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Researchers and ranchers working together to fight climate change

ranchers climate change
Posted at 8:52 AM, Feb 18, 2022

FORT COLLINS, CO — On a chilly winter morning, Jim Howell lets me tag along on his morning chores.

In doing so, he’s letting me in on a little secret. His cows are fighting climate change with the two things they do best: walking and eating.

"My career over the last 30 years has convinced me for sure that all of this is doable. We can manage cattle. That enhances the biodiversity and the health of the ecosystem out here," he said.

Working with this herd is his hobby. His day job is consulting ranchers across the globe about how grazing cows in a specific way. Essentially smaller sections of land for shorter periods of time can help vegetation grow, have nutrients pushed into the ground by way of hooves, and can maximize one of the greatest carbon absorbers in nature: soil

"Doing that with cattle is kind of the surrogate for the wild animals that would have been here under a natural context," he said.

Howell's secret is really no secret at all. It’s the core of the research that goes on at Colorado State University’s Soil Carbon Solutions Center.

"These types of practices can enhance soil health and help build soil carbon," said Megan Machmuller, a research scientist at CSU.

Conventional agriculture and grazing has drifted far away from how the environment evolved to thrive and has severely lowered the carbon-absorbing power of soil. The students and staff here are researching best practices on how to reverse the damage done and revive landscapes.

"We have the opportunity to actually reverse our action and start doing regenerative practices, both in croplands and grasslands so that we can put back most of the carbon that we have lost," said Francesca Cotrufo, professor of soil ecology.

These soil samples contain carbon as well as tiny ecosystems and the work being done here measures how effective land management increases the health of the soil, which in turn, means improves the health of the environment and crops.

"Regenerative means bringing an ecological mindset into agriculture and managing those ecosystems in a way that all the components can work interactively with positive scenarios and so there is a win-win-win, wherever you see it," said Cotrufo.

From the lab to the field, researchers share what they learn with farmers and ranchers across the country.

"It gives me hope we understand the great potential for soils to serve as a climate mitigation strategy," said Machmuller.

As Howell does his part, learning from researchers and sharing knowledge, he knows that the more these practices go into play in fields across America, the better off everything – the cows, the plants, us – will be.

"We have this huge legacy load of CO2 in the atmosphere that we need to draw down off. Also, by far the most impactful way we're going to do that is by how we manage our topsoil, and that's a function of how we manage our grass plant, and how we manage our grass plant is a function of how we manage our animals," he said. "So, it's all tied together and it's definitely a part of the solution."