38 Cover Photo B online

The Department of Justice has subpoenaed the “Big Four” beef packing plants to submit information regarding potential antitrust violations. Pictured here, cattle graze on lush pasture. 

Ruminant animals like cattle contribute to maintaining healthy soils and grasslands, and proper grazing management can reduce the industry’s carbon emissions and overall footprint, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist.

Richard Teague, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management and senior scientist of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture and the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Vernon, said his research, “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America,” published in the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, presents sustainable solutions for grazing agriculture.

Teague’s research showed appropriate grazing management practices in cattle production are among the solutions for concerns related to agriculture’s impact on the environment. Teague’s article serves as a call to action for the implementation of agricultural practices that can improve the resource base, environment, productivity and economic returns.

“We went to the society because it represents professionals who know soils, and to have it published and then recognized by them is huge and shows the validity of the work,” Teague said. “I am extremely proud of the work and my fellow contributors at Texas A&M and around the country. And I believe it to be a good example for how science can present solutions to serious issues related to agricultural production.”

Ruminants as part of the solution

To ensure long-term sustainability and ecological resilience of agricultural landscapes, Teague said cropping and grazing management protocols are needed to regenerate soil systems and ecosystem functions previously lost by neglect and destructive management practices. Fortunately, many problems caused by some current cropping and grazing agriculture practices can be avoided by ecologically sensitive management of ruminants in mixed crop and grazing agroecosystems.

Effective soil management measures provide the most significant possibilities for sustainable agricultural land use amid a changing and increasingly variable climate. Regenerative agricultural practices restore soil health and ecosystem function to support ecologically healthy and resilient agroecosystems. These practices improve net profitability and enhance ecosystem and watershed function.

Reducing carbon footprint

Grassland ecosystems co-evolved with herbivores over thousands of years as complex, dynamic ecosystems comprised of grasses, soil biota, grazers and predators, that deteriorate in the absence of periodic grazing. Teague’s research suggests moving toward regenerative practices designed to improve soil biology and function.

“Ruminant livestock are an important tool for achieving sustainable agriculture with appropriate grazing management,” Teague said.

A key element is that grazing cattle on permanent, perennial grasslands with appropriate management helps develop soil biology to improve soil carbon, rainfall infiltration and soil fertility. Thus, more carbon dioxide equivalents are sequestered into the soil than are emitted by cattle in that management unit. Such management increases the production of forages, allowing for more livestock to provide improved economic returns compared to conventional methods.

Permanent cover of forage plants is highly effective in reducing soil erosion and increasing soil infiltration. Ruminants consuming grazed forages under appropriate management results in considerably more carbon sequestration than emissions.

Incorporating forages with ruminants to manage regeneration of ecological function in agro-ecosystems can elevate soil carbon, improve soil ecological function, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat if incorporated within goal-oriented planning and monitoring protocols.

“In non-cropping and cropping areas, grazing ruminants in a manner that enhances soil health reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture much more than by reducing ruminant numbers and provides highly nutritious food that has sustained pastoral livelihoods and cultures for centuries,” Teague said.

Teague said the research could harm public discourse related to sustainable agriculture more than help unless scientists take a much broader view of agriculture as it is and can be. This broad view includes the potential societal and economic ramifications of proposed changes, but also warrants providing solutions that can be used in policy and ultimately in the evolution of more sustainable global food and fiber production.

“The scientific investigations that call for the reduction or elimination of cattle and livestock agricultural production must consider the full impacts of the entire food production chain, and of different cropping and livestock alternatives,” Teague said.

Collectively, conservation agriculture aimed at regenerating soil health and ecosystem function supports ecologically healthy and resilient agroecosystems, improves net profitability and enhances watershed function.

“When we’re talking about science, we need to look at the full spectrum of what is happening, weigh the positives and negatives of our options and be honest about the outcomes,” he said. “Then, we seek the most sustainable solution.” — Adam Russell, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension 

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