Can beef be climate-friendly? Country Natural Beef’s new Grazewell program aims to prove that it can
For beef lovers worried about the changing climate, just the thought of a thick, juicy steak can be enough to trigger a wave of guilt. They know that beef production emits greenhouse gases that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. But there’s a way to produce beef that reduces emissions and can even help offset them. It’s called regenerative ranching, and under a new program called Grazewell, it’s now easier than ever to have your climate-friendly steak and eat it too.
Grazewell, which will be the largest climate-smart beef production program in the country when fully implemented, is the brainchild of a group of sustainability-minded ranchers collectively known as Country Natural Beef. Their aim is to test and adopt practices that tamp down climate change and provide meat lovers with certifiable climate-friendly beef.
On ranches across the western US and Hawaii, coop members are transforming their rangelands into carbon dioxide sponges that draw the greenhouse gas out of the air and into the soil. At the same time, by adopting climate-protective practices, they’re improving soil health, conserving water, and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat — all while boosting rangeland productivity.
A key part of Grazewell’s management blueprint is keeping cattle on the move. Taking a page from recent research, instead of grazing cattle on the same pasture indefinitely, Grazewell ranchers move their herds from paddock to paddock. “That means large numbers of animals moving frequently, so that plants are grazed but then they're allowed adequate recovery time to fully regrow,” says Dan Probert, a Country Natural Beef coop member who owns Lightning Creek Ranch, which stretches across 12,000 acres of eastern Oregon’s Zumwalt Prairie.
The result: rich black soils nurturing abundant, nutrient-rich grasses.
“We want it to look like chocolate cake,” Probert says. “And we want it to have a high degree of organic matter, and smell earthy. Because organic matter is the thing that holds water, and higher organic matter holds more carbon in the soil.”
Recent research suggests that multi-paddock grazing can lower the carbon footprint of beef by 66 percent compared to conventionally raised beef.
Under Grazewell’s pilot program, Probert and seven other ranching families have already put these regenerative practices to the test over the past few years, and now the rest of Country Natural Beef’s 100 members are adopting them as well. By 2025, Grazewell’s regenerative ranching methods will be the norm across all 6.5 million acres managed by Country Natural Beef producers. At that point, the Grazewell team has estimated, the coop’s operations should sequester 6 to 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, and keep it sequestered for a century or more. That’s as much as the amount of CO2 emitted by burning 10 billion pounds of coal or one billion gallons of gasoline.
But how can consumers be sure that Grazewell beef really is climate-friendly? The coop’s ranchers know that credibility is key to the program’s success, so they’re working with climate and grassland experts at Sustainable Northwest, a conservation group, and university researchers to make sure their protocols are scientifically sound and to track improvements over time. Satellite data, for example, will show how the vegetation changes. They’re also hiring third-party experts to conduct audits of their management practices.
Probert and the other Grazewell pioneers hope the program will inspire a ranching revolution that shifts cattle production from climate problem to climate solution. And it can’t come soon enough. While the US Department of Agriculture estimates that beef cattle account for about 3.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (the biggest source is burning fossil fuels for power, heat and transportation), those emissions are on the rise, making it more important than ever for ranchers to embrace Grazewell-style management — and for meat lovers to choose climate-friendly beef.