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Soil Carbon: What Role Can It Play in Reducing Australia’s Emissions?

The Morrison government is backing soil carbon – drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the land – as a major part of its response to the climate crisis.

The idea isn’t new, and at times has been derided as “soil magic” due to exorbitant claims about what it could achieve. But it is receiving renewed focus after the government listed it as one of five priority areas under its so-called “technology, not taxes” approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The agriculture minister, David Littleproud, has flagged that farmers should expect more support for soil carbon and other carbon farming projects in the May budget. Meanwhile, other Nationals MPs have rejected any steps to tackle the climate crisis and called for agriculture to be exempt from a target of reaching net zero emissions, should the government ever commit to one.

So what is the truth about soil carbon? What role can it – and agriculture generally – play in reducing emissions?

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Una manera diferente de gestionar la tierra: que las vacas la apisonen

CANADIAN, Texas — Adam Isaacs estaba de pie al lado de su ganado en un viejo pastizal que durante años había tenido un pastoreo excesivo. Ahora, era un revoltijo de maleza.

“La mayoría de la gente quisiera venir y empezar a rociar herbicidas”, afirmó. “Mi familia solía hacerlo… y no funciona”.

En cambio, Isaacs, un ganadero perteneciente a la cuarta generación de estas tierras onduladas ubicadas en la franja noreste de Texas, pondrá a trabajar a sus animales en el pastizal mediante el uso de una cerca portátil electrificada con la que los confina en un área pequeña para que apisonen la maleza mientras pastan.

“Hacemos que el ganado pisotee mucho pastizal”, comentó. Eso incorpora materia orgánica al suelo y lo expone al oxígeno, cosa que ayuda a que se llene de hierbas y otras plantas útiles. A la larga, el pastizal volverá a estar saludable, gracias a un manejo esmerado y continuo del pastoreo.

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A Different Kind of Land Management: Let the Cows Stomp

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CANADIAN, Texas — Adam Isaacs stood surrounded by cattle in an old pasture that had been overgrazed for years. Now it was a jumble of weeds.

“Most people would want to get out here and start spraying it” with herbicides, he said. “My family used to do that. It doesn’t work.”

Instead, Mr. Isaacs, a fourth-generation rancher on this rolling land in the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle, will put his animals to work on the pasture, using portable electrified fencing to confine them to a small area so that they can’t help but trample some of the weeds as they graze.

“We let cattle stomp a lot of the stuff down,” he said. That adds organic matter to the soil and exposes it to oxygen, which will help grasses and other more desirable plants take over. Eventually, through continued careful management of grazing, the pasture will be healthy again.

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Regen Farming Tools Go Beyond Just Keeping Carbon

Carbon Credits Are Coming!! Carbon Credits Are Coming!

You can’t pick up an ag magazine or listen to a farm report without hearing SOMETHING about all the news in Washington D.C. about carbon sequestration and carbon markets. Heck, you can hardly listen to ANY news source without hearing how soil health/regenerative agriculture is going to play a major role in our nation’s strategy to combat climate change.

Personally, I think this focus is a good thing—for some time now I have been pushing the benefits that practices like no-till, cover crops, grass plantings on highly erodible and improved grazing practices can have when it comes to sequestering carbon in the soil and reducing emissions.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I at one time was the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and helped create and run a state based carbon credit program that, at its peak, had over 50,000 acres enrolled. I’m a firm believer that anything that encourages conservation work on the ground and rewards farmers and ranchers for their stewardship is something worth pursuing.

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How Regenerative Ag and Strip Grazing Improves Soil Health

Ray Archuleta talks about three basic concepts for soil health during an Illinois Conservation Cropping Seminar.

  • One: The soil is alive.

A living plant is one of the most powerful tools on the farm. Plants and microbes feed the soil ecosystem and improve the quality of life.

  • Two: Everything is connected.

If it isn’t understood how the soil, inputs, crops, and management practices are connected, then harm can come from using tools incorrectly.

  • Three: The goal is to emulate nature (or “biomimicry”).

While efficiency has been a No. 1 priority, now it is known that the best approach is to mimic the natural system.

Archuleta says while these seem simple, the most challenging obstacle to overcome when adopting these three concepts is your mind-set.

“Thanks to the years of information we gained from our schools, our grandparents, and from our local community, our mind-set is the most difficult thing to change on the farm. The soil is easy to fix. Our mind-set is not,” he says.

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Urban Areas Need “Freedom Lawns” To Revive Their Soil

Few people put much thought into the soil beneath their feet, but Loren Byrne does. A professor at Roger Williams University, Byrne is an expert on urban soil ecology, and he worries that humans are changing the structural integrity of soils in urban environments and limiting the ability of plants and animals to live in and nourish the earth.

“Soil is easily overlooked and taken for granted because it’s everywhere,” he said. “We walk all over it and think of it as dirt that we can manipulate at our will. But the secret of soil is what’s happening with soil organisms and what’s happening with their interactions below ground that help regulate our earth’s ecosystems.”

Byrne contributed a chapter about urban soils to a report, State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity, issued last year by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. He discussed how the ecology of the soil changes as it is compacted during construction, paved over, chemically treated for lawns, and dug up and carried away.

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Soil Conservation Plants Hope

The soil beneath our feet might save the planet.

“If we get the soil right we can fix a lot of our issues,” Ray Archuleta says. “Healthy soils lead to a healthy plant, a healthy animal, a healthy human, healthy water, and ultimately a healthy climate and planet.”

Archuleta, a Certified Professional Soil Scientist with the Soil Science Society of America, has a calling – soil conservation. He’s traveled the United States as well as abroad to plant the seeds of thought about the negative effects of a problem that he sees everywhere he goes. That problem is soil erosion.

In the film “Kiss the Ground,” released in 2020, the problem of rapid soil erosion is said to have begun long ago when mankind invented the plow. As the plow became popular vast areas around cities were plowed to grow grain for food. As the soils eroded so did those early empires until they eventually vanished into the dust. The film describes the 1930s Dust Bowl era as the largest manmade disaster in history. By the end of 1934, millions of cropland acres were permanently damaged.

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From the Ground up — the Soil Can Make All the Difference in Healthy, Thriving Plants

Gardeners can get pretty excited when choosing flowers or vegetables for their gardens, but to have success with growing, you need a strong foundation — and that is the soil.

Healthy soil leads to healthy and happy plants. It all starts from the ground up.

Soils vary tremendously from state to state and even from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some places have deep, rich native soils, while others have poorly drained clay soils, and others are a haven of rocks. Some soils are very acidic while others can be very alkaline.

Knowing what your yard contains to begin with is the starting point in knowing how to improve it. You should start with a soil test.

To take a soil sample, try to get a “core” of soil, a good trowel-full, roughly 6 inches deep from several areas in the garden. Mix the cores together and take one pint to your county office of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service (uaex.edu). Within a few weeks, you will get a computer analysis back, giving you a lot of information about your soil.

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Soil Degradation Costs U.S. Corn Farmers a Half-billion Dollars Every Year

One-third of the fertilizer applied to grow corn in the U.S. each year simply compensates for the ongoing loss of soil fertility, leading to more than a half-billion dollars in extra costs to U.S. farmers every year, finds new research from the University of Colorado Boulder published last month in Earth’s Future.

Long-term soil fertility is on the decline in agricultural lands around the world due to salinization, acidification, erosion and the loss of important nutrients in the soil such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Corn farmers in the U.S. offset these losses with nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers also intended to boost yields, but scientists have never calculated how much of this fertilizer goes into just regaining baseline soil fertility–or how much that costs.

“We know there’s land degradation going on even in U.S. modern agriculture, but it’s really difficult to pin down how much and what impact it has,” said Jason Neff, corresponding author on the paper and director of the Sustainability Innovation Lab at Colorado (SILC).

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Soil Can Remove Air Pollution and Regulate Climate Change

In natural environments, most microorganisms in the soil are not growing and instead exist in various dormant states.

Researchers at Queen Mary University London analysed these microorganisms and found that over 70% of soil bacteria is capable of living off the small amounts of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane in the air, thus helping to remove atmospheric pollution and regulate climate change.

With the bacteria adopting this flexible diet, it has given the researchers a new understanding of how diverse and productive soils can be and how microorganisms adapt to survive in different environments.

Dr James Bradley, co-author of the study said: ‘We commonly think of organic carbon being the primary source of energy to soil microbes. Our research shows that in fact, these soil microbes use trace gases such as hydrogen to meet their energy needs.

‘The reaction of hydrogen and oxygen releases a lot of energy – enough that it is commonly used in aerospace engineering to propel rockets into orbit. We now know that these alternative reactions are prevalent among soil microbes, and supply at least enough energy to meet their basic energy needs.’

KEEP READING ON ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL