Soil carbon mapping project aims to help beef producers sequester carbon

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While cattle belching contributes to climate change, grasslands under the hoof can help keep greenhouse gases in the ground, so grassland scientists are digging into the earth to find out how much carbon it may hold.

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Cameron Carlyle, associate professor in the department of agricultural, food and nutritional sciences at the University of Alberta, is one of the principal investigators of a project that aims to map and quantify the carbon in perennial grasslands in Saskatchewan.

It also plans to identify best land management practices to help keep carbon in the ground, Carlyle said.

« Our grassland soils contain large amounts of carbon, and by increasing the amount of carbon in these soils, we can help mitigate the effects of climate change, » he added.

While alive, plants capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and transfer organic carbon molecules to the soil through their roots and when leaves die, he explained.

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Carlyle’s research team will collect and analyze soil samples from 400 different locations in the southern half of Saskatchewan, including native prairie, tame pasture and hay land, he said. The team will also collaborate with researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, who will use machine learning to extrapolate the data and map it over an area of ​​eight million hectares, Carlyle added.

Carlyle said his team will also speak to cattle ranchers across the vast project area to gain insight into their land management practices.

“There is a lot of variation in terms of climate and underlying soil types,” he said, “so we will be able to identify practices that can increase the amount of soil carbon at a given place ».

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Growers also stand to gain from the research, as soils with more organic carbon tend to have more nutrients and hold water better, making it more productive and drought-resistant, Carlyle said.

Cows produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from digestive processes and manure, and according to the Government of Alberta, beef production accounts for less than 4% of the greenhouse gases produced in Alberta , but half of the emissions from the agricultural industry. However, nearly 20% of industry’s greenhouse gases are removed by soil carbon sinks, such as perennial crops used for livestock grazing.

Although the industry is criticized for its emissions, Carlyle said it is not often recognized for the carbon it keeps in the ground, especially if there is financial pressure to convert grasslands and produce more profitable crops.

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« We know that if these landscapes are converted to other land uses, such as cropland, up to half of the carbon can be lost from the soils to the atmosphere, » he said. « So it’s important that we conserve these types of grassland ecosystems just to keep the carbon in the ground. »

Project results can also be extrapolated to neighboring prairie provinces, he added.

« A lot of the environments and landscapes that we find in Saskatchewan are also represented in neighboring provinces, » Carlyle said. « We have political boundaries, but we don’t have ecosystem boundaries. »


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