Grazing for Climate

Posted on Thursday, September 17th, 2020 by Guest Blogger

This blog is reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which CalCAN is a member. NSAC advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. See the original post here. Editor’s Note: This is the seventh blog in a series focusing on specific provisions included in the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) in February 2020. The ARA represents the first comprehensive piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives addressing climate change and agriculture. Read blogs onetwothreefourfive ,and six here.

This seventh blog focuses on pasture-based livestock production systems and advanced grazing, and it was authored by Cristel Zoebisch, Climate Policy Associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in partnership with the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Livestock production systems are a hot topic of discussion when it comes to the climate crisis. Researchers have used data on livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions to justify concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), to advocate for pasture-based systems, or to condemn livestock production and meat consumption altogether. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), enteric fermentation (microbes decomposing and fermenting plant matter as part of the digestive process) from ruminants accounts for 25 percent of emissions from the agriculture sector, and manure management accounts for 12 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

The EPA has identified improving pasture quality and handling manure as a solid or depositing it on pasture instead of storing it in lagoons (current common practice) as strategies to reduce methane emissions from livestock and manure management. While enteric fermentation will continue to contribute to methane emissions, studies have shown that access to high quality pasture and forage combined with management intensive grazing systems have reduced methane emissions, reduced pasture runoff, improved manure distribution, and enhanced forage vigor.

While more research on full lifecycle analyses is needed to quantify the climate and environmental impacts of advanced grazing management systems and other livestock production systems, we do have enough understanding to begin the transition out of the predominant CAFO system with its negative impacts on air and water quality and greenhouse gas emissions to a system based on pastured livestock. Federal policy can help this transition by incentivizing and supporting farmers and ranchers to adopt climate-friendly livestock production systems that enhance our ability to sequester more carbon in our agricultural lands, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and provide multiple environmental benefits.

The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) recognizes the importance of transitioning to pasture-based livestock systems and advanced grazing management to restore the soil carbon that has been lost over the past 300 years. The bill aims to enable farmers and ranchers to improve soil health, protect air and water quality, reduce runoff and soil erosion, and shrink the greenhouse gas footprint of livestock production. The bill includes specific goals and an entire title outlining legislative changes and proposals to support widespread adoption of pasture-based livestock systems and advanced grazing.

The ARA sets four pasture-based livestock goals:

  1. Establish advanced grazing management, including management-intensive rotational grazing (MIG), on 100 percent of all grazing lands by 2040.
  2. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to feeding ruminants by at least 50 percent by 2040.
  3. Re-integrate livestock and crop production systems to facilitate environmentally sound management and field application of manure and reduce the need for long-term manure storage by 100 percent over 2017 levels by 2040.
  4. Immediately cease building any new or expanded waste lagoons for CAFOs and convert at least two thirds of wet manure handling and storage to alternative manure management by 2040.

We know there are more climate-friendly livestock production systems, but without support farmers and ranchers may struggle to make the transition to pasture-based systems. The ARA would provide financial and technical assistance to support the transition to pasture-based livestock systems, helping farmers and ranchers adapt to and mitigate climate change, build resilience, and increase profitability.

In addition to increased support for advanced grazing under federal working lands conservation programs, the ARA includes provisions to strengthen animal raising claims, support very small meat processors cover federal inspection costs, create an Alternative Manure Management Program, and create a new grant program to support conservation of private grazing land. In this blog post, we focus on the importance of grazing as it relates to the climate crisis, the impact that similar initiatives have had in the past, and the critical role it would play in aiding our transition to pasture-based livestock production systems.

Conservation of Private Grazing Land

To start, the ARA would amend the federal definition of private grazing land to include perennial hay land, including silvopasture, in addition to private, State-owned, Tribally-owned, and any other non-federally owned rangeland, pastureland, and grazed forest land. The ARA would maintain current appropriations authorization of $60 million a year for conservation of private grazing land. In addition to keeping existing discretionary appropriations authority, the bill would also provide mandatory funding of $50 million per year for conservation of private grazing land starting in fiscal year 2021. The ARA would also introduce new elements to the purpose of the program and its assistance measures, including advancing soil health, grazing system resilience, and transitions from confinement and feedlot systems to managed grazing systems.

Additionally, the ARA would create a new competitive grant partnership program to support research, demonstration, education, workforce development, and planning and outreach projects. Priority would be given to projects that focus on sustainable grazing management systems and techniques that assist producers with multiple ecosystem services, including climate change adaptation and mitigation, and to projects that serve beginning farmers and ranchers, Tribal producers, or new graziers. Up to 40 percent of mandatory funding provided for conservation of private grazing land would be available to fund this new grant program, significantly increasing current technical assistance and outreach efforts on grazing to farmers and ranchers.

Grazing in Action

Today, we have an increasingly complex and specialized agricultural economy. Farmers and ranchers need specific technical assistance to develop and implement grazing plans that are profitable, practical, and optimize conservation benefits. In the past, programs such as the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) addressed this gap by providing local and regional resources for farmers and ranchers interested in best grazing management practices. Funding from GLCI also supported grazing-based conferences and other educational opportunities in the past.

Counties with dedicated Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grazing staff can support farmers and ranchers in the use of practices such as rotational and prescribed grazing by providing technical assistance in developing grazing plans and answering questions about grazing systems. The new grant program proposed under the ARA would help farmers and ranchers interested in grazing get the technical help they need to succeed in adopting advanced grazing systems.

Funding for GLCI was included in the 2002 Farm Bill, increasing to over $27 million in fiscal year 2008.  Unfortunately, like many other programs, it was cut during widespread and far-reaching federal funding cuts for fiscal year 2009, and grazing leaders nationwide have urged its restoration.

“In Wisconsin, I witnessed the power of GLCI funding,” says Margaret Krome, Policy Program Director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. “Counties that matched these federal dollars were able to hire grazing planners to help farmers create reliable managed grazing plans for their farms, including sound economic projections.  Those counties fostered a flowering of grazing, in contrast to nearby counties without GLCI funding assistance.”

Many research projects have demonstrated reduced labor requirements, increased profit, better animal health, and other benefits to farmers of transitioning to managed grazing.  But managed grazing also increases water infiltration, thus reducing the damage to roads, bridges, and culverts when water leaves farm fields during increasingly common severe storm events.  By reducing soil erosion, it also reduces nutrients attached to soil particles, and keeps lakes, streams, and others water bodies healthier.

In terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation, many factors affect the permanence of carbon sequestration in agricultural lands. Soil texture and local climate, for example, impact carbon sequestration and could prevent sequestration in some cases; however, converting annual cropping to perennial pasture and utilizing advanced grazing management systems can promote increases in soil organic matter and encourage carbon sequestration. Advanced grazing management systems create positive feedback loops that improve soil organic matter content, water holding capacity, and nutrient cycling, boosting the resilience of pasture-based livestock production systems in the face of a changing climate (publication in press).

What Comes Next?

The ARA proposes to increase investment in transitioning to pasture-based livestock production systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build soil fertility, and protect soil, air, and water quality. All these benefits will increase the resilience of livestock production systems in the face of the climate crisis. The ARA recognizes the value that ruminants can bring to our soils and their carbon sequestration potential if managed appropriately, and it provides the next steps to achieve this transition.

Grazing cattle can help create the conditions for native grasslands to flourish, ensuring that we can continue to store carbon in our soils and enhance this carbon sequestration potential. The trick is in good management of the animals’ grazing so they can participate in natural ecological cycles – the animals disturb the soil as they graze and move around, which increases water infiltration and creates the perfect environment for seeds to be deposited. These seeds promote vegetative species diversity, which in turn stimulates soil microbial biodiversity, leading to improvements in soil organic matter.

As conversations around climate change legislation continue, NSAC encourages Congress to include key policy provisions of the ARA in future climate and agriculture bills to facilitate the transition to advanced grazing and pasture-based livestock production systems. Legislators should emphasize giving farmers and ranchers the tools, resources, and incentives they need to transition to advanced grazing and pasture-based livestock systems that have multiple environmental and climate benefits, including improving soil health and carbon sequestration, reducing runoff and soil erosion, and evenly distributing manure.

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