Regenerative Grazing to Mitigate Climate Change

Project Overview

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2019: $14,787.00
Projected End Date: 03/14/2021
Grant Recipient: Duke University
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Saskia Cornes
Duke University


  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, rangeland/pasture management

    Proposal abstract:

    The 2018 IPCC report states that previous climate change predictions were drastic underestimates, and warming must be capped at 1.5 degrees to avoid extreme climate disruptions. There is potential for agriculture, representing 13.5 percent of global GHG emissions, to cut its emissions and store additional CO2 in soil.

    Cattle are the largest contributor to agricultural emissions, but the work of Franzluebbers and Stuedemann (2010) shows promising results for pasture-based carbon sequestration as a climate solution in the Southeast U.S. This is further validated by's evaluation of climate solutions that include silvopasture, regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, and managed grazing all within the top 20 most impactful efforts. Industrial cattle production is dominant in the U.S., but globally contributes only 10 percent of total beef produced. The Southeast region, unlike the feedlot scenarios dominant within the top 5 cattle producing states, is typified by smaller pasture based cattle operations and represents about 20 percent of the national herd. By targeting pastured cattle, we seek to build solutions that prioritize equity by supporting small scale graziers in the Southeast who are often excluded by USDA and Farm Bill policies, and is also globally applicable. Small-scale systems are more adaptable, while support for graziers assist rural economic development and resilience-building for the impacts of climate change.

    Best management practices within pastured cattle scenarios are being discussed through educational programming, such as the NC State Extension Service's Amazing Grazing program that leads on-farm training workshops to spread this knowledge. Adoption of these practices could have significant soil health and climate impacts, however the level of BMP adoption, reasons for adoption, the degree to which they're understood, and identification of what barriers exist to their increased use are knowledge gaps that prevent the proliferation of these practices. More data is needed to address these specific knowledge gaps and unlock the potential that these BMPs represent.

    While efforts like the Amazing Grazing workshops attract farmers and educate about BMPs, the soil health and climate impact of adopting these practices is still not understood and difficult to predict. Increased data collection and analysis focusing on soil health and climate impact are necessary to fully evaluate the BMPs. Quantifying who is using BMPs and to what result is lacking in the literature around these practices, as is a comparison of the outcomes between BMP users and non-users. A fuller understanding of the true impact BMPs represent could increase buy-in of the grazier community in this region and lead to increased adoption of the practices. This data could also result in a more complete understanding of why those who have already adopted the BMPs have chosen to do so, and what has kept others from implementing them.

    The team will use research at pilot sites and input from a diverse stakeholder group to assess both the true impact BMPs represent and barriers to their wider implementation. Informal surveys will inform why BMPs have already been adopted, as well as barriers to their adoption. Once we identify barriers to BMP adoption, the team will seek solutions to lower these barriers. We plan to use data and stakeholder engagement to produce educational materials that contribute to the field of soil science, and policy recommendations to promote BMPs. The project will also seek to bolster the NC State Extension Services' Amazing Grazing workshops, and track environmental health benefits.

    The project assumes implementation cost is an existing barrier to wider BMP adoption, and will begin exploring methods to address it. One potential solution that will be examined is generating revenue through BMP adoption using the sale of carbon offsets. We will assess the development of a carbon offset protocol and guidance material to allow farmers to access the carbon market. A protocol for pastured cattle operations would quantify GHG emissions from soil, fertilizer, feed and fuel within pasture systems and reward ranchers who reduce these inputs and store carbon within their pastures. Ideally, this effort will support existing small pasture operations, targeting farmers excluded from traditional incentive programs. The project will also assess the creation of a valued-added certified carbon neutral beef standard that may represent additional opportunity for small-scale pasture systems to generate more revenue from their production and adoption of BMPs. Adoption of BMPs could be monetized after measuring the increase carbon storage these practices result in, resulting in increased revenue for farmers through sale of carbon credits and by a value-added carbon neutral beef certification.

    Another solution this project offers is gathering and sharing knowledge about the use of BMPs. Quantifying and comparing soil quality measurements at sites that implement BMPs to those that don't will result in a better understanding of their efficacy. This information would then be shared with the larger pastured grazing systems audience in the region through existing outreach and education platforms, such as Amazing Grazing.


    Project objectives from proposal:

    We will conduct field research at no less than three pilot sites to expand our understanding of the use of small pasture system BMPs, and what effect these practices have on soil health and climate impact.

    This research will consist of taking soil samples for assessment of soil carbon and an examination of management practices, including use of nitrogen fertilizer, tillage frequency, and type and amount of feed used to supplement forage.

    We will also conduct informal surveys with farmers associated with pilot sites to gain further insight into why those who already employ BMPs have adopted those practices, and identify barriers to further adoption.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.