What regenerative practices do ranchers follow to improve carbon storage? - Grassroots Carbon

What regenerative practices do ranchers follow to improve carbon storage?

July 13, 2023
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Regenerative ranching

How ranchers operate directly impacts the health of our land, the well-being of our ecosystems, and the future of our food systems. This unique position of influence requires a deep understanding of the delicate balance between nature and productivity.

Regenerative agriculture presents a new way forward, a path that allows us to nurture the land while simultaneously reaping its rewards. At its core, regenerative agriculture is about more than just sustainable practices. It’s about regenerating the health of our soils, rejuvenating ecosystems, and sequestering carbon – an element crucial in combating climate change.

By implementing regenerative practices, ranchers have the opportunity to become stewards of the land. This can transform ranches into vibrant ecosystems, where biodiversity thrives, and the soil becomes a powerful carbon sink.

What are regenerative practices and how can they contribute to a greener future? 

Regenerative ranching practices can improve your soil quality and increase carbon storage. There are multiple different regenerative practices which you can  implement including; adaptive multi-paddock grazing, grassland restoration, agroforestry, and minimizing soil disturbances. The benefits include:

  1. Increased ecological health 
  2. Improved soil health 
  3. Increased vegetation density and diversity 
  4. Boost carbon capture and soil carbon storage.
  5. Increased water storage capacity and drought tolerance
  6. Reduced flood erosion  

Find out more about the variety of regenerative practices ranchers follow below.

What are examples of some regenerative practices?

Rotational grazing vs. adaptive multi-paddock grazing 

How ranchers approach grazing can drastically change soil carbon storage levels. 

Rotational grazing is when ranchers rotate the livestock on sections of land in order to improve the land’s health, while also enhancing the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Rotational grazing divides the grazing area into smaller paddocks and rotates the livestock within them. Time spent for the livestock in each paddock depends on forage availability, pasture condition, as well as each rancher’s specific management goals. Basic rotational grazing on its own can Help ranchers avoid overgrazing and improve soil health. 

Adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP) is a more intensive, calculated version of rotational grazing.   

 With AMP grazing, larger number of animals are concentrated in a smaller paddock for a shorter duration. The livestock graze intensively, mimicking the natural behavior of wild herbivores who move in large herds across the plains. There is evidence that AMP sequesters more carbon than rotational grazing and can help  degraded land recover, leading to high soil carbon gains. 

Grassland restoration 

Revitalizing degraded grassland ecosystems to their natural, healthy state can significantly increase carbon stored in soils. The restoration of these grasslands help promote biodiversity, carbon sequestration, water infiltration, and overall ecosystem health. Ranchers can implement the following techniques in order to restore grasslands: 

  1. Reseeding native grasses – Introducing or reintroducing native grass species to degraded areas helps restore the natural plant diversity and resilience of the grassland ecosystem. Native grasses are typically well-adapted to the local climate, soil conditions, and wildlife interactions.
  2. Reducing soil disturbances – Minimizing soil disturbance through practices like no-till or reduced tillage helps protect soil structure, prevent erosion, and preserve the beneficial microorganisms and organic matter crucial for soil health.
  3. Controlling invasive species – Targeted efforts to control and manage invasive plant species can help restore the balance of native grasses and enhance biodiversity. Methods may include mechanical removal, herbicide application, or biological control using natural predators or competitors of invasive species.
  4. Riparian restoration – Restoration efforts often focus on rehabilitating riparian areas, the zones along streams or water bodies that are critical for water quality, wildlife habitat, and erosion prevention. Planting native vegetation, implementing fencing to protect riparian areas from livestock, and establishing buffer zones help restore these sensitive habitats.

Reducing soil disturbances 

When ranchers intentionally reduce activities that disrupt the natural structure and composition of the soil, the carbon stored in soil also increase. This approach aims to preserve and enhance soil health, which is vital for sustaining productive and sustainable ranching operations.

Soil disturbance can occur through various activities, such as excessive tillage, overgrazing, or heavy machinery use. The benefits of reducing these disturbances are significant:

  1. Soil structure preservation – Excessive soil disturbance can break down soil aggregates, which are important for maintaining soil structure and stability. Minimizing disturbance helps preserve these aggregates, preventing soil compaction and promoting improved water infiltration and root penetration.
  2. Erosion prevention – Disturbed soil is more susceptible to erosion by wind or water. Minimizing soil disturbance reduces the exposure of bare soil, protecting it from erosion and preserving valuable topsoil. This helps retain essential nutrients and organic matter within the soil profile.
  3. Organic matter conservation – Disturbed soil is prone to accelerated organic matter decomposition. By minimizing disturbance, ranchers can help retain and build organic matter in the soil. Organic matter improves soil fertility, enhances water-holding capacity, and provides a habitat for beneficial soil organisms.
  4. Soil microbial activity – Disturbance can disrupt the intricate network of soil microorganisms that contribute to nutrient cycling, organic matter decomposition, and overall soil health. Minimizing disturbance preserves the diverse soil microbiome, supporting beneficial microbial populations and promoting a robust soil ecosystem.
  5. Carbon sequestration – Healthy soils act as a significant carbon sink, sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. Minimizing disturbance helps maintain or increase soil organic carbon levels, contributing to climate change mitigation by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting carbon sequestration.

How can you make sure you reap the benefits of minimized soil disturbance? Ranchers can adopt the following techniques.

  1. Reduced tillage – Limiting or avoiding tillage operations that disrupt the soil structure, opting for conservation tillage or no-till methods where feasible.
  2. Controlled grazing – Employing managed grazing systems, such as rotational grazing or adaptive multi-paddock grazing, to prevent overgrazing, promote uniform forage utilization, and reduce soil compaction.
  3.  Mechanical alternatives – Utilizing equipment or machinery that minimizes soil disturbance, such as low-ground-pressure or precision farming equipment, to reduce soil compaction risks during field operations.
  4. Reduce or eliminate the use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides – Removing chemicals from the soil can minimize the negative impacts of chemical inputs and foster a more sustainable and resilient agricultural system that prioritizes soil health and ecosystem well-being.

Agroforestry 

Integrating trees or woody perennials with livestock or crop production systems can also increase carbon storage. It combines the benefits of trees, shrubs, and agricultural crops or livestock to create a more diverse and productive farming or ranching landscape.

In agroforestry, trees are strategically planted within the agricultural or ranching areas, providing multiple ecological and economic benefits. The specific arrangement and design of agroforestry systems may vary depending on your own individual objectives and local conditions, however there are a few common types:

  1. Silvopasture – Silvopasture integrates trees, forage crops, and grazing livestock. The trees provide shade and shelter for the animals, while their leaves and branches offer additional forage resources. Silvopasture systems improve livestock welfare, diversify forage options, and enhance carbon sequestration and soil health.
  2. Alley cropping – Alley cropping involves planting rows of trees or shrubs with agricultural crops grown in the spaces between them. The trees provide windbreaks, reduce erosion, improve soil fertility, and provide other ecosystem services. This system allows for crop production while offering long-term benefits such as timber, fruits, or nuts from the trees.
  3. Forest farming – Forest farming involves cultivating high-value non-timber forest products, such as medicinal plants, mushrooms, or specialty woods, in the understory of a managed forest. This practice combines sustainable forest management with income-generating opportunities, diversifying the farm’s revenue streams.

The integration of trees in agroforestry systems supports carbon storage in the soil as the trees capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Agroforestry systems contribute to carbon sequestration both in above-ground biomass and in the soil.

Agroforestry benefits:
  1. Biodiversity enhancement – Trees and woody perennials create diverse habitats, attracting beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife. This promotes biodiversity and enhances ecological balance on the ranch.
  2. Soil health and nutrient cycling – Trees improve soil fertility by cycling nutrients, reducing erosion, enhancing water retention, and increasing organic matter content. Their root systems promote soil structure and microbial activity, benefiting the entire ecosystem.
  3. Microclimate regulation – Trees provide shade, windbreaks, and microclimate regulation, which can help moderate temperature extremes, protect livestock, and create more favorable conditions for crop growth.

There are a multitude of regenerative practices that you can adopt to best improve your soil, each one adaptable to fit your own personal goals and context! All these practices work towards the ultimate goal of increasing soil health, enhancing biodiversity (both above and below ground), and increasing carbon storage in the soil.