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What about Our Grasslands? Abandoning Meat May Spell Disaster for Vital Ecosystems

Recent opinion articles advocate eliminating meat from human diets, or using artificial meat substitutes, to fight climate change. However, many experts believe that grazing animals used for meat are the key to the future health of the most altered, destroyed and endangered ecosystems on earth: grasslands.

That makes plant-based diets potential ecological disasters.

Of the 1.9 billion acres in the lower 48 U.S. states, 788 million are grassland. Globally, grazing animals and grazing land ecosystems evolved together through mutual adaptation. Human history has demonstrated that improperly grazed grasses become unhealthy, and leaving grasslands alone actually degrades them, whereas properly grazed lands become healthier.

Grasslands provide vital “ecosystem services” by sequestering carbon underground in extensive root systems, using up carbon dioxide, producing oxygen, filtering and storing water, providing habitat for other important species, and when grazed, converting cellulose that we cannot digest into high-quality protein that we can digest.

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8 Steps to Get Started with Regen Grassland Management

A shift towards regenerative and more holistic grazing systems is enabling farmers to build greater resilience to fluctuations in weather patterns and market prices by working more closely with nature and reducing interventions.

Regenerative grazing involves higher-intensity, short grazing periods with long resting times in-between, using a system of paddocks.

It keeps the sward height high and encourages regrowth and development of plant and root systems, which also improves soil microbiology and function.

This type of management helps to improve soil condition, biodiversity and livestock health, and maintain steadier financial margins against the backdrop of a reduction in subsidy payments and increasing input costs.

We spoke to four farmers, including one with a consultancy role, to get advice on how to get started with regenerative grassland management.

Expert panel

  1. Rob Havard farms at Phepson Farm and is an ecology consultant managing 404ha (1,000 acres) of rented or contract-farmed land in Worcestershire, with about 150 pedigree cattle plus followers
  2. Russ Carrington is manager of Knepp Regenerative Farms, and former general manager of the Pasture-fed Livestock Association. He is in the first year of regenerative grazing on 63ha (156 acres), initially with 25 traditional Sussex cattle and calves, plus 50 Longhorn heifers on a B&B arrangement during the summer. Grazed area and livestock numbers are planned to increase towards full stocking potential
  3. Wojtek Behnke manages Aqualate Estate in Shropshire. Lleyn sheep and Northern Dairy Shorthorn cattle are mob-grazed on 80ha (200 acres) with horses, occasionally.
  4. Richard Tustian has been a shepherd in Oxfordshire managing 1,500 breeding ewes, about to return to family partnership on mixed arable, beef and sheep farm totalling 200ha (494 acres) on the Northamptonshire border. Of this, 40ha (99 acres) is permanent pasture and 10ha (25 acres) is herbal leys, currently running 250 breeding ewes and 25 suckler cows

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Uruguay avanza a una ganadería aún “más verde”

Cerca del 75% de las emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero (GEI) en Uruguay responden al sector agropecuario y dentro del mismo, el ganadero vacuno, es responsable del 62% del total de emisiones. Si a esto se le suma la situación del cambio climático y el incremento en las opiniones negativas sobre el consumo de carnes rojas, hace que este sector sea estratégico para comenzar acciones de mitigación.

La economía uruguaya depende en gran medida de sus exportaciones de carne, sobre todo vacuna.

Según datos del Instituto Nacional de Carnes (INAC), en 2019 se faenaron más de 2,2 millones de bovinos, se exportaron más de 330 mil toneladas de carne de esta especie a un valor que superó los US$ 1,8 mil millones. Por lo tanto, Uruguay, un país en donde hay cuatro vacas por persona, tiene trabajar para cambiar la imagen que la ganadería tiene en el mundo. Y así lo está haciendo.

El proyecto Producción Ganadera climáticamente Inteligente y Restauración del Suelo en Pastizales Uruguayos, o Ganadería y Clima, plantea contribuir a enfrentar los desafíos del sector ganadero a través de un enfoque integral que abarca la mejora de la productividad y la sostenibilidad de los establecimientos ganaderos del país.

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Pasture Cropping—The Innovative No-kill, No-till System Developed by Australian Farmers

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Regenerative agriculture is a global farming revolution with rapid uptake and interest around the world. Five years ago hardly anyone had heard about it. It is in the news nearly everyday now. This  agricultural revolution has been led by innovative farmers rather than scientists, researchers and governments. It is being applied to all agricultural sectors including cropping, grazing and perennial horticulture.

In previous articles we have described how regenerative agriculture maximizes the photosynthesis of plants to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to increase soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is a good proxy for soil health, as it is important for improving fertility and water capture in soils, thus improving productivity and profitability in farming.

Many regenerative farmers sow their fields with mixtures of plants just to capture carbon dioxide to improve the levels of soil organic matter. These are called cover crops and are distinct from the cash crop. The cover crop builds soil fertility. The cash crop earns an income. 

Pasture Cropping—the No-kill, No-till System

Australia has many innovative regenerative farmers. The two farmers below are pioneers of a cover cropping system called pasture cropping. This is where the cash crop is planted into a perennial pasture instead of into bare soil. There is no need to plough out the pasture species as weeds or kill them with herbicides before planting the cash crop. The perennial pasture becomes the cover crop.

This was first developed by Colin Seis in New South Wales. The principle is based on the sound ecological fact that annual plants grow in perennial systems. The key is to adapt this principle to the appropriate management system for the specific cash crops and climate.

The pasture is first grazed or slashed to ensure that it is very short. This adds organic matter in the form of manure, cut grass, and shed roots into the soil to build soil fertility and to reduce root competition from the pasture. The cash crop such as oats is directly planted into the pasture.

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

Heres Colin Seiss own description of pasture cropping:      

 A 20-hectare (50 acre) crop of echidna oats that was sown and harvested in 2003 . . . This crops yield was 4.3 tonnes/hectare (31 bushels/acre). This yield is at least equal to the district average, where full ground-disturbance cropping methods were used.” 

This profit does not include the value of the extra grazing. On Winona, Colin Seis’s farm, it is between $50–60/hectare because the pasture is grazed up to the point of sowing. When using traditional cropping practices where ground preparation and weed control methods are utilized for periods of up to four to six months before the crop is sown, no quality grazing can be achieved.” 

“It was also learnt that sowing a crop in this manner stimulated perennial grass seedlings to grow in numbers and diversity, giving considerably more tonnes/hectare of plant growth. This produces more stock feed after the crop is harvested and totally eliminates the need to re-sow pastures into the cropped areas. Cropping methods used in the past require that all vegetation is killed prior to sowing the crop and while the crop is growing.” 

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

“From a farm economic point of view, the potential for good profit is excellent because the cost of growing crops in this manner is a fraction of conventional cropping. The added benefit in a mixed farm situation is that up to six months extra grazing is achieved with this method compared with the loss of grazing due to ground preparation and weed control required in traditional cropping methods. As a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.” 

 

Other benefits are more difficult to quantify. These are the vast improvement in perennial plant numbers and diversity of the pasture following the crop. This means that there is no need to re-sow pastures, which can cost in excess of $150 per hectare, and considerably more should contractors be used for pasture establishment.

Independent studies at Winona on pasture cropping by the Department of Land and Water have found that pasture cropping is 27 percent more profitable than conventional agriculture; this is coupled with great environment benefits that will improve the soil and regenerate our landscapes.  

Pasture cropping is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter. The fields are covered with photosynthesizing leaves all year, capturing CO2, which are deposited deep into the soil by the roots of perennial cover crops. Dr. Christine Jones has conducted research at Colin Siess property showing that 168.5 tons of CO2 per hectare (170,000 pounds/acre) were sequestered over the course of ten years. The sequestration rate in 2009–2010 was 33 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.

This huge addition of soil organic matter has stimulated the soil microbiome to release the minerals locked up in the parent material of the soil, dramatically increasing soil fertility. The following increases in soil mineral fertility have occurred in ten years with only the addition of a small amount of phosphorus:

A soil comparison between Colin Seis’s farm (Winona) and a nearby property shows significantly improved soil carbon levels in areas that have been pasture cropped. 10cm = 4 inches. Image courtesy of Dr. Christine Jones.

 

Calcium       277%

Magnesium 138%

Potassium   146%

Sulphur       157%

Phosphorus 151%

Zinc             186%

Iron              122%

Copper        202%

Boron          156%

Molybdenum   151%

Cobalt         179%

Selenium     117%

 

The Soil Kee System

An excellent example of the development of pasture cropping / no-till no-kill is the Soil Kee, which was designed by Neils Olsen.

First the ground cover/pasture is grazed or mulched to reduce root and light competition. Then the Soil Kee breaks up root mass, lifts and aerates the soil, top-dresses the ground cover/pasture in narrow strips, and plants seeds, all with minimal soil disturbance. The seeds of the cover/cash crops are planted and simultaneously fed an organic nutrient such as guano. The faster the seed germinates and grows, the greater the yield. It is critical to get the biology and nutrition to the seed at germination and to remove root competition.

 

 

A perennial pasture a few days after the Soil Kee was used to break up the root mass and plant the seeds of the cover crop.

Pasture cropping is excellent at increasing soil organic matter/soil carbon. Neils Olsen has been paid for sequestering 11 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (11,000 pounds/acre) per year, under the Australian governments Carbon Farming Scheme in 2019. In 2020, he was paid for 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (13,000 per acre) per year. He is the first farmer in the world to be paid for sequestering soil carbon under a government regulated system.

Niels Olsen with a multispecies cover crop of legumes, grasses, and grains for livestock. This mix grows strongly in mid-winter. Cereals, pulses, and other cash crops can be planted into the pasture to produce high-value cash crops.

Regenerative agricultural systems such as cover cropping and pasture cropping are radically changing the conventional approach to weed management. They have shown that the belief that any plant that is not our cash crop is a weed and needs to be destroyed is no longer correct. The fact is that plant diversity builds resilience and increases yields, not the other way around. The key  is developing management systems that change competition from other plants into mutualism and symbiosis that benefit the cash crop.

 Multispecies cover crops produce more biomass and nutrients than single-species monocultures. In the example of the Soil Kee system, the amount of stock feed is more than double the usual perennial or annual pastures in the district.

Variations of these systems are being developed all the time and are being used very successfully in horticulture, grazing and broadacre agriculture. To quote Colin Seis, “as a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.”

 

Andre Leu is the International Director for Regeneration International. To sign up for RI’s email newsletter, click here.

Ganadería regenerativa: restaurando la biodiversidad del suelo para combatir el cambio climático

Una pradera sana requiere que el suelo contenga los minerales y microorganismos adecuados para su desarrollo. Para esto es esencial la materia orgánica, que por lo demás, es la principal responsable de la retención de agua en el suelo y proviene de la descomposición de los residuos de plantas, animales y microorganismos del subsuelo y micorriza (ambiente que rodea a las raíces).

Actualmente, casi la mitad de los suelos (49,1%) de Chile presentan erosión, especialmente en la zona centro de nuestro país y de acuerdo con los estudios que existen sobre el tema, el sector agropecuario es uno de los principales emisores de gases de efecto invernadero, que junto con los efectos del uso de tierras, están entre las principales causas del calentamiento global.

Además, la agricultura y la ganadería contribuyen directamente a las emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero por medio de las técnicas empleadas para el cultivo de granos y monocultivos, y la cría de ganado.

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Restoration of Degraded Grasslands Can Benefit Climate Change Mitigation and Key Ecosystem Services

New research has demonstrated how, in contrast to encroachment by the invasive alien tree species Prosopis julifora (known as Mathenge -in Kenya or Promi in Baringo), restoration of grasslands in tropical semi-arid regions can both mitigate the impacts of climate change and restore key benefits usually provided by healthy grasslands for pastoralists and agro-pastoralist communities.

A team of Kenyan and Swiss scientists, including lead author Ms.Purity Rima Mbaabu, affiliated to Kenya Forestry Research Institute, Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation of University of Nairobi and Chuka University and Dr. Urs Schaffner from CABI’s Swiss Centre in Delémont, assessed how invasion by P. julifora and the restoration of degraded grasslands affected soil organic carbon (SOC), biodiversity and fodder availability.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that degradation of grasslands in Baringo County, Kenya, has led to a loss of approximately 40% of SOC, the most important carbon pool in soils. These findings confirm that  degradation significantly contributes to the release of greenhouse gasses and thus to .

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Plant Biodiversity Suffers Without Livestock Grazing, Says Expert

On the back of a recent European Commission-funded report which called for nuance in the livestock vs environment debate, EURACTIV took a look at the importance of EU grasslands and the role of livestock in maintaining them.

The report, published in October, comes amidst increasing debates over the role of livestock and the sustainability of the agricultural sector.

Although it does not shy away from pointing out the significant contribution of the livestock sector to environmental issues, the report highlights that the debate over meat is not a clear cut one, stressing the need to avoid “oversimplification”.

“The study invites the reader to avoid oversimplification of the debate around the livestock sector and its impact,” the executive summary of the report reads, concluding that it is not possible to consider livestock as a whole.

“Livestock plays a key role in land use that can be either positive or negative at local and global level,” it adds.

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Cattle Might Be Secret Weapon in Fight Against Wildfires, Experts Say. Here’s How

Evidence shows that wildfires have become more widespread and severe over the years, with the ongoing West Coast blazes bearing testament to the worrying trend.

Firefighters and farmers have tricks of their own to prevent fires from sparking and to contain them enough for successful defeat. But there might be a secret weapon that hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves.

Cattle.

Researchers with the University of California Cooperative Extension set out to evaluate how much fine fuel — grasses and other plants known to start fires — cattle eat and how their feeding behavior affects flame activity.

The team concluded that without cattle grazing, there would be “hundreds to thousands” of additional pounds of fine fuels per acre of land, which could lead to “larger and more severe fires.”

The team’s study results have yet to be published, but they offered their preliminary findings in a blog post published Aug. 31.

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Saving Oklahoma’s Prairies, a Vital Weapon Against Climate Change

PAWHUSKA, Okla. — The late October morning is so bitterly cold that the vaccine a hardy Oklahoman cowboy is trying to administer to an impatient bison has frozen.

The rancher, Harvey Payne, tries to defrost the liquid against a small heater pumping out hot air in the office that faces the corral, but it’s not working.

“We’ll have to head back in for a couple of hours and wait for the sun to warm up,” Payne says as he squints at the sun rising above the tallgrass prairie. “Can’t vaccinate bison with frozen antibiotics.”

The group that’s gathered at the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve trudges back to headquarters to wait until the temperature rises.

Oklahoma’s 39,650-acre preserve is the world’s biggest protected remnant of a massive grassland ecosystem that once stretched across 14 states, covering 170 million acres. But the grassland has been decimated, and only about 4 percent of the ecosystem remains, most of which is contained in the preserve in Osage County, home to the Native American Osage Nation.

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Soil Is the Magic Word

Author: Marianne Landzettel | Published on: December 7, 2016

2016 is the hottest year the world has ever experienced. In the discussion about climate change, greenhouse gases are mentioned a lot, as is rain – too much or too little of it. Reading Judith Schwartz’ excellent new book ‘Water in Plain Sight’ has helped change my focus. Instead of simply measuring rainfall we should think about water and the cyclical movement of water, she suggests. ‘Hope for a Thirsty World’ is the book’s subtitle and Schwartz does show that there are solutions even in drought stricken areas seemingly devoid of all moisture like the Chihuahua desert that stretches from Mexico into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. To solve the problem we need to understand ‘the influence of water on climate’. Water on the ground can ‘do’ four things: it can go up through evaporation or transpiration through plants – the latter being a very good thing as it provides a cooling effect. It can go sideways which is a bad thing as this is surface runoff and usually takes topsoil and the nutrients it contains (like nitrogen fertiliser) with it – the algae bloom and dead zones in lakes and oceans attest to that. It can go down into aquifers and it can be held in the soil before moving into any other direction.

So here’s the magic word: soil. Good soil that is, soil with a crumbly structure and tilth. Such soil contains lots of organic matter, myriads of living organisms, insects, worms and fungi, in particular the mycorrhizal fungi. And it’s this structure that absorbs and holds the water. Compare it to bare, compacted, ‘degraded’ soil: rain turns it into mud, more rain washes the top soil off, leaving fissures and cracks that will speed up further soil erosion. Schwartz quotes the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification which has declared a quarter of the world’s land to be either moderately or highly degraded. The cause often is poor land-management practices as opposed to holistic land management which can transform desert like land into fertile, bio-diverse (grass)land. Judith Schwartz revisits the ecologist Allan Savory. Grassland and grazing animals co-evolved, says Savory, and if cattle is left to graze a paddock for the right amount of time it will stimulate ‘biological processes that promote soil fertility and plant growth and diversity’.

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