Family adds carbon initiative to ranch for education and conservation
Alex Blake is ranching near Big Timber, Mont. on a place his parents bought in 1973. “My family also has a retail tree nursery,” Alex explains. “I grew up here on the ranch, then spent time elsewhere with school, work and the military.”
Alex came back to Montana in 2007 and worked for a branded beef company for a couple years before moving back to the ranch in 2009.
“My parents are still involved in the business – my mom and younger brother run the tree nursery, and my dad and I manage the ranch,” he notes. “We are a conventional cow/calf operation but have a small grass-fed beef program, and some years we custom-graze yearlings.”
Progressive ranch management
“We are fairly progressive in grazing management,” Alex explains. “My dad went through some holistic management courses in the mid-1980s when Roland Kroos started classes.”
“Then, the whole family went through the Ranching for Profit schools about 12 years ago and completed the Executive Link Program,” he continues. “This helped reinforce what we were doing and some of the things we wanted to do, but didn’t have the time or resources to accomplish quickly.”
“The new carbon initiative program we are now participating in has given us the financial boost to get us farther along,” Alex adds.
The projects included more cross-fencing and water development. The initiatives program provides financial assistance and gives the family five years to get the whole ranch cross-fenced and necessary water developed.
“Without this carbon program, it would have taken us 10 years or more,” says Alex. “It’s also good for us to have the five-year timeline to get it done.”
“There are a number of reasons why the carbon initiative programs excited us. My parents have been great examples with their strong environmental ethic, and they have been committed to conservation and good stewardship since our family’s early days on this ranch,” he notes.
“They fenced off our major riparian areas in the late 1970s and early 1980s and adopted rotational grazing,” Alex continues. “We’ve been proponents of renewable energy for a long time. My home has been off-grid for a dozen years, we have a 12-kilowatt grid-tie solar array which offsets much of the nursery and ranch headquarters power needs, and we use solar stock water pumps at remote well sites.”
Carbon initiative program
Alex works part-time for Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE), the 25-year-old nonprofit organization which started the Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative. He explains he knew about the carbon initiative program through his work with WSE, but learned more upon meeting Kirsten McKnight.
McKnight is the manager of development for Native Energy, a carbon credit provider based in Burlington, Vt., which has partnered with WSE to create a program to pay ranchers and other land stewards for sequestering carbon on grasslands through regenerative grazing practices.
“We were the first ranch she met with about six years ago,” explains Alex. “At the time, most of the ranchers around this area were pretty gun-shy about carbon programs. We did quite a bit of work to sign up for a similar program about 10 years ago.”
The Chicago Climate Exchange market collapsed around this time, according to Alex, and many producers were skeptical about what carbon programs should look like.
“I have to applaud Native Energy and the WSE staff who have worked on this for their perseverance. Chris Mehus, the WSE ranching program director and Jesse Turfo, a former WSE employee, put a lot of time in on this and built it from scratch,” says Alex.
“I’ve seen it from both sides through my involvement with WSE and through being one of the four ranchers who signed up for it. It has also helped my family get to know the other ranchers who are involved and their families,” he notes.
“This gives us a support network, and we are able to talk with them, ask questions and discuss things amongst ourselves when there were things we didn’t understand and things Native Energy was still trying to figure out,” Alex continues. “Our community is a good one to work with because there are many people here who are involved in regenerative agriculture.”
New frontier in agriculture
“We are all still learning a lot about the importance of soils, but learning more about what goes on below the soil surface and knowing there is so much more we need to learn and more we can do. We are on the forefront of this new frontier in agriculture,” says Alex.
Soil samples are taken on the ranch to determine carbon content.
“There was some preliminary sampling the first and second years, and there will be another round of sampling in four years,” he shares. “Overtime, technology will probably change in how carbon is measured. This is a new horizon and there will be advancements in how everything is measured and collected for sampling.”
“The program is relatively easy at this point, with just four ranches, but the project is expected to increase to at least half a million acres, and this will take a lot of sampling. There is a good crew working on the project, and there will be a lot more work go into the development. It will probably be easier as the years come,” he adds.
Alex explains the nursery has been critical to diversifying their operation, and to keep several families involved on the ranch, it is hard to do it with just cattle. The carbon program, he shares, is another tool for the ranch to bring in additional income.
“There are not many ranches big enough to have the luxury of doing just cattle,” says Alex. “Programs like carbon initiatives can be helpful.”
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.