Do regenerative grazing practices on grass-fed beef ranches successfully store carbon in California soil?
Epicurious, the Conde Nast-owned site with with tens of thousands of recipes, made a meaty announcement last spring: “We’ve cut out beef.” From their ingredient lists to their articles to their 800,000 followers-strong Instagram feed, beef has gone bye-bye. Many Northern Californian ranchers took it like a knife to the heart. They don’t want to be lumped into the stats: to the oft-cited fact that livestock production contributes roughly 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with beef alone accounting for some 41 percent of that, thanks to the methane spewed by cow burps and the soil-stored carbon released from overgrazing.
They are not Big Bad Beef, they say. They are small, local ranchers working their butts off to do things right and raise 100 percent grass-fed beef. They are trying, these ranchers say, to raise cattle in a regenerative way that doesn’t harm, but actually helps climate change. That’s a much-touted, yet still highly debated claim.
“Some people think it’s beneficial and cite the papers that find that, and others don’t, and cite the papers that say that,” says UC Berkeley’s Paige Stanley, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, researches grazing methods that reduce the environmental impacts of beef and regenerate ecosystems while also improving ranchers’ livelihoods. “It’s known that regenerative grazing can provide ecological benefits,” says Stanley. Healthy soils that filter and help retain water, for example, can help maintain some level of productivity during extreme dry periods. But, when it comes to its’ impact on climate change says Stanley, “the outcomes of a wider shift to regenerative production hasn’t really been explored.”
Proponents of multi-paddock, holistic planned grazing say a well-managed rotational system removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil. Still, “despite all the hype,” says Stanley, “there is not yet a lot of data west of the Mississippi.”
Carbon sequestration itself is beneficial in drawing down CO2 atmospheric levels. And in regions such as the Upper Midwest, North Texas, and the Southeast, it’s been shown to do so. Here in California, though, whether or not regenerative grazing actually drives soil carbon sequestration is still a scientifically unanswered question. There hasn’t been a lot of research on the “outcomes” of regenerative grazing in California and the West, where it’s generally more difficult to sequester carbon in the soil because of lower precipitation levels. Regenerative ranchers, though, who work the land day-to-day and are seeing ecological effects firsthand, are bullish.
They are getting involved in initiatives such as the Marin Carbon Project, which spreads awareness and implementation of carbon sequestration and carbon farming across Marin County. And the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification designed to spur regenerative farmers and ranchers to monitor the health of their land. Those measuring positive outcomes join an annually reviewed roster of other EOV-approved regenerative suppliers; those with trending negative outcomes seek further training and support in an ongoing quest for improvement.
There’s also Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative, founded to incentivize ranches with a happy green “Audubon Certified” seal. The sticker flaunts that the ranch practices good grassland stewardship and has seen the return of wild bees and other pollinators, as well as grassland birds, which have declined in recent decades due to the degradation of grasslands. It’s a sign that their cattle graze on “bird-friendly land.” A healthy sign of life, but hardly a solution to the environmental impact of raising beef, much less climate change itself.
And yet: whether or not regenerative grazing is ultimately proven to store carbon successfully in California soil, isn’t it better for ranchers to try and do something — for the soil and the birds and the biodiversity of the ecosystem and, perhaps, the climate— than to do nothing (but environmental evil)?
Meanwhile, the cultural status of beef has been falling fast lately—from the soaring popularity of plant-based patties to slaughterhouses’ spiking Covid rates to the cancellation of pricey, previously revered, supposedly hyper-sustainable brands such as Bel Campo, recently accused of mislabeling and masquerading corn-fed, factory-farmed beef as their own.
It’s all—almost— enough to turn a morally-minded, two, maybe three, times a month beefeater into the vegetarian she once was.
With fields upon fields of information out there— much of it wonky, some of it misleading— how, on Earth, is a climate-conscious omnivore supposed to make sense of it all? Yes, the average burger-chowing American downs 55 pounds of beef a year, but what about those of us who might braise a brisket twice a year, or grill a $48 grass-fed T-bone every summer? Can adhering to the ancient adage “everything in moderation, nothing in excess” apply to red meat, even today? And if so: help! How do we choose which precious, pricey, sustainably-marketed brand of beef do we buy?
There are millions of humans who will —Epicurious, Eleven Madison Park, Dominque Crenn’s well-intentioned cancellations be damned—continue to eat as humans have for millions of years. And that includes eating meat. “Epicurious didn’t just cancel big beef,” says Stanley. “They canceled all beef. They completely moved past the idea that any beef can be good for the environment and human health and nutrition.”
Real change is required at the systemic, corporate, policy level, not at the single-serving level, says Stanley. Occasionally eating meat is fine, as long as you know—really know—where it comes from. How it’s raised and grazed, slaughtered, and transported. The problem is: most people, in their busy lives, don’t.
“It’s complicated,” she says. “There is so much misinformation out there. Someone would have to be willing to really delve into the details and complexity of it all to know what is bullshit and what is not. Do I expect every consumer to wade through all that? Absolutely not!”
Carnivorous-types concerned about climate change yet who still want to enjoy a cheeseburger every now and then could use some guidance. Some advice. An informed, highly educated ranch-researching hand to help them ask the right questions and point them toward the proper porterhouse.
Stanley wouldn’t cite specific brands of beef she buys; that would be a conflict of interest given her research. But, she says, California is fortunate, and unique, in that it’s home to “a trove” of forward-thinking ranchers who recognize what needs to be done to make raising cattle, even in the face of our climate crisis, more sustainable.
Behold! A Better Beef Cheat Sheet: A few key things Stanley wants to know from her ranchers rules this scientist lives by and looks for behind a label to discern what beef is worthy of her money. Use the below as a conversation guide with ranchers at the farmers market or with your local butcher. Even better: take it on the road to visit local ranches in the flesh. Some will happily show you around. “We encourage our customers to ask the hard questions. To come to our ranch, and take in what they see, and what they smell — and learn.” — Joe Morris, Morris Grassfed
1) GRASS-FED v. GRASS-FINISHED Read the fine print. “All beef cattle start out on grass,” says Stanley. But it finishes on soy or corn at a feedlot. Stanley looks for beef from animals that spend their entire life on grass. Look for beef labeled “grass-finished” or “100% grass-fed”— not just “grass-fed” (pretty much all beef can legally be labeled “grass-fed”).
2) GRAZING Paddock rest time is crucial. A pasture needs a break between grazing events. Grasses and plants need time to regenerate, to recover their leaf and root structure so that the land is healthy and not overgrazed.
3) MOVEMENT Rotation grazing management is key to regenerative ranching. That’s a fancy way of saying: cattle should be moved between pastures. How often varies from land to land and ranch to ranch. Some ranchers move their animals several times a day, others every couple of days. Once a month, or twice a year doesn’t quite cut it. Stanley looks for ranches that practice short-duration, high-intensity grazing. (Versus the more common—and soil-destructive—continuous grazing method, where a herd remains on the same large pasture for an entire season.)
4) SOIL Ranches should closely examine their soil, measuring their “soil outcomes”, says Stanely, to determine if they are sequestering carbon. Either regularly collecting data on their own, or employing partners, such as Point Blue Conservation Science, to collect data independently for them. If they can indeed capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their soil, that will help reduce their cattle’s hoofprint, so to speak, when it comes to climate change.
5) TREATMENT Low-stress livestock handling matters. Yes, ranchers need to do their part to help mitigate cattle’s effect on climate change, but cattle handlers also need to treat animals in a way that embraces natural animal behavior, as opposed to using force, to move and herd animals.
Rachel Levin is a freelance journalist and author of Look Big: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds and the coauthor of two cookbooks, Eat Something and Steamed: A Catharsis Cookbook.
Photo: Bruce Cole