What are we doing to sequester carbon?

posted on

December 20, 2023

I have received some questions recently that come down to this:
How do cattle sequester carbon?
Do North Pasture Farms cattle sequester carbon?
In my opinion, the answer is yes they do.  I don’t have all the science degrees and could definitely be called biased, but there you have it.
The basics of how cows sequester carbon are:
  1. The cattle eat grass and trample what they don’t eat onto the ground. 
  2. They are then moved to a new section of grass so the first section gets a chance to rest and regrow.
  3. The microbes in the soil use the trampled grass and cow poop to live, eating it up and meanwhile creating soil carbon.
  4. The plants regrow and gather more carbon out of the air to build their leaves and roots.
  5. Cattle are put back on that piece of land and the cycle starts over again.
  6. This can take place 3 to 5 times each summer, depending on how fast the grass grows back after being trampled.
Here is a good article that contains a very good infographic that shows how it works.
Cattle eating grass, trampling and moving on builds up soil carbon as well as overall soil health.  Healthy soil with lots of microorganisms and organic matter is more able to absorb and hold water and therefore more able to grow grass. Thus creating a virtuous cycle of growth and life.
We at North Pasture Farms do these practices. We try to move the cattle on a daily basis unless we are off the farm doing a delivery.  We would like to have someone who could stay on the farm and take care of the cattle but the business is not big enough and profitable enough yet to cover wages and housing for someone who would do that.
The video that goes with the cover photo is much better at showing the difference between a grazed section and an ungrazed section.  In this case grazing also includes trampling grasses so their carbon goes into the soil.
Normal ‘old school’ grazing of animals is putting the animals out in the pasture in the spring and then taking them back off the pasture in the fall.  Most grazing in the US is done this way.  Some farms do rotational grazing where the cattle, sheep or goats get moved every week or two.  This is better than ‘old school’ grazing but not much better.  The cattle tend to eat what they like best and the lower quality grasses don’t get eaten and so aren’t forced to regrow.  The manager wants an ideal situation which would be the cow getting one bite of the top of the plant and then being moved on.  That causes the most regrowth in the quickest amount of time.  The way this is done is by having a lot of cattle in a small space and then moving them on quickly.
Management Intensive Grazing has a lot of adjustments and decisions happening continually.  Someone is looking at the grass, deciding how big of a piece of land to give to the cattle and for how long.  If there is enough management available, cattle can be moved two or three times in a single day.  Most grass farmers go for moving their herds once per day. The grass is also watched so that it has enough time to grow back before the cattle are put back on it.  There is a lot of looking and figuring out what to do about various situations.  The situation is always changing because of more rain, less rain, cooler weather, hotter weather, pasture low on legumes, high on weeds, etc etc.  All of these factors have something to do with what the farmer does with his ‘tools’.  His tools are moveable fences and a herd or herds of cattle.
In a very basic sense, Management Intensive Grazing takes carbon out of the air via plants and puts it in the soil using cattle and other grass eating livestock.
There are differences of opinion about whether cattle sequester carbon or not. Similarly, there are differences of opinion about whether hammers and axes are destructive or constructive. The truth of the matter is that hammers, axes, and cattle can be used constructively or destructively.
There is some data that says that grazing cattle does not sequester carbon or that it doesn’t sequester enough carbon to make a difference. Cattle have also been blamed for desertification of large tracts of land and it is true that overgrazing brings about desertification and a loss of carbon in the soil.  If grazing is MANAGED properly, this does not happen.  Here and here are a few of the negative viewpoint studies and articles.
There is also data that shows if cattle are used correctly, they sequester carbon and can be used to reverse desertification.  Here and here and here and here  are some of the positive viewpoint studies and articles.
The main bits of data I rely upon in coming up with my final viewpoints are:
  1.  Topsoils under grasslands that have been managed intensively by nature (includes predators that keep the herbivores moving) are traditionally very deep, holding a lot of carbon.  Prairie topsoils are traditionally very deep and rich.  Overgrazed topsoils managed by humans who don’t know how to mimic nature are either nonexistent or losing soil carbon.
  2. My own farm soil has become much more healthy and able to hold water since we started management intensive grazing.  There are many more worms and the soil structure is better and less compacted. Most telling is that when we have a dry year, the grass handles the drought much better than it used to.
When cattle are put on a single piece of land the land and soil are not ever rested, carbon will not be sequestered and the soil will be less healthy and less productive. When the grass grows a little bit it is immediately bitten off by the cows.  
When nature is mimicked and the cattle are stocked heavily and moved often, carbon is sequestered and the soil is more healthy and productive. The grass gets chewed off or trampled.  Then it gets a chance to regrow, building new leaves and roots, sucking carbon out of the air.  It is then chewed off and trampled again, adding those leaves and roots to the soil.  Since there is a lot of carbon in the soil, the soil holds a more water and remains softer and is aerated by roots, bugs and worms.  

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