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A Happy Place to Be a Cow
Iowa Farm Practices a Natural Way to Remove Carbon From the Atmosphere

Seth Watkins feeds his cattle on November 1, 2017, at his farm near Clarinda, Iowa. Watkins has about 600 beef cattle, owns about 400 acres, and rents about 2,800 acres, mostly pastureland. (Photos by Amy Bakke)

"Hello, girls," Seth Watkins calls, as he jumps out of his dusty white pickup. Black Angus cows and their calves amble across a muddy hill as Watkins calls to them repeatedly. To a layman, it’s hard to tell if the cows are truly happy, but one thing is certain:  the animals are living longer and eating a more varied diet than cattle on most Iowa pastures.

Watkins, 49, attributes that to a variety of sustainable agriculture methods he has implemented over the last 20 years at his farm near Clarinda in southwest Iowa after going through a number of “pretty bad weather events.”

“Weather extremes that are just not typical of what we have known the last hundred years,” he says. “And the sad, scary thing is it seems like since the late ’80s, mid-’90s, it’s accelerated.

“I just said, ‘Why am I fighting Mother Nature?’” he adds. “I said, ‘You know what, I want happy cows. I want clean water, and I want healthy soil.’ I decided that I wanted to see that and sleep at night instead of feeling like I was doing these other things that didn’t feel right.”

Among the sustainable methods Watkins utilizes are planting strips of native prairie as well as crops such as rye, barley, and clover; fencing ponds; and year-round grazing.

“I’m seeing more resilience in my land, so I’m staying on a more even keel with my production. If we have multiple four-to-six-inch rains in the summer, my soil has held my crops, so I’m gonna be able to harvest a crop. Or if we have an exceptional wet spring or fall, we’ve been able to plant or harvest in a more timely manner just because I do have better soil health than I used to. I think I’m definitely more profitable than when I was farming conventionally.”

The Research Perspective

According to researchers, certain sustainable agricultural practices are a promising natural way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, along with reforestation and land restoration. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, capturing carbon emissions that have already been released into the atmosphere through natural sinks—like in soil or trees or plants—is necessary to reach the temperature targets set out in the Paris Agreement. Further, if we do not take advantage of these natural carbon sinks, we are leaving the door open to depend on risky, unproven carbon-removal technologies in the future. Many of these come with unpalatable side effects like altered weather patterns and the need to dedicate large amounts of arable land to carbon storage rather than food production.

According to the latest research from Jonathan Sanderman, associate scientist at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, an estimated 133 billion tons of carbon have been lost from the soil to the atmosphere, in large part due to centuries of intensive and unsustainable agriculture practices. But Sanderman says there’s really not just one solution to restore carbon to the soil.

“There’s probably a million prescriptions out there that are most suited to particular soil type, climate, and land use system,” Sanderman says. “I think basically it really boils down to maximizing the amount of green cover on your land and minimizing the amount of soil disturbance.

“By growing a crop that has deeper roots, you’re putting more carbon in the soil. By putting cover crops in—especially cover crops that you then mulch back into your soil—that’s a lot of carbon that was fixed out of the atmosphere that is being directly put into the soil.”

Matt Liebman, a professor of agronomy and H.A. Wallace Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, says some parts of the world would do better with cover crops than others because of the length of growing season.

“Cover crops work really well where you have an extended growing season, like in Maryland. They don’t work as well in places with a short growing season like North Central Iowa,” he says.

“In areas where growing seasons aren’t as long, it’s wise to diversify the corn/soybean rotation with small grain crops grown to maturity, like winter wheat, rye, oats, barley, triticale, and include more forage crops that are perennial. They have deep roots and provide continuous living cover, and that can be grass/clover mixtures, or alfalfa.”

The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture

Watkins drives us to a part of his land that on this midautumn day is still green, as barley sprouts from the ground.

“So if we look over to my neighbor, in the cornfield, that’s all dead and brown. If we look to that one on the hill, that’s all dead and brown. And over here we’ve got something green, which means carbon’s going in,” Watkins says. “It’s great feed, it’s great for the soil, and I’m not starting a tractor right now to feed a bunch of cows, when if you graze all those cows on an acre or two acres you’d be running equipment to feed them right now.

Watkins says that since he has started using sustainable agriculture methods, he has seen his soil organic levels increase from 1 to 2 percent to between 4 and 6 percent. That means the soil is a lot more fertile.

“Relying on Mother Nature works because farms are living systems, meaning farms are dependent on soil, sunlight, rainfall, and human ingenuity,” he says.

Adding clover to his fields has meant Watkins no longer has to use commercial nitrogen, which can have detrimental effects on the environment and contributes to increased global temperatures.

This pasture on Watkins’ farm was still green in midautumn, thanks to barley sprouting from the ground. In comparison, his neighbor’s cornfield was dead and brown. “We’ve got something green, which means carbon’s going in,” Watkins says.

“We’ve got some pastures that we haven’t used any synthetic product on for over 20 years,” Watkins says. “My costs went down because I wasn’t buying fertilizer anymore. My conception [rates] went up. And since I improved the quality of my forage with the clover, my productivity also [went up].”

Liebman says he also has seen the need for fertilizers go down when different rotation schemes are implemented. Liebman directs an ongoing experiment of rotations on 25 acres of land at Iowa State University that started in 2002.

“We’ve looked at the effects of different rotation schemes on agrichemical use, yields, profitability, and environmental impacts, particularly soil quality and water quality,” he says. “We found that extended rotations can dramatically reduce the need for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and petrochemical energy while maintaining or increasing yields and profits and improving the environmental impact of agriculture.”

‘A Major Challenge’

Sanderman says one drawback of soil carbon sequestration is that it has a limited capacity. That’s why other natural carbon sinks, such as forests, which in addition to storing carbon in soil also store large quantities in organic plant matter, are still important to maintain and recover if the world is to achieve the 1.5° Celsius goal set out in the Paris Agreement.

As we walk his land, Watkins pulls up a daikon radish that he planted two months prior on his land. Watkins has implemented several sustainable agriculture practices on his farm in the last 20 years, including planting cover crops and strips of native prairie, fencing ponds, and grazing his cattle year-round.

“There’s a very finite capacity of a particular soil,” Sanderman says. “You can only sequester carbon for, say, 20 to 30 years, and really it depends, but most people say about 20 years and you’ll probably stop increasing carbon levels. You’ll reach some new plateau.”

There is emerging research that indicates storing carbon deeper in soil could increase the carbon storage capacity, but nevertheless, soil has a finite carbon saturation limit. Once soil is saturated, farmers must be encouraged to maintain that carbon through sustainable practices.

That might be why Watkins, after 20 years, has seen his organic levels hover around 4 to 6 percent.

“That sounds about right for Iowa,” Sanderman says. “Around 4 to 6, maybe 6 to 8 percent. It depends how deep you measure also.”

Sanderman says that the farther north you go, the higher the organic levels will be because cooler environments slow decomposition.

“In northern Europe, a sign of really good health would probably be 8 to 10 percent carbon in the topsoil.”

But restoring the estimated 133 billion tons of carbon already lost from the soil to the atmosphere would require more than even sustainable agriculture can deliver.

“In order to restore that amount of carbon, we would basically have to take all our land out of production, and we’re obviously not doing that,” Sanderman says. “Most estimates hover somewhere around one billion tons of carbon a year that can be restored by implementing the best conservation management practices everywhere. So about 10 percent or so of our current fossil fuel emissions. It seems reasonable. That number seems to be about the average of a bunch of different analyses.

“Even reaching that level of one billion tons per year requires a massive amount of education, outreach, political incentives. Literally, you have to change the minds of a billion people. There’s about a billion people involved in agricultural production around the world, and you have to convince them to change their management system. Seth Watkins is a great example. It’s just convincing everyone to do it, enabling people to do it, is definitely a major challenge.

Jason Funk, associate director, land use, at the Center for Carbon Removal in Oakland, California, agrees.

“In order to get the most benefit for the climate, there has to be some pretty transformational changes in what farmers do,” Funk says. “Some of the easiest practices that are widely implemented, like no till and cover cropping, those are good things to do. We should try to roll them out as much as we can everywhere, but those only really benefit the climate a little bit, and for no-till in particular, there are some questions about whether or not it actually can sequester carbon. It’s true that it certainly does in some places, but we’re not sure if it does everywhere.”

What’s positive, Funk says, is that more and more farmers, like Watkins, are interested in being stewards of the land.

“People are saying, ‘Wait a second here, I really feel like I’m being pushed too far down the production front, and really I care about this land,’” Funk says. “‘I care about maybe passing it on to my descendants, in a condition I’m proud of.’”

Another positive, Funk says, is that consumers are starting to care more about the origin of their food, how it was produced, and what imprint it left behind on the landscape.

Farmer Seth Watkins (right) shows a sample of his soil to Climate Change Program Associate Mark Conway of the Stanley Foundation. Watkins, after implementing sustainable agriculture practices, has seen his soil organic levels hover around 4 to 6 percent, which has helped make his land more resilient to climate change.

“And they’re starting to care more about climate issues,” Funk says. “And then there are these differentiated markets opening up for things like organic production or sustainably produced stuff, or regenerative agriculture—that’s becoming a word that’s being tossed around as something that could become a label or certification down the road.”

Toward Carbon Neutrality

Watkins has about 600 beef cattle, owns about 400 acres, and rents about 2,800 acres, mostly pastureland. He says his goal is to ultimately make his farm carbon neutral, which means no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To do that, he’s looking at adding orchards and bringing in goats to eat plants that cows won’t eat so he doesn’t have to spray the plants with chemicals.

Liebman says he thinks that’s doable, even with the methane output from the cattle.

“There are a lot of ways of soaking up carbon and reducing other kinds of carbon emissions,” Liebman says. “I think you really need to look at the major uses of petrochemical energy and associated greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa farm systems, or the use of synthetic fertilizer, principally nitrogen, because it takes high temperature and pressure conditions that are created with natural gas.

Watkins’ cattle slowly come to him when he calls. After going through some “pretty bad weather events” in the 1980s and 1990s, he asked himself why he was fighting nature. “I said, ‘You know what, I want happy cows. I want clean water, and I want healthy soil.’ I decided that I wanted to see that and sleep at night instead of feeling like I was doing these other things that didn’t feel right.”

“Tillage operations and other tractor-associated machine operations in the field combust diesel and gasoline, and then if you’re growing a lot of corn, typically you’re drying that grain with natural gas,” Liebman adds. “So when you eliminate most of those activities on the farm, much of the combustion of fossil carbon goes away, and Seth is using fertilizer quite judiciously. He’s spreading manure from his cattle and using crop rotation as a way to fertilize his fields, so he’s using less fertilizer. He’s growing less corn because he’s got more pasture, and he minimizes his use of machine operations by using no-till and basically farming grass rather than row crops.”

Ultimately, Watkins says, he wants to find ecological solutions whenever he can.

“Even if we don’t want to admit what the cause of climate change is, we know we’re dealing with more-significant weather issues, so we do need to be developing strategies to help with resilience, as far as for planning and harvesting crops,” he says.

“Didn’t we learn something from the dust bowl? We at least learned that humans can impact climate and things of that nature, and that we can fix it.”

Watkins says his goal is to ultimately make his farm carbon neutral, which means no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To do that, he’s looking at adding orchards and bringing in goats to eat plants that his Black Angus cows won’t eat so he doesn’t have to spray the plants with chemicals.

— Francie Williamson
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