Eat, Stomp, Poop: Could Better Ranching Help Save the Planet?

Beef has a climate problem. But it may also offer a path to drawing down carbon emissions.


Maddie Oatman, Mother Jones

Nov 2, 2019


Rancher Loren Poncia counts roughly 500 glossy Angus beef cattle, 350 sheep, and 19 hogs among his brood at Stemple Creek ranch, a scenic stretch of sandy rolling hills dotted with bony Eucalyptus trees near the Pacific Ocean in Tomales, California. The animals have brought Poncia acclaim: Stemple Creek’s organic meats fetch top dollar at nearby markets and at restaurants as revered as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. But these days, Poncia’s attention has turned to some different critters. They number in the billions, and they live underground: soil microbes.


Poncia uses a technique with his cattle known as managed rotational grazing. The herd munches on a piece of pasture for a set period of time. Then, with the prodding of some electric fences, they move to another patch of grass so the last patch can recover and regrow. “We try and mimic what mother nature did in the great plains,” Poncia says, “where there was huge herds of bison that would migrate across the great plains and they’d eat the grass in front of them, stomp on the grass below ‘em and poop on the grass behind ‘em, and it would really regenerate the soil every year and make a really good ecosystem for perennial plants.”


The grasslands suck up carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis. And the more life the soil contains, the more it can help break down that CO2 and store it as carbon, deep underground. By practicing a type of agriculture known as regenerative ranching, Poncia wants to coax his rangeland to grow more than just grass: He hopes to produce acres of forbs—deep-rooted flowering perennials—like chicory and plantains. Perennials, Poncia explains, “photosynthesize year round, and when they’re photosynthesizing, they’re capturing mother nature’s free energy and storing it as carbon in the soil.”


And that’s what’s making a lot of people very excited about regenerative agriculture right now.


Farming, ranching, and deforestation produce about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But agriculture also has the potential to help remove those emissions, at least temporarily, through the creation of natural carbon sinks in grasslands, trees, and cropland.


How much carbon could the world hope to sink? Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University and director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, has been pondering this question for decades. For a paper he published with his team in 2018, he estimated that global soils can recapture about 2.5 to 3 gigatons of carbon a year, roughly the equivalent of taking more than 2 billion cars off the road, and just under a third of what would be needed to neutralize the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry. (A gigaton is the same as one billion metric tons. And one ton of carbon is equal to to 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide). When Lal’s team combined that number with the forests’ ability to suck up about the same amount, they projected that we may hope to sequester around 333 gigatons of carbon in all terrestrial ecosystems by the end of the century, the equivalent of drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions by 156 parts per million.


Coming up with a large-scale estimate is slippery, given all of the factors involved. For one thing...


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