While belching cattle contributes to climate change, the grasslands underhoof can help keep greenhouse gas in the ground, so Prairie scientists are digging into the dirt to learn just how much carbon it can hold.
Cameron Carlyle, an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s department of agriculture, food and nutritional science, is one of the lead researchers in a project that aims to map and quantify the carbon in Saskatchewan’s perennial grasslands.
It also plans to identify the best land management practices to help keep carbon in the soil, Carlyle said.
“Our grassland soils hold large amounts of carbon, and by increasing the amount of carbon that’s held in those soils, we can help to mitigate the effects of climate change,” he added.
While they’re alive, plants capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and transfer organic carbon molecules to the soil through their roots and when the leaves die, he explained.
Carlyle’s research team will be collecting and analyzing soil samples from 400 different locations throughout the southern half of Saskatchewan including native grasslands, tame pastures and hay lands, he said. The team will also be collaborating with researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, who will use machine learning to extrapolate the data and map it across an eight million hectare area, Carlyle added.
Carlyle said his team will also be speaking to livestock producers through the vast project area for insight into their land management practices.
“There’s a lot of variation in terms of climate and underlying soil types,” he said, “so we’ll be able to identify practices that can increase the amount of soil carbon at a given location.”
Producers also stand to gain from the research because soils with more organic carbon tend to have more nutrients and do a better job of holding onto water, making it more productive and resilient to drought, Carlyle said.
Cows produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from digestive processes and manure, and according to Alberta’s government, beef production accounts for less than four per cent of greenhouse gas produced in Alberta, but half the emissions from the agricultural industry. However, close to 20 per cent of the industry’s greenhouse gases are removed by soil carbon sinks, such as perennial crops used for grazing cattle.
While the industry receives criticism for its emissions, Carlyle said it isn’t often recognized for the carbon it keeps in the ground, especially if there’s financial pressure to convert grasslands and produce more profitable crops.
“We know that if these landscapes get converted to other land uses, such as cropland, as much as half of the carbon can be lost out of the soils back into the atmosphere,” he said. “So it’s important that we conserve these types of grassland ecosystems just to keep carbon in the ground.”
The results of the project can also be extrapolated to neighbouring Prairie provinces, he added.
“Lots of the environments and the landscapes that we find in Saskatchewan are also represented in the adjoining provinces,” Carlyle said. “We have political boundaries, but we don’t have ecosystem boundaries.”
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