Are you a Soil Carbon Cowboy?

On Friday March 28th we heard from filmmaker Peter Byck and saw a nearly finished version of his new short film “Soil Carbon Cowboys”. Ambassador Barzun was kind enough to introduce Peter, and they have known each other for years. As you know, so many talks about climate change focus on the negative, and often pit environmentalists and ranchers against each other. Peter’s film shows how ranchers, using environmentally friendly methods, actually make more money while helping the environment.

Beef cattle grazing. (Image courtesy USDA)

Right now cattle tend to roam freely on the pasture and graze where they like. The problem is that they, no dummies, graze on the tastiest grass and pretty soon it is all gone. After a while, you have just one type of grass, and the rancher needs to feed a lot of fertilizers into the soil to get it to grow. The nutrients of the land are mostly used up, so it stores less carbon and nitrogen. Peter’s thesis is that we can return to more of a natural grazing pattern if we divide the pastureland into paddocks, or small areas where the cattle graze intensively, and then stay off of it for 80 days. This lets the grasses recover, so you have a wide variety of grass in each paddock, much like you did before all the land was fenced in. Peter interviews a number of ranchers, who were losing money, but now they are making it. Using paddocks also allows carbon and nitrogen to build up in the soil, so it could have great environmental benefits. Peter is also a professor at Arizona State University, and he is seeking funding to show how paddock grazing can help the environment.

We had a wide variety of people see the short 12 minute film, and some had parents who were cattle ranchers who were very interested in Peter’s ideas. He is still finishing up the film (although it looked great to me) but it should be out soon. Peter, by the way, earlier made the film Carbon Nation, and he expects to make similar short films on climate related issues. It was really refreshing to hear new ideas that could be win/win for both environmentalists and ranchers alike.