Grasslands are pretty much ignored in global sustainability agendas. Unless this changes and targets are set for their protection, restoration and sustainable management, the future of grasslands looks bleak. — Richard Bardgett, an ecologist at the University of Manchester in Britain
Grasslands are pretty much ignored in global sustainability agendas. Unless this changes and targets are set for their protection, restoration and sustainable management, the future of grasslands looks bleak. — Richard Bardgett, an ecologist at the University of Manchester in Britain
New Grazing Methods May Preserve Grasslands, Keep Carbon in Soil
Ranchers on a remote eastern Montana prairie near Canada, Sonny, 78, Sam, 61, and Tyrel Obrecht, 31, are ruggedly independent, politically conservative and make their living rearing cattle — those lumbering beasts that are the bΓͺte noire of carbon footprint–concerned conservationists.

But things are not always as they seem here on the Great Plains.

The Obrechts stand at the forefront of an emerging collaboration between ranchers, conservation groups and governmental agencies that aims to protect, restore and revitalize the United States and Canada’s prairies — or what’s left of them.

Such majestic grasslands once blanketed a quarter of North America, before homesteaders began plowing up the earth to plant those amber waves of grain. Now just a third of the native prairies survive, said Joe Fargione, science director, North America, at The Nature Conservancy.

Yet grasslands play a vital role in storing carbon — which in the form of carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas linked to climate change — and thus they serve as a crucial bulwark against rising temperatures and seas. Researchers estimate that grasslands could contain as much as 30 percent of the carbon stored in the Earth’s soil. Plowing them in order to plant crops releases large amounts of that carbon into the atmosphere.

The savannas of Africa and South America, the steppes of Eurasia and the Pampas of South America are also in crisis. Competing for attention, they are losing the battle against conversion to cropland and are threatened by unsustainable livestock grazing practices, urban sprawl, invasive species, climate change and even well-meaning efforts to plant trees.

“Grasslands are pretty much ignored in global sustainability agendas,” said Richard Bardgett, an ecologist at the University of Manchester in Britain. “Unless this changes and targets are set for their protection, restoration and sustainable management, the future of grasslands looks bleak.”


Promisingly, researchers, in a 2015 paper in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, estimated that improved grazing methods could sequester perhaps 300 million tons of carbon dioxide a year worldwide.

That is where ranchers like the Obrechts come in.

Boasting 16,000 acres, the family is “land rich and cash poor,” Sam and Tyrel each said. What is often overlooked is that the land is rich in one of the most vital elements supporting life on Earth: carbon.

The family’s secret weapon to sequester even more carbon from the atmosphere while also promoting soil health and biodiversity? Cows.

By adopting regenerative grazing practices — in particular, by frequently rotating concentrated herds and by resting paddocks for long intervals — they and a growing number of North American ranchers are using the cattle themselves to improve grassland health.

“Sometimes animal agriculture is painted pretty negatively,” said Tyrel Obrecht, whose family recently began intensifying its regenerative practices and has signed on with a World Wildlife Fund program to promote such ranching across the Northern Great Plains. “I think ranchers are the original conservationists.”

“Sustainability — it’s not a buzzword here, it’s a way of life,” said Randy Stokke, 63, a rancher in the Western Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

These ranchers said they have found common cause with the very environmentalists whom, a generation ago, their kin often viewed as the enemy. Conversely, conservationists have learned to think like agrarian capitalists, touting the economic benefits of healthier land and its ties to more profitable ranching.

“We have reached an inflection point when it comes to climate change, and the need to protect grasslands and all natural climate solutions has gone from important to urgent,” said Dr. Fargione.

But conservationists are losing ground in their efforts to leverage grasslands’ power as a carbon sink and as an invaluable source of biodiversity.

Grasslands cover about 40 percent of global terrestrial land; only about 10 percent is protected. More than 80 percent of native grasslands have been transformed into croplands or pastures.


While these biomes support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, the lands suffer from progressive degradation that compromises their capacity to sustain livestock forage, tourism and water filtration.
Read the full article: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/31/climate/cows-grassland-carbon.html