Regenerative agriculture as a tool to help limit climate change

From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon

Soil samples taken from sites on two neighbouring quarters. The sample on the left has been grazed regeneratively for 12 years.

There sure seems to be a lot of hype about climate change lately. I’m not a scientist but as a producer, a change in weather can affect my business a great deal. The big push seems to be about reducing emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere. Everyone is blaming everyone else about putting too much carbon in the air. “Weather” you believe in climate change or not, as a producer it shouldn’t be about removing carbon from the air, it should be all about adding carbon to your soil. Of course, using less will help reduce our operating costs, and that just sounds like a good business plan to me.

All plants sequester carbon from the air through the magic of photosynthesis. The question is: Do you capture more than you release? Do you want to be a net emitter or a net sequesterer? Sequestering carbon does not have to be all about saving the world. Do it for your farm, for your soil and for your profitability.

Modern agriculture takes some dirt, adds fertility and grows a crop. It removes nutrients from the dirt to grow a plant. These nutrients then have to be replaced. The fuel, fertilizer and chemical used to grow the crop are emitting more carbon than the crop sequesters. This is a net emitter of carbon.

Regenerative agriculture takes some dirt, adds some plants and develops an ecosystem that produces its own fertility. It continually adds carbon and fertility to the soil. This is net sequestration. We can continuously build soil with minimal inputs. As I said, my goal as a producer is to add carbon to the soil. When we do, we are feeding our soil organisms that are so important in developing a healthy soil ecosystem. We are enhancing biodiversity in and above the ground with every plant grown. We don’t have a fertility issue in agriculture, we have a biology issue. We need to protect our soil biology. If we can create a win:win relationship between the plants and the soil organisms, they’ll give us all the free fertility we need.

Modern agriculture grows plants from the soil, while regenerative agriculture grows the soil from the plants. There is a big difference. If you recall, photosynthesis is where the plants take carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) from the air and combines them by using sunlight energy to form a simple sugar called glucose (C6H12O6). These three elements make up the majority of all plant composition. Over 95 per cent of the makeup of any plant comes from the air (carbon 45 per cent, oxygen 45 per cent, hydrogen six per cent, and nitrogen 1.5 per cent). We actually grow plants from the air, not the soil.

Spikes in the soil showing where the roots have converted the clay to soil. photo: Gateway Research Organization 

Another huge benefit we gain in adding carbon to the soil is increased water-holding capacity. The residue left on top of the soil helps reduce runoff and evaporation while the exudate that is pumped into the soil by the root systems helps build water storage within the soil pores. It’s a whole system that intertwines the livestock, the plants, the soil organisms and the biological life in the environment. We have to look at it as a whole and not as individual parts.

If we could rebuild a healthy water cycle, on a global scale, we’d have a way to manage rainfall. Desertification is caused by a mismanaged water cycle. Floods and droughts are amplified by our management. If we can manage the land regeneratively both in the cattle industry and in the grain industry, we can actually change the weather. Less runoff will cause less flooding. Less evaporation will create fewer heavy storms. More water-holding capacity could mean fewer fires. If you think about climate, the water cycle has a huge role to play in it. Together, we can actually manage rainfall. With that in mind, no one else on the planet has as much ability to manage (or mismanage) the water cycle as we do. Again, it’s not about removing carbon from the atmosphere, it is about adding carbon to your soil. Building soil is good for your farm.

There is another aspect of climate change that raises a lot of controversy for us — livestock. It is not the cattle that are to blame; it is how we manage them that cause the issues. If managed right, livestock can be the solution. We need to get them back out properly grazing the land where they belong. It’s simple biology. Livestock do not produce carbon. They cannot add a single atom of carbon to the atmosphere that wasn’t already there in the first place. Yes, livestock emit carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Both contain one atom of carbon. This is a basic fact of biology.

But a cow is only a part of the carbon cycle. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. When livestock eat plants, all the carbon in a plant comes from the atmosphere, not the ground. Remember that 97.5 per cent of every plant comes from the air, not the soil. The carbon in the leaves comes from the air around the plant through the process of photosynthesis. The carbon in the roots is transported there from the top of the plant, which comes from the air.

Even the carbon in the exudate that the plant sends out through the root tips to build soil and to feed the soil microbes comes from the air. When a cow (or any livestock) eats a plant, it is eating carbon from the atmosphere. The animals simply recycle that carbon back to where it came from — the air. With proper management, we can take so much more of this atmospheric carbon and store it in the soil. We need the livestock to manage this. Regenerative agriculture is how we can build soil.

The pictures included in this column were taken here at Greener Pastures Ranching by the Gateway Research Organization. We have had multiple studies on this land and two paddocks were part of Agriculture Canada’s Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program. It is a carbon sequestration study that was co-ordinated across the Canadian Prairies. The study included 30 locations and each site compared a regeneratively grazed paddock and a continuously grazed pasture.

This portion was done with the University of Alberta and we expect to have results back from the three-year study soon. The two sites were chosen by the research team with the U of A, who looked for land with a similar location, history and topography. The quarters are kitty-corner from each other. The only major difference was the sample on the left (see photo at top) has been regeneratively grazed for the last 12 years. The samples show the difference in the carbon buildup in the top layers. This is grey-wooded soil, which is developed under leaf litter and is predominantly a clay base with little top soil. The roots have been adding carbon to the clay and converting it into soil.

If you want to learn more about how to grow your soil, I hope you managed to get a ticket to the sold-out Western Canada Conference on Soil Health and Grazing 2019 in Edmonton. The “climate” at the conference will be “emitting tons of carbon” sequestration ideas.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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