Carbon is the energy currency of most biological systems, including agricultural ecosystems. All agricultural production originates from the process of plant photosynthesis, which uses sunshine to combine carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air with water and minerals from the soil to produce plant material, both above and below ground.
Agriculture is the ONE sector that can
transform from a net emitter of CO2
to a net sequestered of CO2
There is no other human-managed realm with this potential. Common agricultural practices, including driving a tractor, tilling the soil, grazing, result in the return of C02 to the air. However, all farming is “carbon farming” because all agricultural production depends upon plant photosynthesis to move carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the plant, where it is transformed into agricultural projects, whether food, flora, fuel or fiber.
Agriculture only contributes 9% of the carbon dioxide emissions in the US.1 Agriculture, particularly grassland/rangelands, have a great potential to function as a sponge for carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The maximum capacity of soil to store organic carbon is determined by soil type (% clay). However, management practices, implemented to maximize plant growth and minimize losses of organic carbon from soil, will result in greatest organic carbon storage in soil. Keeping working lands “working” can result in carbon stored long term (decades to centuries or more) beneficially in soils in a process called soil carbon sequestration; long-term carbon storage (decades to centuries or more) in soils.
Keeping working lands “working” can result in
carbon stored long term
Rangelands: There are 23 million hectares of rangeland in California alone, and it is the largest land type on our planet today. Management of rangelands, through grazing, can lead to increased forage production, longer growing season and a potential conversion to a perennial system. Implementation of practices can meet both ranch goals while increasing the carbon sequestration on rangelands. Grazing stimulates plant growth through a variety of mechanisms, resulting in increased carbon capture by the grazed ecosystem. The potential to increase the amount of carbon held in rangeland ecosystems or to minimize losses of existing carbon offer landowners an opportunity to manage their lands in ways that contribute to climate change mitigation by encouraging carbon sequestration. This can be done by increasing carbon inputs and uptake, decreasing or preventing carbon releases, or both.
How to increase carbon stored: A practice, known as “Carbon Farming” involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and/or soil organic matter. Carbon farming is successful when carbon gains resulting from enhanced land management and/or conservation practices exceed carbon losses. Management practices that increase the amount of photosynthetically-captured carbon held, or “sequestered”, in long-term carbon pools on the farm or ranch, include soil organic matter, perennial plant roots and standing woody biomass. This results in a direct reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Loren Poncia, Stemple Creek Ranch, has implemented a carbon farming plan to not only sequester carbon but enhance the quality and quality of his forage. Loren owns a grass based beef operation, and his animals are born, raised and finished on grass. He needs to supply adequate nutrition for his cattle have proper growth to his meet market goals. As part of his carbon plan, Loren implemented a grazing management plan, to promote perennial grasses growth. Perennials have deeper root systems, and will store more carbon, deeper in the soil. Loren checks the quality of his forage using a spectrometer, measuring sugar levels in the grasses, (Figure 1).
Expanding Carbon Markets: There is a growing body of work suggesting that significant amounts of carbon can be stored in soil. This is particularly true on rangeland, which houses approximately 30 percent of terrestrial carbon stocks in addition to a substantial amount of aboveground carbon in trees, plants and grasses, and can hold carbon over longer periods of time.2 Expanding investment in programs, such as Carbon Farming and the Healthy Soils Program, can support agricultural practices that add to these stocks, creating potential markets to pay ranchers for sequestering carbon.3 Moreover, given the well-established relationship between soil organic matter (of which an average of 50 - 56% is carbon) and the ability of soils to retain water,4 such a market could contribute to watershed function, natural groundwater recharge and overall water provision.
The scientific consensus surrounding the relation between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global climate change has indicated a clear need for the US to find new ways to reduce emissions of these gases and the concentrations in the atmosphere to avoid significant and potentially catastrophic environmental changes. Land management for carbon sequestration is one of many opportunities available to the US, more locally in California, to reduce their net emissions of GHGs, particularly CO2. Carbon-oriented management of rangelands may offer landowners the opportunity to obtain a new source of income while simultaneously helping to mitigate climate change. The payment for ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, may be a potential solution to climate change.
2 FAO, 2009; Flynn, A., et al., 2009; White, R., et al., 2000.
3 De Gryze, S., et al., 2009.
4 Huntington, 2007; Pribyl, 2010; Rawls et al., 2003.
Rangeland owners in the Bay Area face substantial pressure to develop their land. The short term financial gains from developing rangeland for vineyards or residential construction can be very large. In Sonoma and Marin Counties several conservation groups, including the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, are dedicated to preserving rangeland and the cultural and environmental amenities that only open space can provide. The most common instrument for rangeland preservation is a conservation easement. The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), in partnership with UC Berkeley researchers, is currently engaged in a project that explores the
possibility of simultaneously expanding rangeland conservation and
increasing rancher welfare through the use of
novel conservation easement payment structures,
including annuities and variable
Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES).
A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a conservation group that ensures that a parcel of land is not further developed. Conservation easements are permanent—even if the original owner decides to sell the parcel, the easement remains in force. Conservation groups typically compensate landowners by paying them a substantial one-time lump sum. Since an easement decreases the resale value of the parcel, the landowner's property tax liability is often decreased as well. Another important motivation for landowners is securing financial stability for future generations (Rilla and Solokow 2000). Conservation groups are motivated by a range of social, environmental, and ecological goals, including preservation of public goods: open space, biodiversity, soil health, and rural lifestyles (Cross et al 2010).
Under PES systems landowners are monetarily compensated for
making changes to their land management practices.
For example, the owner of a parcel of forest land might receive an annual payment in return for abstaining from logging on the parcel. Depending on the terms of the agreement, the land owner could receive the same payment amount every year, called an annuity, or a variable payment based on the level of ecosystems services that the parcel provides. A conservation group would regularly monitor the parcel to ensure that the terms of the PES agreement had not been violated. PES systems have been successfully implemented in France, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Brazil, but are relatively rare in the United States.
Many families in Sonoma and Marin Counties have been ranching on their parcels for several generations, developing deep and personal connections to their land. As a result, those landowners may have a greater interest in whether or not subsequent generations continue to ranch on their parcels. These landowners could potentially find an annuity more attractive than a lump sum, and a PES based on the amount of residual dry matter (RDM) on the parcel, which would reward ranching and active land management, might be more attractive still.
PES and annuity payment structures would expand the menu of land conservation options available in Sonoma and Marin Counties,
without restricting conservation groups' ability to continue to offer traditional lump sums. With more options comes the possibility of more land conservation, more money in the hands of ranchers, and better alignment between rancher and conservation group motivations.
Through the 1980's, 1990's, and into the early 2000's, efforts to conserve threatened and endangered (special status) species on western rangelands often meant removing livestock ranching. Research findings, demonstration results, and failed conservation efforts in recent years involving endangered species have supported the continuation of livestock ranching and the reintroduction of grazing to some rangelands that were “protected” through grazing removal. At the landscape level, research has demonstrated that livestock ranching maintains extensive, open spaces by reducing land use conversion, fragmentation of habitat, and vegetation type conversion from invasion of brush.
|See Photos Below|
The relationship of grazing to some threatened and endangered species was reviewed in the U.C. Extension Report co-authored with Marin County, The Changing Role of Agriculture at the Point Reyes National Seashore. The report addresses Myrtle's silverspot butterfly (3) which inhabits coastal dunes, prairie, and scrub. Habitat suitability depends on numerous factors, but two critical components are the presence of its larval host plant, the native dog violet (Viola adunca) (4), and adult nectar plants including numerous native wildflowers, as well as common weeds such as bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) (5) and Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus) (6). Most of the Myrtle's silverspot butterflies documented at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) have been found in areas that are grazed by cattle. Butterfly surveys done by PRNS staff in 2003 showed occurrences of Myrtle's silverspot on 13 ranches, all of which support livestock operations (Adams 2004). Recent research on Myrtle's silverspot (Adams 2004; USNPS 2007) documents that Myrtle's silverspot and cattle have co-existed for over a hundred years and that the density of the nectar sources was higher in grazed areas. Biologists studying the Myrtle's silverspot at coastal lands recorded more butterflies in grazed dunes and grasslands than in ungrazed plant communities. At time of the species' listing, the USFWS believed that cattle grazing significantly decreased the habitat quality of the Myrtle's silverspot butterfly. However, a five-year status review by USFWS found that the moderate cattle grazing regime currently used by ranchers on coastal lands did not significantly affect the distribution of Myrtle's silverspot butterfly at that site. Current threats to the Myrtle's silverspot butterfly include: urban or industrial development of any property with suitable habitat for the butterfly; poaching; small population size; the effects of reduced host and nectar plant density due to invasive plants and forbs; road mortalities during the adult flight season; and, the probable constriction of the range and distribution of this butterfly due to global climate change.
Rancher stewardship includes development and maintenance of livestock water sources, pest management, debris clean-up, and forage improvement. Ponds developed for livestock water provide half of the available habitat for the endangered tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) (9) in the San Francisco Bay Area. These results focus on California's annual rangeland, which is the habitat type where most of the special status species associated western rangelands are found.
Grazing lands provide a direct link between urban consumers and local food producers, a powerful conduit for educating the public about the importance of local food production and security. Sonoma and Marin Counties are perfect models for demonstrating how preserving family farms contribute to social, economic and ecological sustainability at local, regional and even national levels. Ranching has positive health impacts including increased food access and food security, food to local business and schools, improved health literacy and general well-being. Ranching in Sonoma and Marin Counties, albeit smaller scale, remains a local industry which provides job creation, training and business succession, and market expansion for many other ranchers and farmers.
References on file.
As the instructor for the Santa Rosa Junior College Range Class, I give students an education about using livestock grazing as a tool in Sonoma County to manage resources; especially in our regional and state parks. I took my class to Point Reyes National Seashore to experience rangelands and the use of grazing. The following blog post was written by student Nicko Wilde.
While much attention is currently being focused on the impacts of the elk sharing land with cattle, the views on this dynamic, mixed in opinion and criticism as they are, still do not focus primarily on a more general concern of overgrazing via poor practices, which ought to retain more attention. The impacts of irresponsible grazing include some of the following: reduced nesting sits for birds & wildlife, nest trampling, reduced cover, reduced floral biodiversity, and attractiveness to predators, parasites, and diseases.
Those who argue that no cattle should graze in point Reyes due to its ecological and protected status, should similarly step back and consider grazing done well can promote the following: watering sources for cattle can also provide water for wildlife, more public input and interest in water district activity, a transition from economically viable ranches based on meat production solely, to ranching done with land restoration productive capacity goals, and therefore a renewed focus on managing for plants with a higher forage value, managing for ornamentals, erosion control, etc.
Recently, my classmates and I went on a hike through Taylor Mountain to learn about the multiple uses of rangelands for ranchers and for the public. As a professional whose whole job is to connect people with the animal world, I was taken by what a rare experience it was for so many people to see something so mundane as a cow.
I'm willing to admit that I am just as guilty as anyone for being impressed by this. When I first moved to the Bay and went hiking through Mount Diablo where cows were grazing I was just as bad as anyone. I asked myself questions like “Is that safe?” “Am I supposed to go in there? Did I read that right?” These are not quarrelsome charging water buffalo or wild deer, these are the standard of what livestock is but it seemed like a daring experience to go walking past them in an uncontrolled environment. I had no idea what the rules were for interacting with them but it didn't take much to learn them.
What does this say about society that seeing a cow is a noteworthy experience? Are we really that accustomed to city life and only seeing other human beings that this is considered daring? I've got a lot more exotic animal experience than most people but I found myself feeling rejuvenated by the glory of the animal world just by interacting with these “dumb cows.”
I dread the generations that are very quickly coming up where there will be no nature left, where it's not possible to take a break from the city and just walk through the blank slate of a hillside and feel yourself refreshed by clean air and rolling hills. I feel like just this one quick trip was enough to motivate me to keep preservation of rangelands in my mind and I hope other people will always have the opportunity to have the same experience.