Can Cattle Grazing Reverse Climate Change?

Though most livestock production impacts the climate, the regenerative agriculture movement recognizes many benefits to properly managed livestock grazing, including carbon sequestration, restoring topsoil, improving ecosystem biodiversity, reducing pesticide and fertilizer inputs, and producing more nutritious food.

Yet despite the benefits of careful grazing, the question remains: Can cattle be raised, fed, and slaughtered in a way that reduces their greenhouse gas emissions to a tolerable level?

A new five-year study that will be published in the May 2018 issue of the journal Agricultural Systems suggests that they can. Conducted by a team of researchers from from Michigan State University (MSU) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the study suggests that if cattle are managed in a certain way during the finishing phase, grassfed beef can be carbon-negative in the short term and carbon-neutral in the long term.

The research, led by Paige Stanley, who earned a Master’s degree in 2017 from MSU and is now a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, states, “it is possible that long-term [adaptive multi-paddock grazing] AMP grazing finishing in the Upper Midwest could contribute considerably more to climate change mitigation and adaptation than previously thought.”

Rather than using the common method of continuous grazing, in which cattle remain on the same pasture for an entire grazing season, the researchers used the more labor-intensive method of AMP, which entails moving the cattle at intervals ranging from days to months, depending on the type of forage, weather, time of year, and other considerations. A herd of adult cattle on MSU grazing land served as their test population.

Though the study’s finding that strategic grazing can make a dent in the overall environmental impact of cattle runs counter to the widespread opinion among other researchers and climate activists, it is welcome news for advocates of regenerative agriculture.

Christine Jones, an Australian soil ecologist, believes the MSU paper makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discussion on the role livestock can play in mitigating climate change. “The research clearly demonstrates there are no net emissions of greenhouse gas with well-planned AMP grazing, due to the sequestration of soil carbon,” Jones said. AMP grazing provides “countless other ecosystem services,” she added, “including improved biodiversity, erosion control (soil is by far America’s largest export), increased soil water-holding capacity, and greater drought resilience.”

Read the entire article by Valerie Brown in Civil Eats here.

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