Climate change has brought much scrutiny on the beef industry. But is it justified?
Scientists have been studying grazing management and its impact on ecological function, and “there is evidence to suggest, if it’s well managed, cattle can be very edifying to land and improve its function versus deteriorating or extracting,” says Jason Rowntree, the C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture in the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science. “But the science is pretty isolated in terms of geography.”
Rowntree is co-leading more than 40 members of a $19 million project to take soil samples, assemble on-site ecosystem monitoring towers that measure carbon flow, and discuss parameters of the six-year effort.
“Our approach is to go really big with two different grazing management protocols across three very diverse landscapes — the upper Midwest [Michigan], lower Great Plains [Oklahoma, Texas], and out west in Colorado and Wyoming,” he says. “It’s not to prove if one's better than the other, but more to be able to derive data and really try to scale it up using remote sensing and other technologies.”
The project is called Metrics, Management, and Monitoring: An Investigation of Pasture and Rangeland Soil Health and its Drivers (3M). Funders are the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, Noble Research Institute, Greenacres Foundation, The Jones Family Foundation and ButcherBox.
“This time in my career here at MSU really marks a culmination of 13 years of work at the MSU Lake City Research Center,” says Rowntree, who also directs the MSU Center for Regenerative Agriculture. “Our overarching goal has always been to look at how management of grazing livestock influences ecological function — carbon, water, biodiversity — all the things that are necessary for a stable environment.”
Researchers will be studying how management affects 20 sites in each of those three geographical areas — 60 total — to provide real-time information whether it be on water infiltration, water cycling or energy capture.
“Carbon is a lagging indicator; it takes years to build enough differences to measure it accurately,” Rowntree explains. “So, we're using proxies and instruments called eddy covariance flux towers, which can measure the CO2 absorption and emission on a daily basis, and provide metrics every 30 minutes.”
To Rowntree’s knowledge, this is the largest project in the U.S. with respect to looking at how management influences metrics in grazing landscapes.
Within the project is a group of social scientists working to understand barriers to adopting principles that can improve land in terms of management.
“First and foremost, if you want farmers and ranchers to change behavior, it has to make sense economically,” Rowntree says. “We know that. People have to feed their families. Their voices are important, and they deserve to be heard. If we can show them that regenerative agriculture is looking after their bottom line and the environment, we have a better shot at effecting change.”
Farmers deserve to be paid fairly
As all this data comes into a centralized location, researchers can provide feedback to producers on how their farms are doing. “There’s power in data, and recently my 20-year-old son walked by as I was talking to my wife and nonchalantly says, ‘Dad, didn't you know, data is more valuable than oil today,’” Rowntree says.
Recognizing that value, Rowntree says while providing more accurate assessments of farmer’s land, the goal is to simultaneously pay them for their ecosystem services. “That’s the farmers’ data,” he says. “And in our view, they own it. We want to see them valued in that process.”
Additional funding is currently being applied for through USDA Climate Partnership Grants. “We’d like to see the incentives for farmers and ranchers improved dramatically,” Rowntree says. “The economics have to be there, and they’re not. Look at the price of carbon — farmers are getting about $15 a ton for carbon credits, but yet an oil company is paid about $400 a ton for carbon as they extract it. There's a huge demand to extract it, but there doesn't seem to be much demand to put it back. Farmers are a key to sequestering carbon. … They need to be paid appropriately.”
The project also focuses on more nuanced management strategies for farmers that makes sense for them. “It needs to be more than just a check-the-box approach we often do through our policies,” Rowntree says.
Social science is as much a part of 3M as extracting soil samples. Amassing piles of data without understanding the social and cultural motives of farmers and ranchers is to ignore the people behind the operations, says Melissa McKendree, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, who is examining profitability of several management techniques, from conventional to regenerative practices.
Best for all
Beef production is often cited as a driver of climate change, but Rowntree wants everyone — from beef producers to the public — to learn how it can operate in tandem with nature.
“Cattle can help improve the environment and add stability and diversity to our food system,” he says. “We can’t plow every acre, but we have awesome opportunities for perennial-based agriculture that adds stability, absorbs a lot of water, and can create greater carbon sequestration.”
A decision-support tool will be developed that harnesses the power of modeling, including predictions of soil carbon sequestration, water and nutrient cycling, and social factors such as the socioeconomic well-being of producers.
Decision-support tools are being designed to help producers make more informed decisions on management. Jeremiah Asher, assistant director of the MSU Institute of Water Research, oversees the water cycling and decision-support tool portions of 3M. Glenn O’Neil, an environmental scientist with IWR, is the lead contributor for the tool's creation.
Producers will also have access to outcome-based land monitoring, an approach that delivers up-to-date information on the effectiveness of their efforts. Researchers are using a program devised at the Savory Institute called Ecological Outcomes Verification.
“It really boils down to having healthy soils, no matter the size of the farm,” Rowntree says. “I think we can all try to increase resilience, but it looks different for every farm and every size. But, if we get down to these concepts and principles, it is agnostic to size.”
The project also seeks to make the intangible more tangible. “A melting glacier, a deteriorating ozone, a dead zone in a large body of water, a depleting aquifer — all unseen,” Rowntree says. “It’s out of sight, out of mind, like the exhaust from our tailpipes. The only way to really think about these things is to make them more tangible. If we can provide landowners or managers better tools to see what's happening in real time, they’re more likely to be interested in being part of the solution.”