Maximizing Soil Carbon Sequestration: Carbon Farming and Rotational Grazing

While the potential for trees to store carbon is well-known, fewer people are aware of soil carbon sequestration. It is possible that rotational grazing practices can not only support the carbon holding capacity of soils, but also combine raising livestock with the emerging field of carbon farming.

| August 21, 2012

With research based in deep permacultural theory and a repect for natural systems that flourised long before corporate agriculture and animal factory farms, Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie (Chelsea Green, 2012) delves into the ethical and environmental impact of eating meat and livestock farming. The following excerpt describes his findings on soil carbon sequestration and how carbon farming and the use of rotational grazing practices when raising livestock could go hand-in-hand. The text is adapted with permission from the chapter entitled "Holistic Cowboys and Carbon Farmers." 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

In his book, The Carbon Fields, under the heading "No More Climate Change", Graham Harvey writes:

Our food supply hides a big, fat life-denying secret. It’s something no one in the food and farming business ever wants to talk about. Yet it has the potential to transform the lives of everyone on this planet as well as the lives of future generations. It’s the power of soils to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and to end for all time the threat of global warming.

Soil Carbon Sequestration

Though you’ll seldom hear it mentioned, the world’s soils are the largest terrestrial reservoir of carbon. A sizable part of the damaging extra load of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today comes from soil carbon released when we switched from traditional farming to intensive grain growing. The good news is that it is a process we could easily reverse. By moving to sustainable ways of growing our food — particularly through the use of grazing animals — we could quickly put the excess carbon back in the soil.

Amongst scientists, there is widespread, probably universal, agreement that agricultural soils can sequester carbon in much the same way that tree cover can, and that the potential for them to do so in some circumstances is not negligible. Beyond that there is uncertainty and dispute. For every scientific paper showing that a land use change such as converting pasture to woodland, using minimum tillage on cropland, or excluding livestock from pasture increases the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil, there is another showing that, in other circumstances, the effect is the opposite. Moreover an increase in soil carbon on one site, for example by converting it from arable to pasture, may result in a decrease on another where pasture is converted to arable. An increase in soil carbon may also result in the release of other greenhouse gases: pasture sequestrates carbon, but grazing animals release methane. Similarly, adding nitrogen, by planting legumes for example, increases vegetation and hence the amount of carbon which the soil can potentially assimilate; but it also releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

David Capocci
8/29/2012 4:08:50 PM

This is exactly the approaches we demonstrate here at Paca Pride Guest Ranch in the Cascade Mountains. Our fencing and cross fencing act like the predators keeping the herd together to mob graze an area. Then the chicken tractor follows them. The area is then given a rest period. For us, creating a permaculture on a parcel of land that was intended to be used as a quarry gravel pit, with zero tilth, the challenge of sequestering carbon has become very important, not necessarily to benefit the environment, but to increase the available organic matter on what is essentially rock and create a living loam. By doing so, we've created an alpine meadow stage that is managed to stay at that stage and not move on to a primary, then secondary forest. Our pastures do not use any chemical fertilizers and we never till the soil (we'd just be turning rock!)

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