How Cattle Ranching Can Positively Affect Carbon Absorption

New Mexico farmer Tom Sidwell may hold the secret recipe for plentiful grass to graze and a well-stocked pasture. By using cattle to manage carbon, is able to maximize profits while catering to his land.

| May 2016

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.

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