COLUMNS: Agriculture and global warming and ranch musings

A friend who organizes an alternate energy forum in Penticton recently alerted me.

A friend who organizes an alternate energy forum in Penticton recently alerted me to a new book edited by Paul Hawken, called Drawdown.

The subtitle of the book is: The most comprehensive plan proposed to reverse global warming.

Even if you don’t believe the science on the conclusions about global warming, this book is useful to farmers and ranchers in that creating more, not less, carbon in the soil is positive for the economics of livestock production.

This book deals with much more than agriculture, but it also has bottom line figures for the costs and benefits of sequestering more carbon. Headings of chapters are:

Energy, Food, Women and girls, Buildings and cities, Land use, Transport, Materials, Coming Attractions.

I have chosen a few topics that relate to the practice of farming and ranching here in the temperate zone.

First, Silvopasture is #9 out of 100 or so ranked leading practices. Research says that growing trees in pastures far outpaces as just grassland crops in carbon sequestration, biodiversity and water conservation as well as other ecosystem services.

The World Bank and Nature Conservancy are loaning money for investment for this

strategy because it takes some investment to establish the trees.

Second, Regenerative Agriculture is # 11 for reducing CO2 in the atmosphere.

From this book is this definition of regenerative agriculture:

“Regenerative agricultural practices restore degraded land. They include no tillage, diverse cover crops, in-farm fertility (no external nutrient sources required), no pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers, and multiple crop rotations, all of which can be augmented by managed grazing.

“The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to continually improve and regenerate the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, which in turn improves plant health, nutrition, and productivity.”

Recently, there have been advances in how we “farm” the soil microbiology which assists enormously in the utilization of the main elements of plants: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, all of which can be had free from the air around us.

The example of diverse cover crops (mentioned above) means planting a large number of varieties when we renovate land: forage radishes, many varieties of legumes, like hairy vetch, cow peas and so on. These plants each bring up and make available different nutrients for other plants, thus improving soil health.

Third, Conservation Agriculture is # 16 in capacity to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This book argues that the plowing of soil is potentially a way to advance erosion of soil, nutrients and water and it is better to not till the soil. Instead “ no till” methods of planting directly into the sod or stubble of a previous crop, like grain.

Some “no tillers” use herbicides, but many don’t and will make the case that it is unnecessary to do so. Annual crops make up 89% of the cropland use in the world, so plowing every year has a great impact on soil loss.

The principles of conservation agriculture are: minimum soil disturbance, maintain soil cover, and manage crop rotations.

I have just given a flavour of what is in this book. The authors give references for the evidence base of their recommendations, and the cost benefit of the practices.

The farmers of the world are demonstrating these practices and they are needed to reverse some of farming’s contribution to the excessive production of CO2.

In the end, farmers will do what is right if it can be shown to help keep farms and ranches viable.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake in January of 2016.

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