’ lives, Rowntree said—but, since nearly all cattle are raised on pasture in their first six months, implementing AMP in that phase could also offer significant results, even if feedlots don’t switch to grazing.

The Latest in a Long Tradition

The researchers’ insight is not completely new: it first arose in the early 20th century when the visionary French farmer André Voisin observed his cattle’s eating habits and concluded that overgrazing could be prevented by allowing more animals in a pasture for a shorter period of time than conventional grazing theories prescribed; Voisin published a book on “rational grazing” in 1959.

More recently, Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean cattle rancher and founder of the Boulder, Colorado-based Savory Institute, has become an evangelist for “holistic planned grazing,” a complex methodfor managing grazing to provide healthy livestock feed, prevent erosion, integrate wildlife, improve the soil, and plan for drought and fire.

According to a 2013 Savory Institute report, if the method were used on “up to 5 billion hectares of degraded grassland soils,” it could sequester at least 10 billion tons of atmospheric carbon in soils—the approximate equivalent of five times the area of Europe taking up a year’s worth of global carbon emissions. The report further claims that this would lower “greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades.” Savory has been heavily criticized for lack of scientific rigor in these and other claims.

While the MSU–UCS study doesn’t go as far as the Savory Institute report, it does present a comprehensive analysis of the factors influencing net greenhouse emissions from livestock.

L Hunter Lovins in the Guardian:

In his recent interview with Allan Savory, the high profile biologist and farmer who argues that properly managing grazing animals can counter climate chaos, George Monbiot reasonably asks for proof. Where I believe he strays into the unreasonable, is in asserting that there is none.

Savory’s argument, which counters popular conceptions, is that more livestock rather than fewer can help save the planet through a concept he calls “holistic management.” In brief, he contends that grazing livestock can reverse desertification and restore carbon to the soil, enhancing its biodiversity and countering climate change. Monbiot claims that this approach doesn’t work and in fact does more harm than good. But his assertions skip over the science and on the ground evidence that say otherwise.

Richard Teague, a range scientist from Texas A&M University, presented in favour of Savory’s theory at the recent Putting Grasslands to Work conference in London. Teague’s research is finding significant soil carbon sequestration from holistic range management practices.

Soil scientist, Dr Elaine Ingham, a microbiologist and until recently chief scientist at Rodale Institute, described how healthy soil, the underpinning of civilization throughout history, is created in interaction between grazing animals and soil microbiology. Peer-reviewed research from Rodale has shown how regenerative agriculture can sequester more carbon than humans are now emitting. Scientists, as well as dozens of farmers, ranchers and pastoralists from around the world, describe how they are increasing the health of their land, the carrying capacity of it, its biodiversity, and its profitability, all while preserving their culture and traditions.

How much carbon can be sequestered in properly managed grasslands and how fast? We don’t know, but we do know that massive carbon reserves were present in the ten-foot thick black soil of the historic grasslands of the Great Plains of the US. We know that the globe’s grasslands are the second largest store of naturally sequestered carbon after the oceans. They got that way by co-evolving with pre-industrial grazing practices: sufficient herds of native graziers, dense packed by healthy populations of predators.

53 Responses to “Can Grazing Be Carbon Neutral? New Evidence.”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    Keith, {April 16, 2018 at 4:25 pm)

    No, you’re missing the point. Carbon neutral is not good enough; sequestration is required of all agriculture from now on.

    Carbon is not the only pollution or problem caused by meat production.

    Animal agriculture on the scale it’s practiced is a product of the fossil fuel age and will have to be drastically reduced or that energy will have to be replaced by clean safe renewable sources. While that’s possible, it’s quite insane. Trying to replace all the energy we use rather than reducing energy use as much as possible by eliminating the indulgences of the rich will cost trillions of dollars, and will delay cutting carbon emissions, maybe enough to ensure the end of civilization.

    How many agricultural practices does the average person know about? People know about Savory because he took his idea to the public instead of proving it to the professionals. People knowing about it will think it’s fine to eat as much meat as they want–or will use it as an excuse to, even if they know or sort of know it’s bullshit, so to speak. People knowing about best practices often leap to the conclusion that they’re common practices, in this case a dangerous idea that will lead to enormous destruction. Unfortunately this can’t be put back in the bottle and no matter what happens people will have an excuse to keep eating meat.

    Now, because we’re not reducing meat production or industrial agriculture, or doing any of the other things we need to do to avoid catastrophe, a carbon price is needed, and the huge program of education that we need anyway to finally teach people what’s needed will have to be even bigger, because we need to convince people of something that was almost impossible to start with and now is harder because they don’t think it’s necessary.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “Trying to replace all the energy we use rather than reducing energy use as much as possible by eliminating the indulgences of the rich will cost trillions of dollars… ”

      Yeah – we KNOW it is going to cost trillions of dollars. So what? We spend trillions of dollars every year right now for fossil fuels.

      Remember fossil fuels? That is what is causing 91% of the GHG emissions the U.S. causes. Beef is 1.9%. Why the frack are we talking about meat. Again?!?

      And if you think that the way forward is make our renewable energy policy lower our quality of live by restricting access to energy, or “by eliminating the indulgences of the rich “, you have just decided to make renewable energy as unpalatable as possible. There is no need for that. There is no justification for that. And it is terrible policy that will doom our efforts.

      We are going to build our RE infrastructure. And when we do we will be bathed in a whacking surplus of cheap electricity. And that will improve our quality of life, not decrease it. RE means indulgences, not austerity.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Sorry, there are so many things wrong with that I can’t begin to even list them all. All I can do is address a few of them in too brief ways to even explain, let alone convince.

        1.9% is fantasy. A lot of fossil fuels are used for agriculture; in the US and elsewhere, most of it’s for meat. Meat’s methane and nitrous oxides alone are more than 2% and then there’s deforestation. Offshoring it doesn’t change the facts.

        Assumptions galore in your post invalidate every point. Here are a couple of pieces that point out a few of them.

        They’re old and therefore over-optimistic which means we have to do a lot more radical things than they say, to reduce every bit of our emissions as fast as humanly possible and sequester massive amounts of carbon besides (with the only technologies to do that that actually exist–agriculture and forestry).

        If inequality continues, civilization won’t. Meat, dairy and egg production, as an inextricable part of that inequality can’t expand, it’s already too destructive. Rich people have to eat less meat, others can’t eat much more than they do and what they do eat has to be produced in plant-centered permaculture systems and on wastelands that can’t produce much else (or much meat).

        I’m talking about raising the quality of life for both rich and poor, by ensuring enough energy and everything else for everyone.

        People who don’t already know all this either haven’t been paying attention to the latest science and logic about how dire the situation is–or aren’t willing to admit it because they’re too attached to something; in this case, meat eating and wealth. It’s a common problem; it’s called denial.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          “1.9% is fantasy. ”

          Fantasy? It is what the EPA says is the correct figure for the [CO2] equivalent GHG contribution of *cows* in the United States. That includes CO2, methane and NO.

          You can’t just dismiss it as “fantasy”.

          The entire U.S. meat industry is about 4.0%. The raising of vegetables that is not for meat/dairy production is 5.0%. The entire agricultural sector is 9%.

          And yet you can’t stop arguing about meat. WTF?!?

          Do your diligence. Use real facts.

  2. J4Zonian Says:

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  3. Says:

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