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Agriculture and Carbon: "The More We Mimic Mother Nature the Better"

Monday, November 16, 2009

Veteran reporter Dan Morgan has taken a hard, clear-eyed look at carbon markets for agriculture and the validity of  various conservation practices aimed at fighting climate change (h/t farmpolicy.com). In the article, Mining Carbon Down on the Farm, Morgan writes of Wyoming cattle ranchers utilizing centuries-old techniques to sequester carbon:

Ranchers say they are drawing a lesson from the days when huge herds of buffalo thundered across the plains, mauling the prairie, yet leaving the grasslands strong and thriving. Confined to smaller fenced pastures, cattle act almost like gardeners, spreading seeds and manure with their hooves and breaking the thin crust to allow scarce water to filter in.

“The closer we mimic Mother Nature the better” said Rocky Foy, 54,  whose 7,000-acre ranch ... won the Wyoming Stock Growers Association environmental stewardship award this year.

[Rancher Larry] Cundall’s decision to follow the new grazing scheme on parts of his 20,000-acre ranch long preceded the current interest in carbon. By holding cattle in smaller pastures and moving them frequently, cattle have time for only one bite at the grass, rather than many, which gives it a chance to replenish the nutrients in leaves and roots. Pastures are also grazed at different times of year, to shift pressure from plants that mature in different seasons. The result is healthier plants that can withstand drought better. A bonus is that they absorb more carbon.

I asked Dan, who wrote for years on agriculture and conservation while at The Washington Post, what needs to happen policy-wise for ag to be a major player in sequestering carbon?

The studies I have seen suggest that agriculture can play a significant role in sequestering carbon, particularly over the next 30 years. For that to happen, however, Congress will have to craft legislation that adequately rewards farmers and ranchers for taking lasting steps to protect the atmosphere while also avoiding giving away the store just to garner the votes of farm state lawmakers. This will be tricky because evaluating how much carbon the soil is sequestering depends on many variables -- rainfall, for example. It isn't as easy as measuring the CO2 coming out of a chimney. One thing is certain, though: agriculture is going to be at the table when the final climate legislation is written.

I also asked Dan if he believed curtailing beef production could mitigate carbon emissions?

You refer to methane production by cattle, I take it. I was surprised to learn on my recent trip out West that new, intensive grazing systems that enable grasslands to capture larger amounts of carbon don't necessarily depend on reducing the size of herds, just managing those herds differently. Ironically, the best venues for capturing cattle methane releases are feedlots and dairies where the animals are contained in small spaces and fed on heavy corn diets. This is why this whole issue is so darned complicated.

Read it all of Dan Morgan's piece on agriculture and carbon here.

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