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Soil Carbon Benefits: Carbon markets discussed during WESTI Ag Days

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

On Feb. 15 during WESTI Ag Days in Worland, University of Wyoming Extension Educator Dr. Caitlin Youngquist, Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE) Ranch Programs Director Chris Mehus and Indreland Ranch Owner Rodger Indreland discussed carbon markets in agriculture and how producers can benefit from carbon credits through an extensive rotational grazing plan. 

What is the carbon cycle? 

“The basic carbon cycle takes carbon out of the atmosphere, into the soil, then back into the air,” said Youngquist. “Photosynthesis is what drives the carbon cycle – plants are taking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air, with the energy from the sunlight, converting CO2 and water into glucose, then the oxygen goes back out again.”

Carbon can be found in plant tissue and in the soil system. This is the basic process which occurs when talking about pulling carbon out of the atmosphere or when talking about carbon markets and crops. It all starts with photosynthesis, noted Youngquist. 

Carbon cycle impacts

The carbon cycle is complex, but is important to understand when using different farming practices, Youngquist explained. 

Tillage and soil disturbance are two impacts which affect carbon sequestration – the process of storing carbon in the soil. 

When the soil surface is disturbed in some way, it introduces a lot of oxygen into the soil system – the soil microbes become active and start consuming carbon in the soil and then release CO2 back into the atmosphere, she continued. 

“I think it’s important to understand the pieces of the carbon cycle as we are talking about carbon sequestrations, carbon markets, understanding soil health and how all of these pieces play together,” said Youngquist. 

“This is God’s and nature’s system. The carbon cycle is a very elaborate and effective microbial ecology in the soil – this is what’s going on and is a big part of carbon cycling through the system and healthy soil and plants,” noted Youngquist. “If producers look at the biomass in soil – purely the weight of the organisms in the top six inches of soil, depending on the soil health and plants growing –there is roughly 300 to 400 pounds of bacteria per acre in the soil.” 

“Plants play a large part in soil health and carbon coming into the soil through vegetation,” she said. “The grass, through photosynthesis, is pulling carbon out of the air, feeding the microbes and creating a very healthy system. Through grazing management practices, producers can substantially improve carbon and soil health.” 

“In the long term, with more carbon in the soil, the result would be healthier plants, more productive grass, more efficient water use, less disease pressure and more healthy biology in the soil. Purely by increasing the amount of photosynthesis and grass growth in rotational grazing compared to less managed grazing,” she continued.  

Grazing and farming

Youngquist encouraged producers to consider the soil health if a pasture is heavily grazed versus soil health of a fence line, because often times, along the fence line in an irrigated system, producers will have the same amount of water, but won’t have heavy traffic. 

“With adequate water resources, producers can start to change the soil and grass growth much faster compared to dryland systems,” she continued. 

Change can occur in a dryland system, but it will be a longer process, she added. Through strip-till, no tillage and rotational grazing, producers can greatly increase organic matter and improve soil health conditions. 

“More precipitation, more grass growth and more organic matter can result in more productive soils,” she said. 

Carbon credits
and markets

“A carbon credit is the ability to sell a part of the life in the soil to a consumer who wants to purchase it,” explained Mehus. “We’re basically creating a commodity out of carbon producers can sell, in addition to the products they are already producing and selling on the farm or ranch.”  

Through the WSE Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative’s program, WSE is partnering with carbon credit provider, Native Energy, to create a forage program with ranchers and land stewards for sequestering carbon on grasslands through regenerative grazing practices.    

“The companies purchasing carbon credits want to be able to tell their customers the carbon money paid to producers went towards something important,” shared Mehus. 

Through this program, ranchers can receive startup funds to improve pasture infrastructure and carbon sequestration.

On a case-by-case basis, producers already practicing holistic or regenerative management practices can still benefit from the program. 

It is expected for the carbon credit market to grow in years to come. In addition, a 30-year contract is signed by the producer with Native Energy, but contracts are able to be adjusted as the market changes, with no risk to the rancher, continued Mehus.  

“Right now, the price of carbon is going up,” added Indreland. “From our perspective, we’re growing 50 percent more annual forage than we did when we started this process. We can increase our carrying capacity through an extensive rotational grazing management system.” 

“All carbon in the soil is greater life,” said Mehus. “The opportunity is for this new regenerative-kind of management. In the end, it’s about changing the paradigm, changing the way we think and the way we manage in order to adhere to soil health principles – it’s increasing carbon in the soil as we reduce carbon in the atmosphere.” 

“As farmers and ranchers, we are the original environmentalist and need to not shy away from that,” said Mehus. “The agriculture industry as a whole can market, farmers and ranchers are the stewards of the environment.” 

“The real difference in thinking is we can’t afford to continue a practice of taking from the land, instead we must practice giving back to rejuvenate some of these natural systems,” Mehus concluded. 

There are several companies looking to work with ranchers on purchasing carbon credits. Mehus encourages producers to work with their lawyer to review any contracts before signing. 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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