How Cattle Ranching Can Positively Affect Carbon Absorption

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Photo by Fotolia/elenathewise
Tom wasn’t monitoring for soil carbon, but everything he was doing had a positive carbon effect, as evidenced by the increased health and productivity of their ranch.

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014) addresses a crucial question: What can we do about the seemingly intractable challenges confronting all of humanity today?  Build topsoil. Fix creeks. Eat meat from pasture-raised animals. Soil scientists maintain that a mere 2 percent increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere. But how could this be accomplished? What would it cost? Is it even possible? Author Courtney White says it is not only possible, but essential for the long-term health and sustainability of our environment and our economy.

You can purchase this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Grass, Soil, Hope.

On a sky-blue October day, I drove into the dry country of eastern New Mexico to visit an award-winning ranch and contemplate the carbon cycle. Although I had visited many well-managed ranches over the years, I had never looked at one through a carbon lens before, especially in the context of carbon sequestration and climate change. I was certain that the ranchers hadn’t, either. The crisis-that-shall-not-be-named is a politically charged topic in the rural West, even among the best ranch managers, which makes the challenge of talking about carbon without talking about you-know-what a delicate juggling act.

On the other hand, for cattle ranchers like Tom and Mimi Sidwell, it’s not necessary to bring up the topic at all. That’s because healing the carbon cycle is what they do for a living. Whether it improves you-know-what isn’t on their minds.

In 2004, the Sidwells bought the 7,000-acre JX Ranch south of Tucumcari, New Mexico, and set about doing what they know best: earning a profit by restoring the land to health and stewarding it sustainably.

As with many ranches in the arid Southwest, the JX had been hard used over the decades. Poor land and water management had caused the grass cover to diminish in quantity and quality, exposing soil to the erosive effects of wind, rain, and sunlight, which also diminished the organic content of the soil significantly, especially its carbon. Eroded gullies had formed across the ranch, small at first, but growing larger with each thundershower, cutting down through the soft soil, biting into the land deeper, eating away at its vitality. Water tables fell correspondingly, starving plants and animals alike of precious nutrients, forage, and energy.

Profits fell too for the ranch’s previous owners. Many had followed a typical business plan: stretch the land’s ecological capacity to the breaking point, add more cattle when the economic times turned tough, and pray for rain when dry times arrived, as they always did. The result was the same — a downward spiral as the ranch crossed ecological and economic thresholds. In the case of the JX, the water, nutrient, mineral, and energy cycles unraveled across the ranch, causing the land to disassemble and eventually fall apart.

Enter the Sidwells. With thirty years of experience in managing land, they saw the deteriorated condition of the JX not as a liability but as an opportunity. Tom began by dividing the entire ranch into sixteen pastures, up from the original five, using solar-powered electric fencing. After installing a water system to feed all sixteen pastures, he picked cattle that could do well in dry country, grouped them into one herd, and set about carefully rotating them through the pastures — never grazing a single pasture for more than seven to ten days in order to give the land plenty of recovery time. Next he began clearing out the juniper and mesquite trees on the ranch with a bulldozer, which allowed native grasses to come back.

As grass returned — a result of the animals’ hooves breaking up the capped topsoil and allowing seed-to-soil contact — Tom lengthened the period of rest between pulses of cattle grazing in each pasture from 60 days to 105 days across the whole ranch. More rest meant more grass, which meant Tom could graze more cattle — to stimulate more grass production. In fact, Tom increased the overall livestock capacity of the JX by 25 percent in only six years, significantly impacting the ranch’s bottom line. The typical stocking rate in this part of New Mexico is one cow to 50 acres. The Sidwells have brought it down to one to 36 acres, and hope to get it down to one to 30 acres some day. Ultimately, Tom hopes to have the ranch divided into twenty-three pastures. The reason for his optimism is simple: the native grasses are coming back, even in dry years. Over the past ten years, the JX has seen an increase in diversity of grass species, including cool-season grasses (which grow primarily in the spring and fall), and a decrease in the amount of bare soil across the ranch. Simultaneously, there has been an increase in the pounds of meat per acre produced on the ranch.

The key to the Sidwells’ success? Goals and planning. That doesn’t sound terribly novel, but it’s how the Sidwells do it that separates them from the large majority of other ranchers. They take a holistic approach, planning the management of the ranch’s resources as a whole, not just parts of a whole as is traditionally done. It’s the classic triple bottom line — land health, human well-being, and financial prosperity. They accomplish this by monitoring and replanning based upon what the monitoring tells them. When Tom does the annual planning for the ranch, he takes into account not only the needs of the livestock, but also the physiological needs of the vegetation and wildlife. He considers soil health to be the key to the ranch’s environmental health, so he plans to leave standing vegetation and litter on the soil surface to decrease the impact of raindrops on bare soil, slow runoff to allow water infiltration into the soil, provide cover for wildlife, and feed the microorganisms in the soil. He also plans for drought, adjusting his livestock numbers before the drought takes off, instead of during or after the drought has set in, as is traditional.

“I plan for the drought,” Tom said with a wry smile, “and so far, everything is going according to plan.”

I like to think of what the Sidwells do as an aikido approach — go with the dryness instead of resisting it. Every fall, once the growing season is over, Tom checks his monitoring plots and evaluates how much grass he has left. Then he calculates the stocking rate for his cattle, assuming that it won’t rain again until July. If it does rain or snow before then, he’ll adjust the rate upward; if it doesn’t, at least then he knows he can stay in business, and within the land’s carrying capacity, until the monsoon rains begin. It’s not the amount of rain that matters; it’s how it’s used when it does come. If 10 inches of rain falls on barren, eroded soils it will be less effective than 5 inches falling on grass-covered range. The first runs off, the second sinks in.

Aikido ranching

There is an important collateral benefit to all their planning: the Sidwells’ cattle are healing the carbon cycle. By growing grass on previously bare soil, by encouraging plants to send their roots deeper, and by increasing plant size and vitality the Sidwells are sequestering more CO2 in the ranch’s soil than the previous owners had. It’s an ancient equation: more plants mean more green leaves, which mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded, which means more CO2 can be sequestered in the soil, where it will stay. Tom wasn’t monitoring for soil carbon, but everything he was doing had a positive carbon effect, as evidenced by the increased health and productivity of their ranch.

There’s another benefit to carbon-rich soil: it improves water infiltration and storage due to its sponge-like quality. Recent research indicates that one part carbon-rich soil can retain as much as four parts water. This has important positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams, which are the lifeblood of towns and cities.

It’s also important to people who make their living off the land, as Tom and Mimi Sidwell can tell you. In 2010, they were pleased to discover that a spring near their house had come back to life. For years, it had flowed at a miserly rate of 0.25 gallon per minute, but after the Sidwells cleared out the juniper trees above the spring and began managing the cattle for increased grass cover, the well began to pump 1.5 gallons a minute, twenty-four hours a day!

In fact, the water cycle has improved all over the ranch, a consequence of water infiltrating down into the grass-covered soil, rather than sheeting off erosively as it had before. This is good news for microbes, insects, grasses, shrubs, trees, birds, herbivores, carnivores, cattle, and people. Through careful monitoring, Tom is able to chart the health of his land and the effects of his decision making, which in turn influence the next round of decisions. But like an aikido master, he relies as much on his experience, intuition, and well-honed skills as on any particular set of data, which is why many ranchers like Tom call what they do the “art of rangeland management.” It is part science (monitoring), part experience (planning), and part “feel” (intuition) rolled together into a skill set that is visibly successful — just like a great aikido performance.

In 2011, the Sidwells’ skills were put to the test when less than 3 inches of rain fell on the JX over a period of twelve months (the area average is 16 inches per year). In response, Tom sold nearly the entire cattle herd in order to give his grass a rest. He had enough forage from 2010 to run higher cattle numbers, but asked himself, “What would a bison herd do?” They would have avoided an area in drought, he decided. It was a gamble, but it paid off in 2012 when it began raining again, although the total amount was 10 inches below normal. “It was enough to make a little grass,” he told me. “We had some mortality on our grass and a lot more bare ground than before the drought, but I think the roots are strong and healthy and recovery will be quick.” The Sidwells decided to purchase cattle and are now nearly 30 percent stocked and back in business. In contrast, all of their neighbors kept cattle on their land through 2011 and had to destock due to a lack of grass — just as the Sidwells began restocking!

Capitalizing On A Grazing Plan

“Grazing and drought planning are a godsend,” said Tom, “and we go forward with a smile and confidence because we know we can survive this drought.”

What also helped was the economics of grass-fed beef. In 2009, the Sidwells converted their beef business from a conventional feedlot-based system to an entirely grass-fed, direct-marketed operation. Grass-fed means the animals have spent their entire lives on grass — which is what nature intended for them — and no time in stinky feedlots, eating corn and other assorted industrial by-products. Grass-fed beef consumes less fossil fuel in its production and distribution, especially if the customers are only a short drive away from the farm, ranch, or processing facility. It also has another benefit: profitability. As an added-value food, grass-fed meat sells for as much as 50 percent more than conventional meat — if customers are willing to pay the higher premiums, which in the Sidwells’ case they are. And this extra profit, even on a smaller herd, has allowed the Sidwells to make it through the dry times financially.

What the Sidwells have done on the JX is reassemble the carbon landscape. They have reconnected soil, water, plants, sunlight, food, and profit in a way that is both healing and sustainable. They did it by reviving the carbon cycle as a life-giving element on their ranch and by returning to nature’s principles of herbivory, ecological disturbance, soil formation, microbial action, and good food. In the process, they improved the resilience of the land and their business for whatever shock or surprise the future may have in store.

This has important implications for the crisis-that-shall-not-be-named, I thought as I drove away. As the Sidwells have demonstrated, mitigation of atmospheric carbon dioxide can happen as a co-benefit of healing land, fixing the water cycle, producing food, and building resilience. Of course, Tom Sidwell doesn’t have scientifically peer-reviewed numbers to back up a claim by an observer (such as myself) that the ranch is having a positive influence on you-know-what, but he isn’t asking to be compensated by a carbon marketplace, either, unless you consider his grass-fed beef to be a type of carbon sequestration strategy (as I do). What if he did, however? Could a carbon marketplace be talked into considering mitigation as an “added value” to the beef produced from a ranch? Would customers be willing to pay? Would the Sidwells even want to go there? I think they might, though we didn’t discuss it.

It was something to consider as I drove home across the parched landscape.

Read more from Grass, Soil, Hopein: Twitchell Island — A Carbon Sweet Spot.

Reprinted with permission fromGrass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country by Courtney White and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Buy this book in our store: Grass, Soil, Hope.