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. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    I don’t think that many here would disagree that one of the strongest arguments supporting the theory of anthropogenic climate change is the fact that these beliefs are cemented in such a strong consensus among scientists.

    Why is it when it comes to talking about what’s on our plates, that suddenly the consensus of science no longer carries such validity? Alan Savory’s views lie far outside the consensus. The fact that he’s a politician and a rancher should weigh heavily on our view of him as well.

    Allan Savory: Myth And Reality
    http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/11/12/allan-savory-myth-and-reality/

    All Sizzle and No Steak –Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong.
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/04/allan_savory_s_ted_talk_is_wrong_and_the_benefits_of_holistic_grazing_have.html

    Saving the World With Livestock? The Allan Savory Approach Examined
    https://freefromharm.org/agriculture-environment/saving-the-world-with-livestock-the-allan-savory-approach-examined/

  2. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    I don’t think that many here would disagree that one of the strongest arguments supporting the theory of anthropogenic climate change is the fact that these beliefs are cemented in such a strong consensus among scientists.

    Why is it when it comes to talking about what’s on our plates, that suddenly the consensus of science no longer carries such validity? Alan Savory’s views lie far outside the consensus.

    Allan Savory: Myth And Reality
    http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/11/12/allan-savory-myth-and-reality/

    All Sizzle and No Steak –Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong.
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/04/allan_savory_s_ted_talk_is_wrong_and_the_benefits_of_holistic_grazing_have.html

    Saving the World With Livestock? The Allan Savory Approach Examined
    https://freefromharm.org/agriculture-environment/saving-the-world-with-livestock-the-allan-savory-approach-examined/

  3. indy222 Says:

    The study quoted was done in the Midwest, famous for rich deep topsoil. The average depth of topsoil around the world is only 8″. It’s much easier to increase soil carbon stores in a deep soil than a shallow one. I’d like to see similar studies done in the vast majority of land used. In particular, the notoriously thin poor soils of the tropics where so much deforestation in service of cattle is taking place.
    I remain skeptical, although improving the movement of cattle to avoid wrecking the land sounds pretty easy common sense. If it’s not already been widely adapted there’s a reason – no doubt it’s cost of labor and fencing. That’s got to get put into the equations.
    Whenever something looks like a no-brainer to do, it pays to look closer to why it hasn’t already been done. Farmers are not stupid, not in third world countries and not here… at least when it comes to their livelihood (voting, is something different).

  4. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    I don’t think that many here would disagree that one of the strongest arguments supporting the theory of anthropogenic climate change is the fact that these beliefs are cemented in such a strong consensus among scientists.

    Why is it when it comes to talking about what’s on our plates, that suddenly the consensus of science no longer carries such validity? Alan Savory’s views lie far outside the consensus.

    Allan Savory: Myth And Reality
    http://www.thewildlifenews.com/2013/11/12/allan-savory-myth-and-reality/

  5. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    I don’t think that many here would disagree that one of the strongest arguments supporting the theory of anthropogenic climate change is the fact that these beliefs are cemented in such a strong consensus among scientists.

    Why is it when it comes to talking about what’s on our plates, that suddenly the consensus of science no longer carries such validity? Alan Savory’s views lie far outside the consensus.

  6. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    Apparently web links are now being blocked from this post!? I didn’t think this was a right wing website. If you’re interested in reading some more about Alan Savory, you can google these titles:

    Allan Savory: Myth And Reality — from The Wildlife News

    All Sizzle and No Steak ;Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong. — from Slate

    Saving the World With Livestock? The Allan Savory Approach Examined — from free from harm dot org

    • dumboldguy Says:

      I’m about to nominate you for membership in The Order of the Perfumed Sleeve Hanky Sniffers (TOPSHS). You are getting entirely too “sniffish” in your comments.

      APPARENTLY you are so used to pontificating without problems that you don’t understand that Crocks is a WordPress site and therefore suffers from occasional electronic brain farts that lose entire messages for days (or permanently) or blocks links. And that makes Crock a RIGHT WING website? Because YOU personify everything good about LIBERALS and therefore this is an ATTACK on you?

      A hint—-WordPress often won’t deal with three links in the same comment as you attempted—include no more than two, and if that comes through OK, reply to yourself with the remaining link

      (PS Lord love a duck, but the “hamburger wars” are getting tiresome. (And mostly beside the point).

      • sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

        Ouch dumbboldguy. Actually, not even one link would go through. You, however, seem to only be replying because you think that this is an attack on you. If you’re not interested in the discussion, not sure why you’re posting on this particular post — an article about, well, hamburgers.

        You say I’m getting a bit “sniffy.” Perhaps you think I’m being judgmental. I ate meat and milk and eggs for most of my life. And then thanks to the incredible amount of access that we have to information on the internet, we came to the conclusion that what we choose to eat does make a big impact.

        A person who follows a plant-based diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food. Each day, a person who eats a plant-based diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.

        No one is judging you. It’s not about you. It’s about the animals, the environment, and our future welfare on this earth. Sorry if this information is upsetting to you.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Congratulations! The condescension, dismissiveness, and self-absorbed cluelessness demonstrated in this comment have cemented your membership in The Order of the Perfumed Sleeve Hanky Sniffers. Sniff in good health (but DO try to pay better attention to others and avoid embarrassment).

          Ouch? And I “seem to be replying only because I think that this is an attack on ME”?. Come away from your mirror long enough to really read what others say and then make intelligent comments in response.

          This has nothing to do with me, and my reply was in response to your very foolish and judgmental “Apparently web links are now being blocked from this post!? I didn’t think this was a right wing website”. How long have you been visiting Crock and/or how generally clueless are you to say such a thing?

          You state, from up on your high horse of condescension, “If you’re not interested in the discussion, not sure why you’re posting on this particular post — an article about, well, hamburgers”, and then go on to AGAIN lecture us on all that INCREDIBLE amount of information that you have gleaned from the internet. Guess what, Scott? You said in another comment to “do the math”, and many of us have been doing so for decades, in my case since before the first Earth Day nearly 48 years ago. We have had the “hamburger discussion” before on Crock, and it’s a side issue that fades into insignificance when compared to the human species’ inability to really face the vast web of evidence that we are destroying the planet.

          Which brings us to your final bit of condescension—-“No one is judging you. It’s not about you. It’s about the animals, the environment, and our future welfare on this earth. Sorry if this information is upsetting to you”. The only proper response to that last sentence is GFYS, Scott. (And I will be a bit judgmental myself and say that if anything is “upsetting” it is to be hearing from ANOTHER freaking engineer on Crock—-did you sign the Oregon Petition?)

  7. sailingtranquilitybay.com Says:

    Going Vegan Is the Best Thing You Can Do for the Planet, New Study Proves

    A groundbreaking study by Tulane University and the University of Michigan published in Environmental Research Letters found that meat, dairy and egg consumption is responsible for nearly 84 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

    https://www.ecowatch.com/vegan-climate-change-2558286917.html

    • dumboldguy Says:

      ZZZZZZzzzzzzzz………!!!

      Some interesting follow-on pieces with this link:

      For those who want to diversify a bit from Solar Roadway—-here’s another dumb money pit.
      https://www.ecowatch.com/electric-vehicles-recharge-road-sweden-2559608067.html

      For those who wonder whether we’ll even be able to grow enough veggies:
      https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change-us-west-east-2560548746.html

      https://www.ecowatch.com/drought-climate-change-california-2522067805.html


    • The best thing you can, do is not have children!

      • J4Zonian Says:

        The best thing YOU can do is not have children. The best thing everyone else can do is work to change the psychology and politics of the US. Everything else is secondary.

        Our numbers are not the problem. Consumption and destruction by the rich is.
        https://commons.commondreams.org/t/in-decline-invariably-of-humanitys-making-1-in-8-of-worlds-bird-species-threatened-by-extinction/51091/25?u=j4zonian


        • Really? I can’t change a damn thing about the psychopaths playing “who’s got the biggest dick” running the US! The tragedy is, I don’t see any states around the planet, with an living standard worth a damn, that are actually living within environmental limits. Climate change is a symptom of over consumption of resources by the human species. That consumption is a numbers game. Sure, you could fit 20 billion on the planet if we all consumed vat grown protein fed with recycled sewage, lived cheek by jowl and entertained ourselves in a virtual reality world powered by a reactor in every city, and I’m sure that’s the plan, if there is one? I don’t see any deviation from that course. It’s not the brave new world I envisioned when “Limits to growth” and “Population bomb” were published and I imagined leaders actually had the gumption to act on physical facts. Population is the problem! There is no going back to the horse and plough with these numbers. We’ve degraded natural systems too much. So there’s two alternatives. A power down, population sized to resources and preservation of what’s left of the best things about being alive on our beautiful planet, or BAU and decent into some sort of Matrix, or Borg collective scenario!

          • J4Zonian Says:

            Exactly. What our numbers should be is a judgment call, a debatable point based on values and assumptions. Of course there are limits that reason puts on the debate. That doesn’t mean we’ve a priori passed THE limit. Of course we have to shrink our total impact based on ecological reality. That’s why we need to recognize that the problem is the impact of the rich, which I’ve shown in this and the other discussion I’ve linked to.

            Please stop making false assumptions and using straw person arguments. Stop trying to fit what I’m saying into the usual Dichotomy of Ignorance that exists on this issue. You and I probably agree more or less on how many of us there should be and maybe even on roughly how we should live. But our numbers are pretty much what they are for the duration of this crisis–at least the length of time we have to reduce GHGs and other serious impacts by at least 90% and begin to massively sequester carbon and repair other damage–about 10 years. If you know of a population policy that can halve or quarter the population in that time please tell us. Genocide doesn’t count; besides the obvious, it means war, and war is so carbon intensive it would doom us. It would intensify the real problem–the impact the rich cause–and the people it would eliminate DO NOT CAUSE THE PROBLEM!

            Population growth rates are declining; population is widely expected to peak by about 2050 and then decline, but will almost certainly decline before that as death rates rise because of the ecological crisis.

            Focused on other things, most people including leaders ignored the Limits to Growth study as they ignore all recognitions of our embedment in ecological webs–of meaning as well as physicality. Only as it became iconic because it summarized thousands of other findings did it (and all the other recognitions of what is now clear is an exponentially growing ecological crisis) inspire the left and trigger ever-increasing resistance from the right (whose experience and obsession with individuality precludes them from accepting the reality of commonality, common cause, compassion, ecological webs and other manifestations of connection). Since Barry Goldwater lost the presidential election in 1964 the right has been organizing to take over, and they’re close to succeeding.

            No, we can’t go back to many former means of production, but to think that that means we can’t survive with less impact is just silly. The impact of humanity is mostly from a small number of rich people. It’s not 2 groups with a dividing line of course, that’s silly. It’s a continuum, which means the problem that can be addressed is not the people but the idea and reality of wealth. (Behind which lies addiction, objectification and all the other psychological issues related to what is most accurately called the Wetiko disease. That’s the problem we have to solve to survive, and if we allow the rich to evade responsibility by blaming people who aren’t causing the crisis and scapegoating with racism, misogyny and class prejudice, we won’t solve that real problem and won’t survive.

            http://data.footprintnetwork.org/#/


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