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Grass, greenhouse gas and grazing: Why North America’s prairies are key to cutting emissions

October 14, 2020

In North America, prairie grass used to be everywhere.

It covered hundreds of millions of acres in the United States and Canada, serving as grazing land for the vast herds of bison that roamed the continent just a few hundred years ago.

Today, just a fraction of it remains. It sits at a critical intersection of agribusiness and the environment — cattle can graze it much like the bison did, keeping the grassland healthy, which in turn pulls carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, grazing is often the most productive use of the land.

Nurturing those grasslands, and helping ranchers preserve them, is one of the most potent steps we can take to fight climate change and support producer livelihoods.

“Prairies and grazing lands have incredible potential,” said Courtney Hall, senior sustainability manager and leader of BeefUp Sustainability, one of Cargill’s comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction initiatives in North America. “This is one of our biggest opportunities to make a difference.”

What makes prairies so important? 

First, there’s grass itself. It serves as a habitat for diverse wildlife, helps retain and filter groundwater, and draws carbon deep into the soil with roots that can stretch 12 feet (4 meters) underground.

Healthy, well managed grasslands pull more carbon down every year. We still have a lot to learn, but research suggests an acre of grassland in rotational or an adaptive multi-paddock system can absorb more carbon than grasslands that are not managed in this way.  

Then there’s the natural fit with livestock — especially beef cattle — who can graze on the land. It’s a productive use of land that often isn’t suitable for other types of farming. The cattle can even keep the prairie healthy by mimicking the patterns of the bison.

“Prairies evolved to be grazed,” Hall said. “Well managed grazing is a way to protect and enhance these critical ecosystems and for producers to make an income. It’s doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. ”

The sheer scale of the opportunity is staggering. About 40 percent of all land in the U.S. is used for grazing — that’s three-quarters of a billion acres.

We’re supporting ranchers to scale up these efforts.

Just this week, Cargill, the Walmart Foundation, McDonald’s and the World Wildlife Fund announced a new project to connect ranchers across the Northern Great Plains to protect and improve 1 million acres of grassland over the next five years. That builds upon projects like a collaboration with Burger King to restore 8,000 acres of degraded cropland into grazing land.

“We’re starting with a small part of our supply chain and targeting early adopters of the practice,” Hall said. “Getting buy-in from leading ranchers in the region will help us learn together and scale more quickly.”

Our projects and programs are designed to support ranchers by providing technical expertise, training and tools to help advance grazing practices that improve the health of the land.

“We believe beef cattle can be a force for good,” said Heather Tansey, director of sustainability for Cargill Protein & Salt and Animal Nutrition & Health. “I’m inspired by the efforts of ranchers who live this belief each day.”

It won’t happen all at once. Prairies take years to reach their full potential, and grazing involves millions of individual ranchers working the land.

“You can’t grow a prairie overnight,” Hall said. “But it’s like the saying about planting a tree: The best time to do it was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

 

About BeefUp Sustainability

At Cargill, we believe beef can be a force for good. A force to address the urgency of climate change. And to build a stronger, more resilient world.

We’re confronting this challenge head on, and we’re putting in the work to find practical, scalable solutions. Through Cargill’s BeefUp Sustainability initiative, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the company’s beef supply chain by 30 percent by 2030, measured on a per pound of beef basis against a 2017 baseline, we’re working with a network of farmers, ranchers, customers and partners in agriculture and beyond to  transform and secure the future of beef through four key pillars.

  • Mobilize (Grazing Management) — We’re taking our lead from nature and ranchers, with approaches to grazing and land management that keep cattle on the move, revitalize soils and help wildlife to flourish.
  • Cultivate (Feed Production) — We’re helping scale-up practices like nutrient management and regenerative farming in cattle feed production, where no-till and cover crops can help maintain healthy soils and promote carbon sequestration.
  • Accelerate (Innovation) — Navigating the many challenges of a changing climate while feeding a growing population requires creativity and drive. We’re investing in innovation, going well beyond today’s status quo to create solutions that are better for the environment, the livestock and the people raising cattle.
  • Fulfill (Food Waste) — From the field to the dinner table, we are committed to delivering nourishment and support for all. We recognize that nothing should go to waste – which is why we work with our partners across every part of our value chain to maximize our shared potential for positive impact.