Grasslands are critical to ecological health & economic sustainability
We must protect and conserve grasslands for future generations. One way to do this is through regenerative livestock management.
Grasslands, also known as prairies, savannas, or steppes, are vast, open ecosystems dominated by grasses and other herbaceous plants, with scattered trees and shrubs. They cover about one-quarter of the earth's land area and support diverse communities of wildlife, including large herbivores like bison, antelope, and elk, as well as predators like wolves and cougars.
Grasslands are important for many reasons, both ecological and economic. Here are some of the key ways in which grasslands contribute to our planet's health and well-being:
1. Carbon sequestration:
Grasslands are highly efficient at capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their deep-rooted grasses and soil. Recent studies show that they’re more reliable carbon sinks than forests, making them important carbon sinks and critical in the fight against climate change.
Grasslands are home to a diverse array of plant and animal species, many of which are threatened or endangered. For example, the North American prairie once supported vast herds of bison, but today less than 1% of the original grassland remains, and the bison is now considered a species of conservation concern. Grasslands also support a variety of grassland birds, such as the greater prairie chicken and the grasshopper sparrow.
3. Soil conservation:
Healthy grasslands with diverse plant species help to prevent soil erosion by holding soil in place with their deep root systems, which can penetrate up to 10 feet deep. They also improve soil quality by increasing organic matter and soil nutrients.
4. Water conservation:
Grasslands recharge groundwater and maintain water quality by absorbing rainwater, increasing water infiltration rates, and filtering out pollutants. They also regulate the water cycle by absorbing and releasing water at different rates, helping to prevent floods and droughts.
5. Economic value:
Grasslands are important for agriculture, providing grazing land for livestock and habitat for pollinators. They are also important for recreation and tourism, with many visitors flocking to see the iconic landscapes of the Serengeti, the Great Plains, or the Australian Outback.
Given their ecological and economic importance, it is critical that we protect and conserve grasslands for future generations. One way to do this is through regenerative livestock management.
Livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, have been raised on grasslands for thousands of years. In fact, many grassland ecosystems have evolved to depend on large herbivores to maintain their ecological balance. Grazing can help to stimulate plant growth, increase biodiversity, and promote nutrient cycling in the soil.
However, if livestock are not managed properly, overgrazing can occur, leading to soil erosion, reduced plant productivity, and loss of biodiversity. Overgrazing can also release carbon stored in the soil, contributing to climate change.
Therefore, it is important to adopt sustainable grazing practices that balance the needs of livestock and grassland ecosystems. Here are some examples of regenerative livestock management practices:
1. Rotational grazing:
Rotational grazing involves dividing a pasture into smaller paddocks and moving livestock from one paddock to another on a regular basis. This allows grasses to recover between grazing periods and promotes even distribution of manure and urine, which can fertilize the soil.
2. Mixed-species grazing:
Mixed-species grazing involves grazing different types of livestock together, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. This can help to distribute grazing pressure more evenly across the landscape, promoting biodiversity and reducing overgrazing.
3. Resting periods:
Resting periods involve allowing a pasture to rest for a period of time without grazing. This allows grasses to recover, promotes the growth of deep-rooted perennial plants, which can store carbon deeper in the soil profile, where it is less likely to be released into the atmosphere, and increases plant diversity.
4. Grazing management planning:
Grazing management planning involves developing a comprehensive plan for grazing that takes into account the needs of the grassland ecosystem, livestock, and other stakeholders. This plan may involve monitoring plant growth and soil health, adjusting grazing intensity and duration, and incorporating other land management practices such as prescribed burning or invasive species control. While I’ve seen many grazing plans on the back of discarded pizza boxes, tools such as PastureMap simplify grazing management, forage forecasting, and record keeping.
5. Conservation grazing:
Conservation grazing involves using livestock to manage grasslands for conservation purposes, such as restoring degraded grasslands or maintaining habitat for rare or endangered species. This can be done in partnership with conservation organizations or government agencies. As Chad Ellis of Texas Agricultural Land Trust has said, however, “Conservation without compensation ends the conversation.” Incentivizing farmers and ranchers must address common barriers ranchers face when considering grazing management alternatives. While grants exist, many ranchers now turn to carbon credit programs like those from Grassroots Carbon to offset infrastructure costs and generate additional revenue for carbon sequestration and the many ecosystem services that regenerative management provides.
Sustainable livestock management can have many benefits for both grassland ecosystems and livestock producers. By promoting healthy grasslands, livestock can help to sequester carbon, conserve water and soil, and maintain biodiversity. Livestock can also provide a source of income and food for people living in or near grassland ecosystems.
In addition to regenerative livestock management, other conservation strategies may be necessary to protect and restore grassland ecosystems. These may include restoring fire regimes, controlling invasive species, and protecting key habitat areas through land acquisition or conservation easements.
Grasslands are critically important ecosystems that provide a range of ecological and economic benefits. Grazing animals are the linchpin in maintaining healthy grasslands and promoting biodiversity, while also providing important economic benefits for livestock producers. However, it is important to balance the needs of grassland ecosystems with the needs of livestock and to adopt grazing practices that are appropriate for each specific ecosystem. By working together to protect and conserve grasslands, we can ensure that these important ecosystems continue to provide benefits for generations to come.
Ecosystem management using livestock: embracing diversity and respecting ecological principles by Rountree, et al. This new paper highlights the importance of 1) the variability of the ecological context in which livestock systems operate, and how this can both limit and stimulate the potential of animal production, 2) integrating agro-ecological principles, such as improved circularity and minimized feed-food competition, and 3) the positive ecosystem contributions of well-managed livestock and how these are affected by various management strategies.
Texas Cowboys Turn to Carbon Capture Cattle by Consensus Digital Media. Watch a regenerative rancher in action. This video highlights Texas rancher and CEO, Travis Krause, who is currently enrolled in the Grassroots Carbon program to implement regenerative grazing practices to restore grasslands. In his words, “If we restore just half of the U.S. grasslands, we can sequester half to over a billion tons of CO2 per year. For my son and for future generations, that's a massive difference. That's getting back to that natural carbon sink, that's working with nature, improving rural areas, improving the food supply. I was in Houston during Hurricane Harvey; I know what happens when you pave over a grassland.”
Collaborative, Regenerative Economy by We Are Carbon. "I think that's one of the realisations over the last decade - that it looks like humanity is not heading for a very healthy course. People are seeing that by the destruction of our ecosystems, the amount of mental health problems in our societies, the power plays in politics. We need a transition. To go from capitalism, individualism, extractivism, towards becoming more symbiotic with nature and each other. We call that a regenerative network. We see people building big pieces of this puzzle that once clicked together are potentially going to completely shift humanity to a different way of operating,” says Daan Gorter of Gaianet, a global community of regenerative changemakers. Tune in to learn more about this perspective on how we can collectively regenerate ourselves, our economy, and our planet.
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