Native grasslands offer benefits, few financial rewards

Producer profits Programs that would pay for ecological benefits already offered by grasslands could benefit beef sector

Native grasslands offer a multitude of environmental benefits, such as housing wildlife, filtering water and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. 


Paying ranchers for those services could boost their bottom lines more than the traditional gains in beef production, says Edward Bork, a rangeland ecology and management researcher with the University of Alberta.


He used better sanfoin and alfalfa forages and improved cattle production efficiency as an example.


“Those increases are usually five percent, three percent, two percent. It’s not going to transform that net profitability line. It’s not going to jump it up by the extent that we need that all of our negative margins disappear across the board,” said Bork.


“It’s the same thing with niche markets. Some people are trying to capture added value by going and marketing grass finished or natural beef.… There’s a limit in terms of what people will pay or how many people will pay a premium for that.”


Bork presented an overview of the native grassland’s carbon storage advantages compared to tame forages and cultivated crops during a Society for Range Management workshop held in Saskatoon last week.


The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, which is interested in “specific mechanisms for ranchers to capitalize on ecosystem services,” has funded the research. 


Bork said the beef sector’s interest in carbon storage signals a shift in the industry.


“It’s being driven by the corporate interest (in environmental standards) and it’s being driven by the fact that we’re moving, I believe, into the post-BSE era. We’re now looking at, ‘how do we strategically change opportunities in the future,’ ” he said. 


“One of those opportunities, if you’re going to make the individual cow-calf producer more successful, is to reward them for all of the secondary social benefits and environmental benefits that they have been providing for a long time but never rewarded for.”


Other workshop presenters agreed, calling for a new government policy that rewards ecological goods and services.


“How can we reward managers for doing the right thing?… Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing,” said Chris Nykoluk, a consultant working with the Ranchers for Stewardship Alliance, which is interested in quantifying the non-market value of forages, including erosion control, carbon sequestration and pollination.


Nykoluk surveyed research papers and calculated an average indirect benefit of grasslands at $300 per acre.


The alliance commissioned a separate report identifying and reviewing options for “payment for ecosystem services.” It identified a number of international examples, including a Swedish program that promoted wildlife biodiversity by compensating reindeer herders for offspring produced by species at risk on their land.


Bork highlighted wildlife as an overlooked beneficiary of grasslands, but said carbon storage may have a higher profile for the cattle industry in Alberta because of its Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund. 


The province’s large greenhouse gas producers are presented with options that include reducing emissions, investing in facility improvements or paying a penalty of $15 a tonne after emitting 100,000 tonnes.


“Groups are positioning themselves to figure out, how do we capitalize on that revenue and use it to promote stewardship and environmental sustainability for the industry,” said Bork.

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