Back to search

Keeping Cattle on the Move and Carbon in the Soil

Ranchers and conservationists, once unlikely allies, are teaming up to preserve grasslands, which act as a carbon dioxide sink that could support climate goals.

The three generations of Obrecht men may not seem to fit the stereotype of conservationists.

Ranchers on a remote eastern Montana prairie near Canada, Sonny, 78, Sam, 61, and Tyrel Obrecht, 31, are ruggedly independent, politically conservative and make their living rearing cattle — those lumbering beasts that are the bête noire of carbon footprint–concerned conservationists.

But things are not always as they seem here on the Great Plains.

The Obrechts stand at the forefront of an emerging collaboration between ranchers, conservation groups and governmental agencies that aims to protect, restore and revitalize the United States and Canada’s prairies — or what’s left of them.

Such majestic grasslands once blanketed a quarter of North America, before homesteaders began plowing up the earth to plant those amber waves of grain. Now just a third of the native prairies survive, said Joe Fargione, science director, North America, at The Nature Conservancy.

Yet grasslands play a vital role in storing carbon — which in the form of carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas linked to climate change — and thus they serve as a crucial bulwark against rising temperatures and seas.

Researchers estimate that grasslands could contain as much as 30 percent of the carbon stored in the Earth’s soil. Plowing them in order to plant crops releases large amounts of that carbon into the atmosphere.

The savannas of Africa and South America, the steppes of Eurasia and the Pampas of South America are also in crisis. Competing for attention, they are losing the battle against conversion to cropland and are threatened by unsustainable livestock grazing practices, urban sprawl, invasive species, climate change and even well-meaning efforts to plant trees.

Grasslands cover about 40 percent of global terrestrial land; only about 10 percent is protected.

More than 80 percent of native grasslands have been transformed into croplands or pastures....Back in Montana, Tyrel Obrecht touts the benefits of regenerative ranching.

“The only way to take carbon from the air is to promote plant growth,” he said. “And the best way to promote growth is to graze it and provide rest. That is very, very beneficial to an entire ecosystem.”

Read further from the source, originally published here 

By Benjamin Ryan, Oct. 31, 2021

This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which looks at efforts around the world to make a difference.