Cattle Help Capture Carbon

2024 copyright rob and chris dixon and OK.O.S 1
How can cattle be part of the solution to the climate crisis?

brown cattle grazing on green natural grassland under a wide blue sky
image from 2019 presentation on sustainable beef by Cherie Copithorne-Barnes
First, what is the climate-crisis? Too much carbon from greenhouse gases, like burning gas in a car, is in the atmosphere (Air). The carbon traps the sun’s heat and warms the Earth. The greenhouse gas buildup prevents heat from radiating back into space at night time. Extreme weather is increasing everywhere on the Planet. Big emission reductions are needed, but we also have to take large amounts of excess carbon from the Air. Agriculture is around 23% (12% cutting trees, 11% food production) of global green house gas (GHG) emissions. Food production could become a way to draw down air-carbon.

    Intensive short duration rotational grazing of cattle,followed by a long rest of grazed area, turns out to be one of the best ways of biological carbon capture using plants and roots and microbes.

If more ranchers did adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) intensive short duration rotational grazing, we could store in the ground all the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels every year!

Research is confirming what ranch families learned through experience- AMP-grazing encourages plant regrowth that develops deep roots and this helps increase the stocking rates for the land. Ranch profits grow from deep grassland roots

Young people in Calgary, Alberta Canada (and elsewhere) believe that cattle are one of the causes of the climate-crisis. They hear about methane from belching cattle (enteric fermentation), the rain forest being cut down to grow cattle feed, as well as respected professional organizations are saying meat consumption has to fall to save the planet. Eating less meat is better for human health, say the experts. This is only partly true.

    Cattle ranchers who use AMP-grazing actually absorb more carbon then emitted and GHG emissions are reduced. Most Alberta ranches did not have to cut down trees to plant animal feed – the vast grasslands of native species were already here. Grass Finished beef is more nutrient dense then Grain Finished beef in Feedlots.

Some of the grasses pictured below (expand image) have strong roots systems. These roots are made from air-carbon, now stored in the soil. In Alberta grasslands, carbon stored as roots is greater than stored as soil organic matter (the main focus of carbon markets).

black ad white drawing of above ground growth and below ground extensive roots holding together banks along water

The above ground green biomass we can see points to the below ground unseen roots and Microbial biomass that is present and growing. The image on the left comes from an Alberta manual on Riparian Health assessment.The shallow roots of the Kentucky Blue grass cannot hold the soil to stabilize the bank. These shallow roots do not capture much carbon, either.

    Consumers can influence the type of farming practices used through their weekly food purchases. That is how the certified organic sector grew and developed. What you eat daily determines what you shop for weekly. How much emissions comes with your food choices?

Carbon capture with cattle is a great natural climate solution. This is an excellent way to draw down atmospheric carbon levels. There are a number of different aspects to it. Here is a brief list of these beneficial aspects, much simplified:

+ pull Big-tons of carbon from the air each year;
+ building of healthy soil as carbon is stored as humus;
+ healthy soils produce nutrient dense feed for livestock;

Each of these aspects of carbon capture farming are examined below.

carbon flows from city and plants to air but plants take in more and microbes store in ground

image from a 2017 presentation on Soil Health by Ken Laing, certified organic farmer, Ontario Canada Please note the above carbon flows (expand image) show trees (green plant life) take twice as much carbon out of the air (120) as they emit (60). The carbon is then stored in the ground (60). The soil microbes work on digesting these organic residues, converting some into humus (long term carbon storage). These biochemical processes are the basis for cost-effective biological carbon capture on ranches. Let us look at some carbon flow numbers of what is emitted versus how much can be captured by grasslands.
Carbon EMITTED All Data from 2016 (Smukler, 2019)
40,000 total global Carbon equivalent (C eq.) emissions in 2016 of which
8,900 mega tons (Mtc) of carbon emitted globally by burning fossil fuels
704 Mtc is Canada’s total emissions each year, including
107 Mtc is from the Oil and Gas sector, mainly from the tar sands
(Canadian Energy Regulator, Alberta Profile 2021) and
24.7 Mtc is from cattle emitting methane (Figure 2 Smukler, 2019) with
8.4 Mtc for Alberta cattle, being 34.1% of the national herd
The numbers show that even industrial cattle which are Grain Finished in feedlots, are not a cause of the climate crisis at around 5% of Canadian emissions.
2,400,000 (Mtc) of carbon in top 6 feet of soil as organic matter
Increasing the soil organic matter stock by .4% a year could absorb carbon emitted globally by burning fossil fuels. This is called 4 per mille and could absorb 25% of total emissions each year!

    200 – 1000 pounds/acre of carbon could be captured using common biological
    practices (.1 to .5 t of C/hectare/year; see Smukler pg. 7) ,
    1760 pounds/acre extra carbon captured using amp-grazing (Teague 2016)
    100 – 200 pounds/acre in Alberta(AB) paid for No-Till (AB Gov 2021)

1.3 Mtc for Alberta pasture if all converted to amp grazing (Boyce 2016)

Alberta research (Dr. Bork) shows natural wet grasslands have captured and stored 72.9 tonnes of carbon per acre. That is as much as the Boreal forest! SOURCE: Western Producer article by Barbara Duckworth November 28, 2019 Researchers make case for grassland benefits

If CARBON is the problem of climate crisis then healthy soil may be one of the key cost effective solutions. I do not pretend to understand these invisible and mysterious processes completely, but some things are becoming clear after decades of studying this subject. The more plant roots in the ground then the more carbon is drawn down from the air and stored in the soil as living roots .

    Multi-species grasslands, hayfields, pastures and rangelands have the roots of many plants to attract and feed the beneficial soil life that builds healthy soil.

Plants convert sunlight into energy stored as carbohydrates. This carbohydrate is used to grow roots and maintain the root system. Some carbon as sugar is shared with the soil Microbes in return for nutrients and disease protection. Plants sharing carbon with the soil Microbes leads to ecological diversity, resilience and mutual benefits.

    It is actually the microbes that create healthy soil from the breakdown of old root pieces, crop residues, animal manure compost etc. The Microbes also bind the soil particles together, with the fungal-threads spreading out over everything.

deep rooted plant growth in healthy soil beside restricted root growth in compacted soilwhite fungal threads cover black soil mineral particles

This is shown in the electron microscope image on the right. The white fungal threads are covering the black sand-silt-clay soil particles. The image on the left shows deep roots can grow when the microbes hold soil together.
We have seen how biological processes in farming can pull gigatons of carbon out of the air each year. We also looked at carbon flows showing how this carbon gets stored in the soil as humus.
Natural Climate Solutions
cattle in a hay field growing up to their bellies with evergreen trees growing in background

There are two livestock practices which enhance the nutritional value of the meat and the ecological benefits of grazing: grass finished and AMP-grazing. Rotational grazing means AMP-grazing in the articles referenced below. Let’s look at grass finishing first.

Here is a list of the ways meat that is grass finished is different from grain finished in feedlot. (from the book Grass, Soil, Hope by Courtenay White):

more omega-3 fatty acid;
fewer saturated fats;
much more conjugated linoleic acid (CLU), a cancer fighter;
much more vitamin A;
much more vitamin E;
higher levels of beta carotene;
higher levels of the B vitamins Thiamine and Riboflavin;
higher levels of calcium, magnesium and potassium;
positive effect on enhancing immunity, increasing bone density and suppressing cancer cells;
does not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.

Grass finished beef has significant nutritional benefits but takes longer to get to market weight and costs more then supermarket meat.
The other livestock management practice is AMP-grazing. This stands for adaptive multi-paddock grazing.
Here are testimonials from experienced ranchers and researchers-

…” Margaret and Tom Towers … knew they were onto something … A thicker more diverse pasture, higher profits, a healthier herd and more carbon in their soil. …they sequestered an additional two tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.” CBC News Colleen Underwood nov 18 2016 Should farmers … get carbon capture credits?

…” Rancher John Cross…owns A7 Ranche … started in 1886 … He’s adopting methods … that … increase carbon capture. …able to graze twice as many cattle now as when he took over. …” Toronto Star Monica Kidd april 2, 2022 Canadian …ranchers … less carbon

…” Research has shown rotational grazing not only produces more forage per acre but also more nutritious forages and that in turn lowers methane emissions from cows. “… Alexis Keinlin dec 3, 2021 Rotational grazing set to get a boost…

Research supports ranch experience for the benefits of AMP-grazing.

increase of forage nutrient density,
reduction of methane from cattle belching,
soil absorbs more methane from the air versus less intensive grazing,
improved soil water infiltration rate and water holding capacity,
increased soil carbon captured as measured by percent soil organic matter,
better herd health and increased ranch profits,
higher stocking rates per area from deeper roots,

These two livestock management practices can be done separately or together. The greatest benefits comes from doing them together. The AMP-grazing involves short periods of intensive grazing on small areas followed by a long rest from grazing.

We should be eating more high quality grass finished and AMP-grazed beef and less highly processed meat like bologna, hot dogs etc.

How does this apply to cattle and carbon capture food production?
Alberta provides 65% of the meat in Canadian supermarkets. Only about 10%
of Alberta ranches use intensive amp-grazing. Most ranches are industrial and emit some carbon.

Source for image below from 2019 presentation noted at start
diagram of meat supply chain staring with cow-calf ranch and ending with supermarkets with feeders in between

Ranches start the agri-food supply chain that ends with packaged meat in the supermarket. The grass-finished and Amp- grazed animals are not processed in the same large industrial facilities, owned by big multi-national companies. Also, the meat is sold directly to consumers so price increases benefit the ranch family.

    Owning some of the cattle-to-meat supply chain infrastructure is a great way to capture carbon (Amp- grazing), sustain ranch families profitably, feed consumers nutrient dense food (grass-finished meat) and create economic activity that does not increase public debt, like mega projects. This could be an excellent investment for communities.

Would that not be a benefit for our children?