Jun 27, 2019
As we contemplate a future where land management is an important
part of addressing climate change (as the IPCC
Report suggests), we can’t overlook the vast acres of US
public lands. These acres need to be resilient to the
stresses of climate change, and we also have an opportunity to
manage them in ways that increase their ability to store carbon.
By shifting our management of these lands to prioritize soil
health, we can achieve multiple benefits for the climate, the water
cycle, and biodiversity.
Using adaptive grazing is one important strategy to increase the soil health of our public grasslands and rangelands. For episode 85 of Sourcing Matters, consultant Greg Horner discusses his recent work interviewing innovative public land managers across the US about their use of adaptive grazing as a tool to improve soil health, restore ecosystem function, and increase biodiversity. While these agency staff are increasing soil health, they are also increasing soil carbon and making the land they manage more resilient to climate change.
But wait, cows are bad for the climate, right? And grazing is damaging to public lands?
The current state of scientific knowledge suggests a more
complex reality: while cattle in feedlots (where most beef comes
from) have a high carbon footprint, well-managed cattle on pasture
can be carbon-negative, sequestering more carbon in the soil than
they produce in methane (White
Oak Pastures Life Cycle Assessment – PDF). By accelerating soil
health and soil-building efforts, adaptive grazing can be an
important strategy for improving ecological outcomes on public and
While grazing can absolutely damage public lands, it is not the cattle that are responsible but the human managers. Like a hammer, grazing is a tool that can be used to tear things down or build them up. With careful management, adaptive grazing can provide the disturbance that a landscape needs to function properly, recreating the historical impact of herds of wild grazers, stimulating grass growth, and providing a landscape that promotes a diversity of plants and animals.
In partnership with TomKat Ranch, the McKnight Foundation and others, Greg created a series of profiles of public land managers who are redefining the value of grazing on public lands. Instead of using continuous grazing, most of these managers are moving cattle frequently, providing intense impact in small areas and then moving on to new areas and letting the grass recover without being re-grazed. These managers report multiple benefits, from better forage quality and quantity to an extended growing season, from increased bird or tiger salamander populations to reduced erosion and increased water infiltration. These managers are building soil carbon for a variety of reasons, and their stories are an inspiration.