Should farmers who ditch tractors and chemicals to graze herds intensively get carbon capture credits?

Margaret and Tom Towers ditched their tractors, stopped buying chemicals, closed their feedlot and transitioned to a way of farming that was less expensive and more natural about 25 years ago, and since then, they've been bucking the trend. 

The results? A thicker, more diverse pasture, higher profits, a healthier herd and more carbon in their soil.

Now the ranchers, who raise cattle south of Red Deer, are hoping to get paid for it one day.

"It would helps us, although we do it because we believe in it. But if there was an incentive it would encourage ranchers to keep their grassland and benefit the environment," says Margaret Towers.

Before the Towers took a course on holistic management in 1991, they did what most folks still do, turn their cattle out onto their pasture all summer and let the cows chew their favourite plants down to stubs while leaving other grasses alone. Over time, it led to a patchy pasture that lacked nutrients.

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Intensive grazing led to 'much larger' soil carbon levels

Now they use more intensive grazing practices. They pen their cattle into smaller sections of land and allow them to graze for a day or so before moving them on to a new patch of grass. 

"Every plant is either bit, soiled, or trampled," says Tom Towers. "But nothing is overgrazed."

They say that gives each section of grass time to regenerate and come back even stronger.

The Towers knew they were onto something but it wasn't until they were asked to participate in a U.S.-based study in 2015, funded with $500,000 by Shell Canada, that they understood the science behind the practice.

Richard Teague and a team of other researchers compared the integrity of the soil on four Alberta ranches using intensive grazing practices to their neighbours, who used conventional techniques.

Teague says the results confirmed what they had discovered on other ranches in the United States and Canada.

The intensive grazing "had resulted in much larger soil carbon levels," Teague says.

The study found, on average, they sequestered an additional two tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. 

Carbon credit as new revenue stream for ranchers?

Teague says these initial findings lay the foundation for a new carbon revenue stream for ranchers.
    
"That is the goal, but that's not the only reason. There's more fertility ... farm livelihoods are improved, the quality of the water is better, the storage capacity, the whole ecosystem  functions better with more carbon in the ground," Teague says.

Under current provincial regulations, large emitters must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent per unit of output, in the case of oil companies, that's per barrel of oil.

The companies can either do that by reducing output, or purchasing carbon credits through the government's offset registry.

But officials say currently grazing practices are not included.

"We have not seen a significant request come in to create a new protocol around that. But certainly if there was that interest and they had gone through the necessary steps of doing the research on it, it sounds like they'd be well positioned to come in and talk about a protocol," said Robert Savage, with the Alberta climate change office.

That's hopeful news to John Cross who also participated in the study.

He ranches about two hours southwest of Calgary, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He's been doing intensive grazing for about 25 years.
    
"If we can really pull carbon out of the air and put it in the ground in a way that's going to stay there and get paid for it, that would be pretty nice," says Cross.

"I think we're a ways off from a carbon market but we're a lot closer than we are twelve months ago."

Teague says he's applied for a grant through the Canadian government to further study this. He will then publish the results for peer review.

Here's how the carbon gets there

Plants absorb CO2 from the air, sending carbon down to their roots. Some of that carbon is stored in dead roots, or binds to matter in the soil, potentially staying there for decades, if not centuries, says Teague, and depending on how deep it's stored. The more leafy green plants that are growing, the more carbon absorbed.