While cattle do produce greenhouse gasses, good management of pastures and grazing systems can return carbon to the soil, improve soil health and productivity and make ranching more profitable. Those were a few of the points from filmmaker and sustainability scientist Peter Byck, who gave one of the most provocative presentations at the recent Global Conference on Sustainable Beef in Alberta.

Byck, a professor and senior sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute for Sustainability at Arizona State University, also has directed and edited several award-winning documentary films.

One such film, titled “Soil Carbon Cowboys,” documents how some ranchers are using adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing to improve soil health and overall productivity. AMP grazing is a highly intensive form of rotational grazing, using high stocking rates for short-term grazing and rapid rotation from one paddock to the next. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store carbon in their roots and eventually return much of that carbon to the soil.  AMP grazing could help accelerate that process. 

Byck says human activity emits 8.9 gigatons of carbon each year. Soils, however, have a greater ability to store carbon than either plants or the atmosphere, and with pasture and rangelands accounting for vast acreage of plant cover, that land can store huge reserves of carbon – potentially more carbon than cattle contribute to the atmosphere.  AMP grazing, Byck says, can store 3 tons per hectare more than conventional grazing per year. Building organic matter into pasture soils results in better water absorption, resilience to drought, less erosion, greater biodiversity, superior animal health and improved farm economics. Several university studies at various stages of completion such as one at Texas A&M University, aim to compare soil health, carbon storage and productivity of pastures, in a variety of climates and soil types, under different grazing practices such as high-stock continuous, low-stock continuous and AMP grazing.

Carbon is a key indicator of healthy soils,” Byck says. Early research results, and anecdotal accounts such as from the ranchers featured in “Soil Carbon Cowboys,” indicate that AMP grazing can, over time, improve soil carbon storage and productivity compared with other grazing methods.

View the short film, “Soil Carbon Cowboys” online.