This is the fifth blog of a series describing the five methods that make up regenerative agriculture—perennial plants & diverse crops, zero/low tillage & mulching, cover cropping & crop rotation, composting, and managed grazing. Implementation of these methods is site specific and depends on soil characteristics, crops grown, and local climates. Practices are rooted in organic methods and can be integrated into farms and pastures transitioning from conventional to organic. They also have a role in smaller-scale climate gardens, where individuals do their part to sequester carbon and contribute to a local, sustainable food system.
All agriculture sequesters carbon from the air through photosynthesis. But, regenerative agriculture ensures more carbon is stored than released and keeps the drawn down carbon underground. This effectively reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increases the amount of soil carbon available for healthy crops.
In agriculture, there is major potential for managed grazing to provide beneficial outcomes both for the climate and beyond. There are many types of grazing systems that rotate livestock to maximize animal and soil health, with different schedules for grazing and quantity of animals allowed on the fields.
Adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP) is considered one of the most regenerative systems for grazing livestock, in which the animals are managed to mimic the constantly moving, vast herds of wild herbivores that once grazed the prairies. That is, the animals stay to graze for a short period of time before being moved to the next field, with the rest/recovery period being relatively long before the animals return for subsequent grazing. This is quite different from conventional grazing practices, which often allow for continuous grazing and no time for regeneration.
AMP grazing draws down and stores carbon, but it also has vast implications for the health of livestock, land, and soil microbial communities. Under truly regenerative and holistically managed systems, living soils can be diverse and healthy enough to mitigate the methane produced by the livestock in real time.
AMP grazing and other methods of intensely managed grazing decrease the need for conventionally grown, annual feed crops that emit carbon and other greenhouse gases, because the animals are eating directly from the land in ways that restore ecosystem functions and health. This high-quality and naturally-occurring feed reduces methane emissions from livestock, as it is easier for them to digest (also decreasing the need for antibiotics). It lessens the need for energy intensive petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and herbicides, because the animals are enriching the land naturally as they forage and leave manure and urine behind. Their impact on the land restores a healthy soil microbiome, increases the density of plants that cover the land surface, and—when incorporating perennial and native forages or trees—are able to store even more carbon deep underground, increasing its long-term stability. Other benefits include reduced erosion, improved biodiversity, and decreased air and water pollution from inefficient manure management.
Many methods in regenerative agriculture can be implemented on any scale, including that of a climate garden. But, we recognize that many household-level operations do not keep livestock or have sufficient space for rotational grazing. Because of this, we have a slightly modified suggestion for climate gardens. If you don’t have animals, see if there’s a way for you to source manure locally to incorporate into your compost (remember, certain plants prefer certain types of manure). If you do have animals, do your best to source off-farm feed from organic (and even regenerative) producers.
Whether you’re a consumer, farmer, or climate gardener, holistic grazing and livestock management are important. It is just one of many tools and practices that make up a regenerative agricultural system and bring many benefits to local ecosystems and the people involved from production to consumption. Meat is one of the food system’s highest polluting sectors, so even small changes here can lead to big impacts.
If you’re unable to implement these practices directly, use your consumer power and speak with your dollars to show your support. Demand grass-fed beef. Research the methods used to produce the meat on your table, and buy from those who use AMP grazing and other climate-aware approaches. Without strong signals from consumers, not enough farmers and ranchers will switch to these practices in the timeframe needed to reverse current climate trends that threaten food security and the future of our planet.