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Soil Cowboys
By Dan Sherman

In the northern United States and southern Canada, ranching has begun to promote sustainability, reducing carbon in the air, while creating healthier food and saving money.

Though not often known, soil can act as a carbon sink, holding tons of this climate change-causing element. Most often, however, carbon is actually removed from the soil by farming and ranching. In fact, U.S. soils have lost roughly half their carbon in the past century. But recently this trend has begun to reverse.

Traditional ranching techniques allow cattle to graze openly across the land; this requires spraying herbicides to control pasture weeds. It also means that all of the land is always in use, and legumes (plants such as clover which put carbon back in the soil) are killed. This, in turn, leads to erosion and a reduction in the amount of carbon in the soil. Eventually these factors combine to produce poor plant growth and little food for the livestock being raised.

The new method, popularized in part by rancher and farmer Joel Salatin, and author and professor Michael Pollan in the bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, calls for a cessation of herbicide spraying and cordoning off of pasture space, confining the cattle to one specific area, called a paddock, at a time, moving the animals every few weeks.

While a simple technique, this has several important effects: 1) land is able to recover and store carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients in between the cattle’s stay in a given paddock; 2) money is saved on herbicides; and 3) cattle are healthier because they are able to eat nutrient rich “weeds” such as the aforementioned clover—healthier plants in general—and they are not ingesting herbicides.

These few simple changes can have profound impacts. These ranchlands no longer contribute as much carbon to the atmosphere and produce healthier meat for their consumers.

 

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Posted: September 12, 2014