The amount of carbon in our atmosphere is too high. It’s warming the earth and destabilizing our climate. On the flip side, the amount of carbon in our soils is dangerously low. Soils have lost more than half their carbon in the last 200 years due to agricultural production methods. Think about what happened during the Dust Bowl. Bare soil does not contain plants and their roots to hold soil in place. If we continue to lose soil at current rates, we have fewer than 60 years remaining before global topsoils are depleted. Regenerative grazing can help our soils recover.
Regenerative grazing mimics the natural movements of herding herbivores that built pasture lands. The richest soils were formed in conjunction with bison and other large animals constantly on the move in search of new food and being chased by predators. With Regenerative grazing, animals spend their lives on pasture, grazing only a portion of it while other paddocks rest and are allowed to recover. The livestock eat the plants and deposit nutrients back into the soil via their droppings, naturally fertilizing the area. Similar to how hair has a growth spurt when cut, after the animals move to a new field the pasture’s photosynthetic activity dramatically increases as the grasses regrow. That growth activity absorbs carbon from the air and sequesters it in the soil, thereby cleaning the air and reintroducing nutrients to the land. More nutrients in the land means more nutrients in our food.
How Soil Works.
The science of soil is only now revealing itself as a result of recent scientific discoveries based on better microscopic imaging and DNA analysis. There is much still to learn, but it boils down to this: plants need to be fostered so that they can nurture a whole world of creatures in the soil that in return feed and protect the plants. It is a subterranean community that includes worms, insects, mites, other arthropods you’ve never heard of, amoebas, and fellow protozoa. The dominant organisms are bacteria and fungi. All these players work together, sometimes by eating one another.
The sheer vitality of it is mind-bending: A teaspoon of good loam may contain a billion bacteria, yards of fungal strands, several thousand protozoas and a few dozen nematodes, according to Jeff Lowenfels, a garden writer based in Anchorage and co-author of "Teaming With Microbes.”
This is, basically, how it works: Plants manufacture carbohydrates through photosynthesis, but not just for themselves. They release some of their carbon sugars into the soil, which causes the bacteria and fungi to show up to feed. The bacteria crowd around the root zone, and the fungi form vast networks of interlocking strands that often link one plant to another. The bacteria convert nitrogen and other nutrients into forms the plants can use, often by getting devoured by other microbes.
The fungal strands, the mycelium, effectively increase the root mass of its host plant by as much as a thousand times and transport a bevy of goodies to the host plants, including phosphorus, copper, calcium and zinc. There is also evidence that plants use this network to send signals to one another if, say, leaf-eating pests have arrived. The microbes also increase the size of soil particles, which improves the ability of the soil to hold water and air.
Regenerative farmers have discovered that if you foster this biosphere, you don’t need expensive fertilizers because the microbes repay the plants with nutrients. They also, for obvious reasons, avoid pesticides that would kill this soil life. In addition, regenerative farmers do as little tilling as possible because it destroys the fungal networks and the desirable soil structure. Cover crops keep the soil life happy between growing seasons.
With it's natural fertilizer and trimming of pasture grasses, animal agriculture is a vital player in the nurturing of soil. Regenerative grazing encourages plants to send out more and deeper roots. Those roots are continually sloughed off to decompose in the ground, boosting soil biomass and fertility and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.