By Jonathan Reinbold, Sustainability, Research & Grant Manager at Organic Valley

Here’s an interesting paradox: livestock is both a major contributor to and a solution for excess carbon in the atmosphere, which is intensifying climate change. The most conservative estimates suggest that raising livestock accounts for nearly 15% of global greenhouse gases emitted each year; the most comprehensive assessments of emissions say more than 50%. However, when herbivores are removed from the land – whether they are wild or domesticated – the land deteriorates. When grasslands are undergrazed, soil health declines and carbon is lost.

Grasslands occupy 31% to 43% of the global land area, and store 28% to 37% of the terrestrial soil organic carbon pool. Practices that increase forage production, such as fertilization, irrigation, sowing favorable grasses and forbs, intensive grazing management, and conversion from cultivation to well-managed pasture, provide the opportunity to sequester atmospheric carbon and enhance soil organic matter.

Improved grazing can sequester between one-half to three tons of carbon per acre per year. Improved grazing management practices in grasslands could sequester about 409 million tonnes of carbon per year, globally. Grazing land and pasture management practices that increase soil carbon stocks can significantly mitigate carbon emissions and may present opportunities for profitable investment in mitigation.

Management-intensive rotational grazing loses significantly less carbon than continuous grazing, haymaking, and fallow land management, and in some years is the only treatment that has a positive carbon balance. Further, organic dairy farms with well-maintained pasture have smaller carbon footprints than conventional grain-based dairy farms, and pasture production produces fewer emissions than corn grain because it requires fewer tractor hours and less fuel and processing.

So whether or not you consume dairy or animal products, it’s in all of our best interest to have ruminants in landscapes and doing what they do naturally to reap the benefits of improved air quality, water filtration, decreased erosion, increased biodiversity.

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