Many different agricultural production practices exist that can capitalize on carbon sequestration in both soil and biomass to reduce environmental impact. The goal of these methods is to modify current production practices in a way that enables the use of the natural carbon cycle to replenish carbon stores while reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.1 Restorative agricultural production practices have the potential to decrease atmospheric carbon and reverse some of the effects of climate change.1,2 One example of a restorative practice is “no-till” crop production, where farmers do not turn over or till the soil (commonly done to reduce weed growth) in preparation for planting the next round of crops.3 Some “no-till” cropping systems also incorporate cover crops, which involves planting a secondary crop that will not be harvested (such as turnips), but can be utilized for grazing beef cattle, controlling weed growth, reducing erosion, and enhancing soil organic matter.2
Beef cattle production can play an important role in furthering carbon sequestration by producing a nutritious food product for humans by utilizing grasslands that can store a large amount of carbon. Globally, if soil organic carbon in agricultural lands and grasslands could be increased 10% over the course of the 21st century, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere could be reduced by 110 ppm.1 Grazing cattle and other ruminants on pasture and grasslands can preserve untilled land and reduce soil erosion (another environmental benefit) while producing human food and other products (e.g., leather).2
In the United States, pasture and grasslands represent 27% of the land area,4 thus preventing this land being converted to tilled cropland and residential uses which further increase GHG concentrations. Additionally, establishing permanent pastures for grazing beef cattle on degraded croplands (lands that are currently tilled, but are of poor quality) can sequester carbon at rates comparable to forests.2 Most beef cattle in the United States spend the majority of their lives on pastures and grasslands. For beef cattle finished in a feedlot, approximately 65-85% of their life will be spent grazing, and, for grass-finished beef cattle and beef cows, up to 100% of their life may be spent grazing. As a consequence, regardless of the beef production system, enhancing carbon sequestration through well-managed beef cattle grazing systems and improved feed production practices (e.g., no-till systems, using cover crops) can reduce the carbon footprint of beef and contribute to the reversal of global climate change.