Regenerative Agriculture and Livestock

While animal agriculture is often a target in the climate change battle, recent research shows livestock could play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions.

“Regenerative agriculture” or “carbon farming” is the practice of raising livestock or crops in a way that sequesters carbon and maximizes soil health. This can include no-till, cover crops, crop rotations, using fewer chemicals and fertilizers, and incorporating rotational livestock grazing. Soils are a natural carbon vacuum, since plants absorb CO2 as they grow and push extra carbon into the dirt through their roots.

For livestock farmers, carbon sequestration usually focuses on rotational grazing. Animals are frequently moved between paddocks with time between grazings built in for plant recovery. The more green matter a plant grows, the more sunlight it can process through photosynthesis and the longer its roots will be. Rotational grazing mimics the way that herds of bison migrated through North America’s grasslands centuries ago. As herds graze, manure and plant matter are trampled into the ground where they break down and enrich the soil’s network of microbial life. Increasing the carbon content of soil can aid plant growth, increase organic matter in soil, increase water retention capability, and ultimately can mean the soil requires less fertilizer.

Some companies and governments are willing to pay farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices as part of a carbon reduction program. While the U.S. government has not yet implemented a nationwide cap-and-trade program for CO2, several states and other countries have adopted vigorous carbon reduction programs. California, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Nebraska have all passed or considered legislation that promotes healthy soil practices designed to mitigate climate change.

The 2018 Farm Bill included funding for a new USDA pilot project to incentivize farmers to adopt agricultural practices aimed at improving soil health and sequestering soil carbon. The farm bill also establishes protocols for measuring soil carbon levels. The USDA is helping farmers transition to carbon-sequestering practices with an online tool called COMET-Farm, which provides an approximate carbon footprint and allows farmers to experiment with different land management techniques.

Private companies are jumping on board, too. In June, Boston-based Indigo Agriculture unveiled its latest project, the Terraton Initiative, with the aim of sequestering 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by incentivizing farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices. Anheuser-Busch has agreed to buy 2.2 billion of Indigo sustainable rice grown with specific environmental attributes. Chevrolet purchased 40,000 carbon credits from 23 ranchers in North Dakota who pledged to adopt no-till methods on their grazing land. In March, General Mills committed to help manage 1 million acres of farmland using regenerative practices. In Europe, Danone recently launched a regenerative dairy initiative.

While the tenets of carbon farming are as old as agriculture itself (rotating livestock and crops, mimicking bison herds, etc.), “regenerative agriculture” is still a new field. More companies and governments are seeing the benefit and are willing pay farmers to adopt these practices. Of course, as protein demand increases, we won’t be able to feed the world solely with livestock raised this way. But there is room for diversity in animal agriculture. As Todd mentioned in his blog last week, ag data will play a huge role in measuring carbon sequestration. In this turbulent farm economy, perhaps carbon farming is another way to diversify income streams for some farms.