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dcyphr | Climate change mitigation as a co-benefit of regenerative ranching: insights from Australia and the United States

Abstract

This study explores regenerative ranching (RR), which includes managed grazing and more climate friendly techniques. Though implementing RR techniques will be difficult for many reasons, it shows promise to be an effective way to solve the climate issues with traditional ranching techniques.

Aims

The aim of this study is to explore RR and the opinions of ranchers on RR.

Introduction and Literature Review

Introduction

Livestock are huge contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but recent studies have shown that proper management of livestock can actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Since feed demand, soil erosion, and overgrazing lead to GHG emissions, increasing soil carbon sequestration (SCS) can work to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists have predicted that 26 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be removed by 2050 if proper management of grazing were performed. To understand the motivators for ranchers to switch to managed grazing and climate friendly practices, the research team behind this study looked for two types of literature when preparing their review. The first is quantitative studies that show if managed grazing actually works, and the second is social studies on ranchers’ experiences with managed grazing and SCS. 

Regenerative ranching (RR) goes beyond being climate friendly, and is a very thoughtful, holistic ranching style that can be difficult for some ranchers because there is a depth of knowledge about the soil microbiome necessary to be successful. In addition, many ranchers do not believe RR actually works, are not wanting to change their ranching style, or are afraid of losing too much money if they switch. This proves that the main issue with implementing RR is not if it actually works or not, but social-economic and psychological limitations. 

 

Literature Review

RR has three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, and social. RR allows for sustainable farming by maintaining the microbiome on the soil with natural compost, using solar powered water sources, and using less chemicals on the fields. 

 

Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG)

HPG uses “high-intensity, short-duration grazing” which allows the plants to stay intact and have a recovery period. This tactic increases water retention, nutrient retention, and SCS. Planting perennial plants instead of annual varieties can also allow the soil to sequester more carbon. Finally, you can give the plants enough time to recover by leaving enough surface area on the plants it can successfully photosynthesize. There are limitations to HPG studies, however, which make it more difficult to catch on. 

 

Feeding the microbiome: soil amendments and pasture cropping

 

There are two ways to maintain the soil microbiome. First, is adding nutrient rich compost over the pasture. Second, is the rotation of different crops over the pasture each year, or the planting of different crops over the dormant period. 

Results

Motivations that transcend mitigation

Those ranchers that were in favor of RR said that money had nothing to do with their interest, they simply wanted to have more sustainable practices. RR also decreased the likelihood of droughts or freezes to cause severe outcomes because the soil and plants are healthier, which was a motivator as well. However, the ranchers did express that they would save money if they used RR. Since they do not control the market value of their products, they can save money through RR by decreasing fertilization, fuel and equipment costs. Also, RR can prevent cows from ingesting worm eggs. Although the first year of transition to RR can be tough, ranchers who practice RR say the benefit far outweighs the cost.

 

Understanding the system

To understand RR, a rancher must understand the mineral cycle, the water cycle, energy flows of solar power, and ecological community dynamics. There are classes and workshops available for ranchers to learn these otherwise complex topics. The focus of ranching must be switched from the end product, the beef, to the thing that will produce the end product, which are the plants. 

 

Managing the system

There are two main aspects to managing the RR system, that is when you move the animals and how many animals you allow to graze. 

Instead of following a calendar to move the animals, ranchers have the most success when they move according to the state of the plants. Constant monitoring for wilted or dying plants can help ranchers know when to exactly move their cattle. Animal behavior and feces can also be an indicator that it is time to move on.

 

The most important factor in determining how many animals to graze is by knowing how many resources are in the future. A rancher can do this by using weather forecasts or other predictions to get an idea of how much feed they will have for the cattle, and therefore how much they can successfully graze. Using RR, ranchers can support the idea that keeping their land healthy is more important than producing the most cattle for the most amount of money.

Discussion

This study has shown, by the accounts of those who currently use RR, that practicing RR is a positive feedback loop. When the soil is healthy, the cattle will be healthier, the rancher will be better off economically, and the rancher can put more money back into maintaining healthy soil. Using RR helps switch the focus of ranching from “global to local, carbon-intensive to carbon-negative, exploitative to regenerative.” Though there are skeptical ranchers who peer pressure others against implementing RR, more and more are starting to see the benefits. Leaders of climate issues are attempting to incentivize the widespread use of RR, which will eventually translate into a completely revolutionized ranching approach. The next steps to making this a reality are further research, education and outreach programs by and for ranchers. A very important factor to consider in education is peer learning, where RR is taught by the perspective of a fellow rancher. Some agriculture curriculum can be 40 years old, so integrating new practices into ranching could make a huge difference. 

Methods

This study conducted 1 to 3 hour interviews with 44 ranchers from the US and Australia, which includes those who use RR and those who use traditional ranching styles.  

Conclusion

Though RR is a very lost cost and successful ranching style, education and outreach must be implemented with the ranchers’ motivations in mind to popularize this sustainable ranching style.