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Can chickens reverse climate change?

Meat: A Benign ExtravaganceI summed up highlights from Meat by Simon Fairlie over on my homesteading blog last week, but I wanted to share one tidbit over here.  The book explores when and how meat-eating can be benign or actively good for the environment compared to when our carnivorous ways are hurting the planet, and the author commits a full chapter to considering rotational grazing.  The idea is that carefully planned grazing schemes can sequester carbon in the soil just like a woodland might, resulting in less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to fuel global warming.

Fairlie does a bit of math and concludes that if we increased organic matter levels by 1.6% in the top foot of soil in all arable and grazing land worldwide, we'd pull enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to drop air levels back down to 300 ppm.  And, at first, that seems very feasible since large-scale gardeners and small-scale farmers often increase the organic matter content of their soil by several percentage points.  For example, just one year of grazing with chickens seems to have raised the organic matter levels of one of my pastures from 4% to 5%.

Unfortunately, when Fairlie delves into the scientific literature, carbon sequestation in agricultural soil starts to look a bit dicey.  Although anecdotal evidence of soils turned black by rotational grazing abound, scientists can't seem to replicate the results.  Perhaps that's because their studies rely on math to determine when to rotate animals, and every grazier knows you have to watch the grass and move your flock or herd based on biology.  In other words, hypothesis A is that the scientists are just doing it wrong.

However, the lack of scientific evidence could also be due to the fact that most rotational grazing operations are only what Fairlie calls "half a farm."  Nearly all of us are buying in feed, and it's that input of energy, organic matter, and nitrogen from elsewhere that adds to the organic matter of our own farms.  In essence, we're just moving carbon around, and may actually be causing a net release of carbon dioxide into the air if we buy our chicken feeds from industrial farms that lose more organic matter from the soil every year than we add back to our farms with our own flocks.

GlomalinSo could we sequester carbon with rotational grazing?  Probably, if we played our cards right.  New data suggests that a protein called glomalin that's exuded by mycorrhizae may account for a quarter of all carbon sequestered in agricultural soils, which points us toward boosting fungal levels in the soil.  Other studies suggest that roots are more likely to turn into stable humus than top growth of plants, so we can work on maximizing root production.  (On the other hand, another study puts into doubt the oft-repeated assumption by rotational grazers that many grazing episodes result  in plants producing and shedding more root hairs --- in one study, plants grazed once a year produced more biomass and more soil carbon than those grazed five times a year.)  If you're grazing cows instead of chickens, trampling is likely to drastically increase your carbon sequestration, and we can all focus more on buying in less feed from poorly-run operations.

Whether or not we can reverse climate change with livestock, we can definitely integrate them into our homesteads better so we cause fewer environmental catastrophes elsewhere.  I highly recommend reading Meat for much more information on the science behind integrating animals into permaculture systems.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to keep poultry on pasture or in tractors.


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