Cattle Help Capture Carbon

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What does carbon capture food production mean and what does it have to do with cattle?

brown cattle grazing on green natural grassland under a wide blue sky
image from 2019 presentation on sustainable beef by Cherie Copithorne-Barnes
Let us define what we mean by 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. Extreme weather is increasing everywhere on the Planet. Stopping emissions is needed, but we also have to take large amounts of excess carbon from the Air.

    Intensive short duration rotational grazing of cattle turns out to be one of the best ways of biological carbon capture using plants and roots and microbes.

If more ranchers did 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 – rotational grazing helps increase the stocking rates for the land without a significant increase in costs. This supports profit growth for ranchers.

Young people in Calgary (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. Is this all true?

    As we have already seen, cattle ranchers, and other food producers who use carbon capture food production practices, actually store carbon from the Air in the soil every year.

Besides, cattle emissions can be reduced, along with other food production greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

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The grasses pictured here have strong roots systems. This proves air-carbon is being stored in the soil as roots. Carbon is also stored as soil organic matter (the main focus of carbon markets). Root-carbon to feed the Microbes is a 3rd carbon flow within the food production processes (there are 7).

black ad white drawing of above ground growth and below ground extensive roots holding together banks along waterabove ground grass growth with creeping root system below ground

The above ground green biomass we can see proves the below ground unseen root and Microbial biomass is present and growing. The image on the left comes from an Alberta manual on Riparian Health assessment. The image on the right comes from the Alberta Forage Manual. The emissions from this biological carbon capture process is healthy soil.

Agriculture is around 11% of global green house gas (GHG) emissions.

    Consumers can influence the type of farming practices used through their weekly food purchases. What you eat daily determines what you shop for weekly.

Carbon capture with cattle has a number of different aspects to it. Each aspect is complex and difficult to understand, especially as to applying these bio-chemical processes on individual farms and ranches. Here is a brief list of these beneficial aspects:

+ 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 foods for livestock and human
+ healthy soils and crop rotations with forages support ranch profits;
+ tremendous economic multiplier effect of building food security,
including owning part of the beef to meat supply-chain infrastructure;

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

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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.
8,900 mega tons of CO2 equivalent (Mtc) emitted globally by burning fossil fuels
704 Mtc is Canada’s total emissions each (2016)
28 Mtc is from cattle belching methane or 41% of agriculture emissions (Figure 2 Smukler, 2019)
9.5 Mtc for Alberta cattle, being 34.1% of the national herd

The numbers show industrial cattle is around 5% of national emissions – That Is Not A Cause of the Climate-Crisis. Industrial cattle emit carbon but Biological cattle actually absorb more carbon and reduce emissions too.

    2,400,000 Mtc already stored in global soils as soil organic matter

    • 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre is theoretical maximum for a mid-West farmer according to Dr. Lal, a noted soil scientist; SOURCE: civil eats interview Dr. Lal july 2020 Virginia Gewin

        • 200 – 1000 pounds of carbon could be captured using common biological practices (.1 to .5 t of C/hectare/yr; Smukler 2019)

    1,000 pounds extra carbon captured by intensive short duration rotational grazing (cbc news nov 18, 2016 article by Colleen Underwood)

    This Could Be Enough to Absorb All Fossil Fuel Use Emissions!

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    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 roots the more carbon stored & shared with microbes.

      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 means plants take carbon from the air and turn it into plant roots, where the carbon is stored. The more plant roots means the more carbon that can be captured and stored in the soil. But the plants also share some of their carbohydrates with the microbes that live around the plant roots.

      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 examined how microbes use air-carbon to grow fungal threads to hold soil together. Healthy soil produces forages that are good for livestock growth and development.

      That is the conclusion from a 1962 report, Grey Wooded Soils and Their Management. SOURCE J. A. Toogood et al University of Alberta, Dept. of Soil Science Grey Wooded Soils and Their Management September 1962

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    Healthy Soil equals healthy food…
    This remarkable research report noted:
    ” Nutritionally, the grain grown after legumes was, for rats, definitely superior to the grain grown after summerfallow”.

    This same report noted the beneficial effect of using manures and applying fertilizer that contained sulphur. “Substantial increases in yields of grain following these fertilized legumes were also evident. The highly beneficial effect of barnyard manure on grains, clovers, and alfalfa, where applied alone and in combination with 16-20-0 was very evident”. … SOURCE: Toogood et al .

    I found this amazing study while working as a soil research officer at Beaverlodge Research Station, Alberta Peace River region. It shows that the nutritional value of feed, as shown by livestock rate of gain; can be influenced through farming practices.

    How does this apply to cattle and carbon capture food production?

      All the beef in Alberta is grass fed up to a certain point. There are several steps of feeding before animals are ready for slaughter and meat cutting and further processing (see meat supply chain on page 8)


    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 rotational grazing. Let’s look at grass finishing first.

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    Healthy Soil equals healthy food…
    Here is a list of the ways meat that is grass finished on rotational pasture is different from grain finished in feedlot beef. (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 rotational grazing . Vivian Gonzalez, a PhD student at McGill in environmental sciences has a good list of the benefits of this intensive short duration grazing.

      Trees are added to pastures in Dr. Gonzalez’s practice (around 10% tree canopy added) which she calls silvo-pastoral. This information appeared in an article on The Tyee online web site Solutions section. The article originally was in The Conversation 22 March 2022.

    Benefits of silvo-pastoral livestock management:
    captures carbon (I added this);
    boosts biodiversity;
    helps control pests;
    shade reduces heat stress;
    boosts productivity and animal health;
    increases ranch profits.

    These two livestock management practices can be done separately or together. The greatest benefits comes from doing them together. Two more examples of how key practices can improve the nutritional and ecological values of Alberta (and other places) beef. We should be eating more high quality grass finished and rotationally grazed beef and less highly processed meat like bologna, hot dogs etc.

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    This excerpt from an April 4, 2022 article in the Toronto Star by Monica Kidd, speaks volumes about the link between healthy soil and farm profits:
    ” Rancher John Cross … owns A7 Ranche west of Nanton, Alta. … he’s adopting methods … and grazing practices that restore… soil and increase carbon capture. … healthier soil means higher yield. …able to graze twice as many cattle now as when he took over.”
    Another farmer from the above article said:
    ” They seeded bare land with 12 species of plants to create pastures, even during last year’s drought the grass was waist-high and a number of birds had nested in it. …They’ve seen increased carrying capacity in pastures….In the five years they’ve been farming this way Riedner says they’ve seen organic matter in their soil increase to 10 percent from less than one percent.”
    Ranch experience noted above just confirms research findings.

      The Iowa State University Marsden Farm rotation study shows the power of biochemical processes in the soil. The study cut chemical fertilizer and pesticides by 85% but Corn yields increased 4% and soyabean yields went up by 16%!.

    Biochemistry can replace petrochemicals to grow profitable nutrient dense yields.

    drawing of plant roots and microbes in the soil interacting to function like a digestive system

    SOURCE Soil Health – A Definition; Newton Lupwayi; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Station in Lethbridge, Alberta Canada
    This image from a research report on soil health shows how plant roots interact with soil microbes to provide the functions of digestion, a break down of organic materials into nutrients that are available to the microbes as well as to plants
    Research shows ranch profits are not linked to yields but rather to increasing soil health. This shows up as increased stocking rate for land under rotational grazing. When ranch experience is replicated on a number of places and is confirmed by research findings, then you know you have got something.
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    Statistics Canada, in their BC summary of the 2016 agricultural census give an excellent example of how powerful the economic multiplier effect of agriculture is.
    -”…Primary agriculture represented 0.6% of provincial gross domestic product (agricultural GDP) in 2013. This percentage increased to 3.4% when agricultural input and service providers, primary producers, food and beverage processors, and food retailers and wholesalers industries were taken into account…”
    SOURCE: Small farms and direct marketing play a large role in British Columbia, 2018, 95-640-X Statistics Canada

    That is an economic multiplier of over 5, compared to the Oil and Gas sector with an economic multiplier of 1.98 (study by the University of Northern BC).

      The supply chain for beef is shown below, with ranchers getting paid by the backgrounder-feeder. This means ranchers do not get any of the steep price increases that consumers are paying. Those excessive profits go to the big corporations, foreign owned.

    This cattle to store-meat supply chain creates a large economic multiplier of maybe up to 8 for meat processing. Each dollar spent in the sector creates another 8 dollars in the economy. The diagram below (expand image) is from a Sustainable Beef presentation and shows the supply chain so well.

    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 rotationally 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 the beef-to-meat supply chain infrastructure is a great way to capture carbon (rotational grazing), sustain ranch families profitably, feed consumers nutrient dense food (grass-finished meat) and create economic activity that does not increase public debt.

    Would that not be a benefit for our children?