Meredith Ellis gets a bit rapturous about the little patch of earth under her feet.
When she bought this northern Texas land several years ago, it was overgrazed and overrun with weeds. Now, she’s thrilled to find a dark green blob of fungus she rolls under her sparkly-nail-polished thumb. She picks a tiny patch of the green moss from between clumps of tall brown grass gone dormant with the fall chill.
“Look at all these little bits of biodiversity,” she said. “That’s like a little fantasy world going on in there.”
Bringing it back has been a labor of love — love of the G Bar C Ranch where she grew up, and for the 4-year-old son she’s raising here.
“Everything I do, I think about him now,” she said. “I think about his future, and what is this world going to look like when he’s my age?”
Ellis worries about the droughts, floods and other calamities he may face from climate change. She wonders if there even will be enough food to go around.
It’s a big reason why she raises her cattle a bit differently than most.
The differences not only help to combat climate change. They also provide more clean water. They can even save ranchers money. And if one project goes forward, farmers may get financial rewards for making the changes.
Meadows vs. lawns
Ellis’s fields look like meadows. Her cattle forage among an assortment of thigh-high native grasses.
Other ranches nearby look like giant lawns. Cows have grazed the grass monocultures nearly down to the ground.
The difference matters, says rangeland scientist Jeff Goodwin with the Noble Research Institute, because the native grass is “not only feeding this cow herd. It’s also feeding the underground herd: the microbes, the biology in the soil. That’s what really makes that soil an active, living, breathing system.”
It’s a system with the potential to remove tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“The more forage production that we’re getting, the deeper the root systems, the more carbon we’re sequestering out of the atmosphere,” Goodwin added.
That’s increasingly important. Scientists warn that the world needs to do more than just stop producing greenhouse gases in order to avoid the worst of climate change. Carbon dioxide needs to be actively removed from the atmosphere in order to keep the planet from potentially catastrophic warming.
While engineers puzzle over high-tech solutions, a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says nature offers tools that are ready to go today.
Valuable ecosystem services
Grasslands and the soils beneath them act as giant carbon sinks, the report notes.
But not if they are overgrazed.
Around the world, one estimate says, about 200 million hectares are overgrazed, an area roughly the size of Mexico.
One study estimates that optimizing grazing could cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 89 million metric tons, roughly the same as permanently parking 19 million cars.
Plus, overgrazed land erodes more easily. That’s a double whammy. Ranchers lose fertile soil, and it ends up muddying drinking water downstream, which increases the cost to make it tap-ready.
On the other hand, healthy grassland soils that store carbon also store and filter water.
Those benefits should be worth money, Goodwin said. They’re known as ecosystem services, and the Noble Research Institute is working to develop a marketplace for them. Ranchers would earn credits based on their soil’s carbon content and its water storage and filtration capacity.
Some major food and beverage companies are interested in the market. Many have set goals to improve sustainability up and down their supply chains.
“There’s not really a solid path forward” for many of them to meet those goals, Goodwin said. “We feel like we’re sitting in a very good position to be able to provide that opportunity.”
All profits from the soil
Many of the steps ranchers could take to earn ecosystem service credits would help their bottom lines anyway.
“A lot of people want to talk about soil health building as a thing to do for the environment. But really, it’s something we need to be doing for our profitability as well,” said Michael Vance, managing partner at Stark Ranch, a short drive from Ellis’ operation.
“All your profit comes from the soil,” he added.
He stood in a field where cattle had recently been grazing, but you’d never know it. The grass still stood tall. His neighbors don’t understand why he doesn’t let the cows graze it all the way down. They think he’s wasting it.
“We get phone calls where people want to drive a bailer in here and bail up this grass, but they don’t realize the positives that come by leaving it standing,” he said.
The field grows more grass when cattle are moved off it sooner. That means Vance buys less feed.
Even if it’s more profitable, it’s not easy for people to change their ways, and ranchers are a conservative bunch.
“You realize things that you were raised doing, things that your dad and your granddad did, maybe weren’t the best things to do,” Vance said, “from an environmental perspective, maybe from even a profitability perspective.”
Financial incentives might help other ranchers make changes, he adds.
The Noble Research Institute plans to launch a pilot ecosystem services market in 2019 and is aiming for a full rollout in 2022.