Multi-Species Rotational Grazing Can Deliver Climate Solutions

February 25, 2021

A recent, peer-reviewed life cycle analysis of research done two years ago confirms that multi-species pasture rotations sequester enough carbon in soil to create a greenhouse gas footprint that is 66 percent lower than conventional beef production.

The results are welcomed by livestock producers, given UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) findings that livestock account for 14.5 percent of human-caused emissions globally. The prospect of practices that can offset the huge amounts of methane generated by livestock production is welcomed by a sector facing growing consumer demand for low-carbon products.

The latest research verifies the results from a 2019 life-cycle analysis by Quantis, a sustainability consulting group. The Quantis study applied the rate of carbon sequestration solely to beef, while the latest paper includes nutrient inputs and emissions from all the animals in the system.

The original research looked at rotational grazing done on land at Georgia’s White Oak Pasture. That latest research shows the multi-species practice reduced net greenhouse gas emissions of the grazing system by 80 percent. The research also showed regenerative practices helped sequester 2.29 megagrams (Mg, or one million metric tons) of carbon per hectare (2.47 acres) annually.

The finding is incredibly significant, given that a 2015 University of California-Berkeley study showed that the sequestration of just one metric ton of carbon per hectare on half the rangeland area in California would offset 42 million metric tons of carbon, an amount equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from energy use for both the commercial and residential sectors in California.

The findings do not come without concerns, given that the regenerative approach cited in the research requires 250 percent more land to accommodate the level of grazing needed to feed multiple species and provide the level of emission reduction cited by study. That does not mean the practices under study are not a successful approach to sequestering carbon. But the expanded land use trade-off indicated by the study should remind stakeholders and policy makers that a singular agricultural climate solution does not exist.

Officials at General Mills, which funded the 2019 research, say that while the findings show regenerative agriculture is the best way to meet the company’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, they know that focusing only on efficiencies or maximizing production is not enough. They say producing food should come with efforts to build resilience and ecosystem health.

SfL knows that grazing lands across the United States are a national treasure, with uses and values that make them important to the entire country. They support vegetation that can be grazed by livestock to transform what is a renewable resource into food and fiber products.

Healthy grazing lands provide benefits other than feed for domestic animals. Water runoff on healthy grazing land is slow, so more water infiltrates into the soil, providing cleaner, more abundant water for fish, birds, wildlife, and human use. It sustains healthy soil and its microbes.

The Quantis study shows that by rotating herds and species, the health of grazing lands is boosted, enhancing their role as watersheds, which contribute to good water quality and sustained stream flows. Tributaries, and the rivers that they feed, are the source of water for agricultural, domestic and municipal uses; power production; and fish and wildlife.

Encompassing nearly half of the nation’s landscape, grazing lands benefiting from regenerative practices will see a reduction in nitrogen runoff and a boost in water quality, all while creating and enhancing habitat, boosting the land’s biodiversity and potential for outdoor recreation, including camping, hiking, hunting and fishing.

The 770 million acres of private and public grazing lands in the United State are basic to the nation’s environmental, social and economic stability. This latest research acknowledges the efforts by livestock producers to maintain sustainability in an ever-demanding market, which is essential to not only the health of our rangeland, but also to the well-being of our society.

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