Hardisty, Alta. — Storing carbon in soil isn’t exactly easy, but if ranchers can be convinced, through pricing or otherwise, they could be part of the solution to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said a re-search scientist.
“It’s really for the public good,” said Edward Bork, the Mattheis Chair in rangeland ecology and management at the University of Alberta, during a Sept. 7 farm tour near Hardisty.
“Wildlife habitat, species and cleaner water, we all benefit from them, whether you’re from a city or a farm.”
During the tour, Bork pointed to recent research that shows parts of Alberta have lost tens of thousands of tonnes of soil-based carbon due to cultivation or other land-use changes. Carbon-rich soils are key in fertility, producing higher-yielding crops and sustaining moisture during drought periods.
When carbon is lost, he said, it’s released into the atmosphere and contributes to emissions.
“We have released an enormous amount of carbon,” he said, “and it takes a long time to recover.”
But producers, especially cattle producers, can potentially combat the release of carbon by storing some of it into their soils, Bork said.
This can be done by maximizing the production of plants, especially legumes or perennials, and by growing throughout the year, moving cattle more frequently and leaving as much crop on the pasture, whether through swath or bale grazing, or letting the crop stand.
These are all practices that Ben Stuart is doing on the farm near Hardisty, where he and his crew manage about 1,500 head on land that’s rotated for crops and pasture.
“That’s a big focus of ours: getting that carbon back into the ground and building organic matter that helps the whole system,” Stuart said following the tour.
“Without the carbon going into the soil, it’s not going to be working itself, so the entire system wouldn’t last as long.”
He said he has monitored the effects of his management on soil, and he should have a better idea of how much carbon he’s stored after a few years.
“Being flexible and open-minded and really understanding why things are working and why they aren’t, are important,” he said.
“It really comes down to social licence.”
As well, pricing carbon in grassland soils could help some cattle producers get on board with storing, Bork added.
Currently, farmers can receive about $1 per acre from the Alberta government by doing direct seeding or using minimum tillage when growing crops. But producers who bring carbon back into grasslands don’t get a penny, Bork said.
“It’s hypocritical, in my opinion,” he said. “We desperately need these incentives to recognize the value in these native and perennial systems.”
He said pricing may not make much sense for canola producers, but it could be useful for ranchers.
“If cattle prices do slip, and we pay producers for zero till, we should recognize value for carbon retention,” he said. “The value is nominal, but still important and physiologically more important than economically.”
It’ll just take some convincing to get the government on board, Bork added.
“I know they’re looking into it, and so are other (non-government organizations) and agri-businesses,” he said. “Government really wants to get credited for offsetting rising carbon-dioxide levels, so the trick is to put a value on this and convince them that it’s worthwhile.”