Carbon, pastures and forests

By Matt Reese

There is plenty of discussion about row crops and their ability to sequester carbon in the Corn Belt, but often overlooked in these conversations are the forests and pastures of rural southeastern Ohio. These land uses could be real winners in terms of payments derived from carbon sequestration.

“When it comes to carbon sequestration, you know trees are still it. They’re long lived, they’re permanent and they can sequester a lot of carbon,” said Mike Estadt, Pickaway County educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources with Ohio State University Extension. “And then I would rank grasslands and pastures right in there too for the same reason. Perennial grasses can sequester a lot of carbon if they’re managed properly.”

Estadt pointed out that scientists estimate grasslands contain 10% to 30% of the world’s organic carbon with the potential to store more with improved grazing practices sequestering carbon and reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) nitrous oxide, (NO3) and methane (CH4). There are several grazing management practices that lend themselves not only to increasing soil carbon, but improving water quality, increasing biodiversity of the farm, expanding amounts of biomass available for grazing, and improved soil health. Practices include rotational grazing, optimizing stocking rates, nitrogen management, and incorporating forage species to reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, Estadt said. 

To best capitalize on carbon markets by maximizing sequestration from pasture growth, emissions of greenhouse gases also need to be minimized. 

“Livestock is kind of problematic at times because of the methane component, but I’ve seen some initial research and even Ohio State’s got some novel research showing that, through feed additives and vaccines and some other things, we can change the microflora of the gut of the rumen to reduce the amount of methane that is emitted through the through their burps, so I think I think the grassland grazing operations are still in a good position with carbon markets,” Estadt said. 

Nationally, the cattle industry in particular has been bombarded with questions ad criticism about emissions in recent years. The facts of the matter, though, tell a very positive story about carbon and greenhouse gas emission from grazing livestock, said Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“We get asked about cow flatulence almost on a daily basis, but what we are finding is there is a willingness out there to listen to the facts. There’s been a lot of conjecture over the years and a lot of misinformation that has painted us in a very negative light, but one thing that we have found, especially with the Biden Administration, is they have been willing to bring us to the table to talk about the true facts about our environmental impact. When you look at EPA’s numbers, all of American agriculture is only responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions and then when you boil that down to beef cattle production, we’re 2.16%. Regardless of what you think about the discussion of climate change, we know that 2.16% of greenhouse gas emissions is really not going to change that discussion one way or the other and the Administration seems to be getting that,” Woodall said. “When we really talk about the environment, we’re part of the solution, not the problem. When you step back and you look across this country, including here in Ohio, what’s better, a strip mall or apartment complex or a farm? That seems to be resonating with this Administration. There’s a lot of great land in Ohio used to raise corn and beans but there’s some land here, especially in the hilly areas, where you can’t do that, but you can grow grass. That grass has a tremendous amount of energy that translates into building some tremendous protein. We can’t digest grass as humans, but grass can take those greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and is able to be grazed and then turned into great tasting beef. Being able to get that story out really is resonating for us.”

While there are numerous companies working with carbon markets and agriculture, there are relatively few focused on the emerging potential of pastures and grasslands. Most companies focused on grazing and livestock systems are currently in pilot programs. A limited number of projects are active and may not be available in all geographical areas. A few such companies are active in the Midwest including Ohio and Pennsylvania, Estadt said. 

Examples include:

Ecosystems Services Market

This is a national ecosystem services market program that pays farmers and ranchers for quantified, verified, certified, and outcomes-based soil carbon, net greenhouse gases, water quality and water conservation credits generated from regenerative agricultural practices. ESMC is a non-profit, member-based organization and a combination of public and private companies and organizations.

Grassroots Carbon 

Serves an intermediary between carbon credit buyers and ranchers that adopt regenerative grazing practices that increases the likelihood of increasing soil carbon. Grassroots provides technical assistance to the farmers and ranchers enrolled in their program.

Soil and Water Outcomes Fund

The Soil and Water Outcomes Fund provides financial incentives directly to farmers who transition to on-farm conservation practices that yield positive environmental outcomes like carbon sequestration and water quality improvement. SWOF provides new market opportunities and revenue streams for farmers by selling these environmental outcomes to public and private beneficiaries to meet regulatory and voluntary sustainability goals, such as scope 3 greenhouse gas emission insets. SWOF is currently enrolling Ohio farmers and ranchers.

In terms of the forests and woodlots that often border eastern Ohio pastures, Estadt sees even more potential, especially if several landowners aggregate their properties. 

“There are a number of consulting foresters here in Ohio now that are working as an intermediary for landowners who want to consider putting their woodlands and their forests into these carbon programs. Trees are the most desirable because we know trees are long lived and they do sequester quite a bit of carbon,” Estadt said. “But if you consider putting your woodlots in this, typically the forester is going to do an inventory of the biomass that is on your property and then in order to maximize the amount of sequestered carbon on that property, you will do a timber harvest on the front end. You will get partial credit for what is harvested and then as you get the new regrowth out of those woodlots, that’s all new carbon.”

Whether pastures, woodlots or crop ground, Estadt emphasizes the importance of implementing the practices that make the most sense for the farm independent of carbon sequestration. 

“You really need to start by thinking about your farm as a whole and what will make it more productive. I think the carbon programs are kind of like cherries on top of the sundae. If you’ve always thought about no-till or cover crops or changing the way you put nitrogen on or if you’re a livestock farmer and grazer, think about extending the grazing rest periods and doing rotational grazing and managing your nitrogen differently. I think all these things have a lot more other benefits to your farm, our environment and our communities than just a payment,” Estadt said. “I think the payment always has to be in mind, but it has to make sense for the farmer. You don’t want to go out and spend $100 to make $40 — that’s not a sustainable model. So do an evaluation of your farm and how you want to make it better. Now, if some of these dollars that are going to be coming can help you do that, then that’s fine. I think there will be money in the Inflation Reduction Act and then in the Infrastructure Bill from the Biden Administration and there was recently some $2 billion put out for Carbon Smart Commodities through USDA. The farm bill farm bill is going to have a big emphasis on conservation too and maybe in ways we’re not used to.

“Implement practices because they’re in the best interest of your farming operation, whether or not there’s a payment. If you do consider a contract, have an attorney look at it and work the bugs out of implementing the practices before you sign your name on the dotted line. There are going to be programs being offered by everyone under the sun, and this is all being driven by reduction of carbon. I think there’s a lot of there’s a lot of good things coming in agriculture.”

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