Farmers, ranchers could capture almost a third of North Dakota’s carbon emissions, study finds
Farmers and ranchers make a significant contribution in helping North Dakota achieve the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by using regenerative agriculture methods.
McKENZIE, N.D. — Jerry Doan decided he had to make some changes in his ranching operation during the brutal 1980s, when he struggled to survive severe drought and the farm crisis.
He watched with increasing alarm as his net worth was eroding. “I was traditional ag for a long time,” said Doan, who took over the family ranch in 1975.
But in 1988, an intense drought year, he embraced the practices of regenerative agriculture to make his pastures more resilient, better able to withstand weather extremes.
“There’s got to be a better way,” he said, recalling his thinking at the time.
Now he rotates his black Angus and buffalo to allow the grass to recover, plants cover crops and follows other sustainable practices.
“It isn’t perfect,” said Doan, who is president of the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition. But he said it helps his financial bottom line and also makes ranching more enjoyable.
It turns out that the regenerative agriculture practices he uses on his Black Leg Ranch are also good for the climate.
A study by The Nature Conservancy determined that North Dakota can reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 31% from their 2018 levels if farmers and ranchers widely embrace well-established sustainable practices.
The conservation group said adopting these regenerative agriculture practices is one of the biggest steps North Dakota could take to meet Gov. Doug Burgum's goal, announced in 2021, of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.
More than half of North Dakota’s 94 million tons of carbon dioxide comes from the state’s two economic pillars, energy and agriculture, the report said. About 33% comes from the heating and electricity sectors, according to the report, while the agriculture sector accounts for 22% of emissions.
The report identified the top three opportunities in biological carbon capture: avoided conversion of grasslands and wetlands, grassland restoration and cover cropping. Cover crops are plants used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds and help control pests and diseases.
Experts estimate that 70,000 acres of grasslands can biologically capture carbon emissions equal to one coal-fired power plant.
“Prairies are life forests,” said Marissa Ahlering, The Nature Conservancy’s science director in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. “There’s a lot of carbon stored below ground in those root systems.”
Grasslands, with a rich mixture of perennial plants that develop root systems that penetrate deep into the ground and aren’t disrupted by cultivation, also increase wildlife habitat, filter and hold water to prevent erosion, and mitigate flooding.
“So there are a lot of other benefits these grasslands can provide,” Ahlering said.
Cover cropping can mean planting crops such as barley or millet, which require less fertilizer than corn or soybeans, and promote soil health while storing carbon.
“These practices aren’t going to get us 100% of the way there,” Ahlering said. “It’s 30% of the way there, though,” without requiring huge capital investments.
“Biological capture solutions could be a huge part of North Dakota’s carbon management future,” said Mark Staples, external affairs manager for The Nature Conservancy in North Dakota.
Conservation farming and ranching practices are well-known and have been around for years. Many farmers use no-till or reduced tillage practices, for example, and rotation grazing is widely used by ranchers.
“I’d say there’s growing recognition in the role farmers and ranchers play in carbon capture and storage,” said Staples, who grew up on a farm. “Farmers all across the country are embracing biological carbon capture solutions.”
Precision farming techniques make it easier to manage fertilizer and other crop inputs, helping to farm more sustainably, he said.
'Resilience in a drought'
To help achieve his net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2030, Burgum has encouraged farmers and ranchers to view the conservation practices as an opportunity .
“With practices already in use such as cover cropping, rotational grazing and no-till, North Dakota farmers are already capturing more carbon and putting it to beneficial use,” Burgum said in 2021.
“People are willing to start paying for credits for farmers and ranchers to do what they’ve been doing in North Dakota for a long time, and this could be an additional source of revenue,” the governor said.
With decades of experience behind him at his Black Leg Ranch , located 25 miles southeast of Bismarck, Doan is a firm believer in the benefits of regenerative agriculture, including improved profitability. He’s seen the difference rotation grazing can make, allowing grass to rest for long periods, mimicking the way buffalo grazed and then migrated.
He has added buffalo to his herd of black Angus cattle on his 17,000 acres. His family started Black Leg Ranch in 1882, which now has spanned six generations.
“We’re a holistically managed operation,” he said, including growing cover crops. “We use nature to our advantage. We improve our resilience in a drought.”
Although some of Doan’s neighboring farmers and ranchers are adopting regenerative agriculture methods, he’s alarmed to see the continued conversion of rangeland to cropland.
“It’s scary to see the conversion from grassland to cropland,” he said. Producers are responding to financial incentives, including farm programs.
“There’s a lot of government support in crop agriculture,” Doan said. “If we could get paid for sequestration, this could be the savior for grasslands and animal agriculture.”
Farmers and ranchers also are conservative in their practices, sticking to tradition. “We tend to do things over and over and over,” he said.
To help nudge farmers and ranchers to adopt more climate-friendly practices, Doan advocates basing payments on criteria, including improved soil health.
“I think the opportunity’s huge,” he said. “It would be good for all of us. A lot of the wildlife people are all for it. They see the benefits.”
Grasslands are like the rainforest, irreplaceable ecological assets, Doan said. “Once they’re gone,” he said, “they’re gone.”