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.

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

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    “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.”

    Not quite right. Global livestock figures also include the GHG costs of one-time land use changes, like burning forests down to make farmland.

    In the U.S., according to the EPA, beef contribute 1.9% of GHG emissions. And part of that figure is because large cattle productions do not spread the cow manure over the earth, where it would be broken down with aerobic conditions, but dump it into huge manure wet lagoons, where it makes more methane. This is an area where legislation could reduce methane emissions.

    Also, that 1.9% figure does not subtract the GHG emissions that would occur naturally if the vegetable matter cows eat (mostly grass) was allowed to to rot all by itself in the wild.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    “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.”

    To be fair, the finishing phase can last significantly longer than 3 months in some cases. (yeah – equal balance from Gingerbaker re beef)

    In any case – kudos on presenting data to the contrary of most articles about beef. 🙂

  3. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    “Scientists, as well as dozens of farmers, ranchers and pastoralists from around the world, describe how they are increasing the health of their land… .. .” — good news from animal agriculture!

    That’s great Peter. If there’s one thing that we really need in this fight for sustainable solutions, it’s cherry-picked information that tells people good things about their bad habits. Really sorry to see that out of all the information available, this is what you’ve chosen to “explore.”

  4. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    In case anyone else out there is interested in exploring additional ways to create a sustainable future — beyond riding your bike to work and starting political arguments with your friends, here’s a good place to start:

    The full version of the film is available on Netflix. All of the information used in the film is sourced on their website at http://www.cowspiracy.com

  5. botterd Says:

    It should be emphasized that Savory’s chief concern was not about CO² but about desertification (and soil erosion and land loss). His insights are based on an attempt at copying the way wild herds have grazed for millenia to cattle ranching. He had an “ecological conversion” experience when he realized that wild herds and healthy grasslands formed a symbiosis, and not an antimony where the one pole destroys the other.

  6. indy222 Says:

    There’s a lot of common sense to these improved cattle practices. As for the final yea/nah on cattle vs vegetarian, I’d like to see material from un-promoted sources. Not sure “Civil Eats” and Lovins fit.


  7. What happens once soil reaches its carbon plateau, which is likely fairly quickly for marginal rainfall areas? Or can it be extended with irrigation? This dilemma points to benefits of both above and below ground biomass, surely. Be mindful that to avoid warming from net CO2e via the 3-10 tonnes of CO2 per animal (3 for beef and 10 for dairy) via atmospheric methane requires about three times the biomass sequestration when calculated over 10-20 years compared with over 100 years. So, trees combined with a ‘minimal’ but still pro-regenerative herd seem a sensible and more assured way to go.


  8. What happens once soil reaches its carbon plateau, which is likely fairly quickly for marginal rainfall areas? Or can it be extended with irrigation? This dilemma points to benefits of both above and below ground biomass, surely. Be mindful that to avoid warming from net CO2e via the 3-10 tonnes of CO2e per animal (3 for beef and 10 for dairy) via atmospheric methane requires about three times the biomass sequestration when calculated over 10-20 years compared with over 100 years. So, trees combined with a ‘minimal’ but still pro-regenerative herd seem a sensible and more assured way to go.

  9. J4Zonian Says:

    “the question remains: Can cattle be raised, fed, and slaughtered in a way that reduces their greenhouse gas emissions to a tolerable level?”

    I think the question remains “What food system is the best for each region, even microclimate?”
    Tolerable means… what?
    Best means “feeds the most people a complete diet with the least land and energy, only sustainable water, and no harmful inputs (fossil and unsustainably-mined fertilizer, and biocides)…while maintaining as large a net carbon sequestration level as possible”

    Like it or not–and there will be plenty of people who don’t like it–it’s too late to worry about personal preference, and too late to allow concentrations of wealth and power to allow some people to get more or better food than others.

    People also point to Joel Salatin as an example, but is he producing the most food for the most people on that land, or is he just maximizing his profit in a system of institutionalized inequality? If that land were switched to a plant-centered production system he could almost certainly feed more people from it.

    To continue to allow the current, psychopathic economic system to determine who eats and who doesn’t as the ecological crisis worsens will be to condemn hundreds of millions or billions to death by thirst, starvation, and violence. Or we could switch to a more equal system and feed it with small-scale low-meat organic permaculture.


    • Broad acre production of plant crops generally is much harder on the environment than pasture based enterprises. Pesticides, cultivation, fossil based fertilisers, irrigation. Their effect can be mitigated by adding a soil building phase to crop rotations that include livestock. Sure less area would be used with the 100% crop scenarios some of my neighbours practice, but the soil loss off their properties is criminal during adverse weather events, as is the amount of chemical they apply to their monocultures.

      • sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

        The majority of the corn that we grow is used as feed for animal agriculture. The US could feed all of the world’s 800 million starving people with the grain and soy that we grow just to feed cattle. To say that growing plants to eat is harder on the soil when compared to raising livestock is ludicrous.

        http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/1997/08/us-could-feed-800-million-people-grain-livestock-eat

        Worldwide, at least 50% of grain is fed to livestock.

        82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, and the animals are eaten by western countries.

        • sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

          Do the math:
          15x more protein on any given area of land with plants, rather than cows.

          Soybeans can be produced at 52. 5 bushels per acre x 60 lbs. per bushel = 3,150 dry soybeans per acre

          Soybeans protein content (dry) is 163.44 grams per pound

          The protein content per acre of soybeans is 163.44 g x 3,150 lb. = 514,836 g per acre

          Beef can be produced at 205 pounds per acre

          Beef protein content (raw) is 95.34 grams per pound

          The protein content per acre of beef is 95.34 g x 205 lb. = 19,544.7 g per acre

          … .. .and when it comes to grass fed, pasture raised beef? There simply isn’t enough land available to even make it possible. Do the math.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            I’m mostly on your side, which is why I think we shouldn’t use simplistic or cherry picked arguments or exaggerated facts, which we don’t need. Yields depend on lots of things and meat yields in particular vary tremendously. There’s a lot of land that can raise meat that can’t raise any substantial amount of soybeans sustainably. We need to make it clear we know that because meat-addicted people sure do and never fail to bring it up. What they leave out of their cherry picking is the part that says whatever that land produces, it produces in tiny amounts, perfectly fit for long term habitation at the level at which people used to inhabit it who lived on hunting it’s mostly meat products–often 1 or 2 per square mile. If we want to feed the world rather than let billions die in exchange for our comfort we need to eat mostly plants.


        • You have to realise, the whole planet doesn’t consist of the US! Whatever industrial farming methods exist on your 6% of the planets surface are for you to sort out, without extrapolating that to the rest of the planet.

          • sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

            That’s the trouble, animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction. We’re carving out the Earth’s lungs to graze cattle and grow soy to use as feed. The demand for a rich diet isn’t only in North America.

            http://www.mightyearth.org/mysterymeat/


          • Again you are missing the point. Savory is not endorsing the clearance of Amazonian rain forest, any more than endorsing the clearance of South East Asian rainforest for palm oil. He is promoting a grazing system that has the potential to build soil carbon and fertility on grassland ecosystems. Rotational grazing of livestock briefly at high stocking rates has long been known to have beneficial productivity gains when practised. If it turns out that such systems are in fact Carbon neutral, then those who choose to consume animal products can do so, without the ideological guilt trip imposed by those moral supremacists that choose a plant based diet. Your Soy bean diet, along with other broad acre cropping, is largely a product of the fossil burning age, unless practised on the subsistence scale and will need scaling back once essential inputs such as phosphates and natural gas become scarce! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehlUKkw69Dg

          • J4Zonian Says:

            “the whole planet doesn’t consist of the US!”

            At some point in my life that did come to my attention, Keith. But I hope you realize that US corporations and the government they own have a tremendous effect of the rest of the world, from use of glyphosate and GMOs, the takeover of indigenous farming lands and methods by industrial methods in general, control of land all over, from land speculation in Africa to destruction of rainforest for US beef production and lumber use… Farther afield, the spread of fracking, failure to live wiser lives, and loss of leadership on switching to clean safe renewable energy. The US government not only collaborates with US corporations to minimize regulations, get products approved, etc.domestically, it bullies other governments to accept products, extraction and control by US corporations, even going so far as to invade or direct coups in numerous countries all over the world. (Of course they’re not really US corporations, they’re stateless, with no loyalty to any country, population or people other than their CEO, directors, and sort of their shareholders.)

            The US is also culturally pervasive through movies, magazines, internet sites, language, food (which has a tremendous effect on food production systems), and other industries and corporations.

            With most of the rest of the world moving ahead to avoid climate catastrophe, the main country holding progress back is the US—as it’s always has been. Even though no country is doing what it needs to, the US as a drag instead of a leader gives other countries a huge excuse not to do more. And whatever the rest of the world does, if the US doesn’t move a lot faster civilization won’t survive. Europe could be fossil free in 10 years with serious effort; China and India would have a harder time without help because they’re not rich, but they could probably do it, as they already are. The US, at 18% RE electricity and 10% primary energy, and enormous energy use both per capita and in total, has a long long way to go and is not going. To save the world from ecological collapse, we have to change the direction of the US.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        I repeat: “Best means “feeds the most people a complete diet with the least land and energy, only sustainable water, and no harmful inputs (fossil and unsustainably-mined fertilizer, and biocides)…while maintaining as large a net carbon sequestration level as possible” ”

        Permaculture is based largely (which means not entirely, but largely) on perennials planted in diverse communities–the use of nitrogen fixers mixed in with nitrogen feeders and plants that “mine” various nutrients and make them available for other plants in an infinite variety of groups or communities called guilds.

        Please do your best to learn what something is before condemning it, and ask or find out what possibilities exist before saying no possibilities exist. A disturbing number of people I run into hate permaculture. Hate it, hate it, HATE it! And then it turns out they have absolutely no clue at all what it is. A lot like conservative troll reactions to renewable energy, interestingly. If we expect civilization to survive, rich people are going to have to 1. stop being rich, 2. eat less meat, and 3. a bunch of other stuff. This seems like the easiest part of that so maybe we should at least, oh, I don’t know, maybe start talking about it now and then?

  10. Andrew Sipocz Says:

    Savory says s lot of stuff that’s over the top but that doesn’t invalidate the premise behind rotational grazing. Prairie soils developed under grazing by bison and sequestered a lot of carbon. Released when they were plowed and farmed. Prairie restoration is a way to remove a lot of carbon and can include grazing. The prairie ecologist blog by a TNC manager is a good place to see this in action and is certainly more grounded in science than Mr. Savory’s work.


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