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Leaving the grass – and the carbon – in the ground

National project will show how forage and grassland owners can use high-performance management to boost yields and store carbon

Canadian forage producers know the value of the land they are responsible for — all 33.8 million acres of cultivated forages and 36 million of native or improved pastures. This land has a direct economic impact of $5.09 billion, but studies on the value of its environmental impact, or “ecological goods and services,” suggest it’s more than double that.

Forage and grasslands improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion and improve water quality. And since grass farmers use little or no tillage, they allow forage plants to store valuable carbon deeply underground. That value is behind a four-year project being led by the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association (CFGA).

The project

The CFGA was created in 2010 to address the need for a national voice on forage-related issues and opportunities. In 2016, the Government of Canada announced the renewal of its Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program (AGGP) to help create technologies, practices and processes to help the agricultural sector adjust to climate change and improve soil and water conservation by developing new farming practices and methods.

The CFGA assembled a group of stakeholders who developed a proposal to look at high-performance management systems to reduce greenhouse gases in Canada’s forage and grasslands. In February 2017, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada awarded the CFGA $656,000 over four years to support the project, which consists of four major deliverables:

  1. Complete a current state of science literature review.

  2. Develop a carbon-sequestration protocol for Canadian forage production systems.

  3. Develop a best management practices (BMP) guide for enhancing carbon storage in forage systems.

  4. Pilot the protocol on Canadian farms.

Literature review

Alberta environmental consulting firm Viresco Solutions Inc. conducted the literature review, which was intended to link specific management practices to soil carbon-sequestration rates. However, in the complex world of greenhouse gas science, things don’t always work out as intended. The review revealed that the current state of the scientific understanding of the processes that drive soil conservation were not conclusive enough to tie sequestration rates to individual management practices.

“The intent was to be able to say ‘Practice A gives us carbon X,’” says CFGA executive director Cedric MacLeod. “In an ideal world, that is where we would have ended up. What we have been able to do is create a solid foundation for how to quantify existing carbon stocks under grassland soils, knowing intuitively that they are significant.”

Avoiding conversion to crops

Following the direction of technical workshops in November 2017 that brought together leading forage and grassland experts from across Canada and North America, the CFGA moved forward with the development of an “avoided-conversion-of-grasslands protocol.”

“Grasslands and pastures make up a considerable proportion of Canada’s landscape and are important for the many ecosystem services they provide, including increased resiliency and adaptation to climate change impacts,” says Viresco Solutions president Karen Haugen-Kozyra. “The conversion of these ecosystems to annual cropping leads to greenhouse gas emissions that cannot easily be reversed.

“Global estimates identify that this soil carbon is at risk of release to the atmosphere following land-use conversion, with cultivation leading to a 30 to 50 per cent reduction in carbon stores,” she adds. “Conservation of these ecosystems maintains natural carbon stores.”

The massive root systems of prairie grasses mean they can store up to 130 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Photo Graphic: Courtesy of the Conservation Research Institute

Viresco Solutions presented the draft avoided-conversion protocol document at the 2018 CFGA conference, explaining it is being adapted from the California Climate Action Reserves protocol, an orphaned protocol that was being adapted as part of the 13 protocols into the Ontario-Quebec cap-and-trade system.

“With proper investment offered by a carbon price signal, it’s estimated that nearly 16 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent could be retained in the soil, and thereby avoiding release, by 2030 across Canada,” says Haugen-Kozyra.

BMP recommendations

Work continues on closing the research gaps and moving towards a practice-based protocol.

Work also continues on developing a BMP manual that highlights five forage BMP areas the CFGA has committed to focusing on following workshops at its annual conferences in 2017 and 2018. The BMP areas include:

  • Use of certified seed for highly digestible forage species and varieties.

  • Intensive rotational grazing systems.

  • Intensive forage harvesting systems.

  • Forage stand establishment, fertility and management for high-performance yields.

  • Advanced crop production systems for perennial and annual forages, including no-till cropping and cover crops.

“The new angle is we’re adding carbon to the conversation,” says MacLeod. “Understanding that the concept of carbon, carbon storage and management, and working through the complex policy dynamic of the carbon market is largely foreign to a lot of farmers and ranchers, we wanted to take this opportunity to pull together some information on specific management practices that they can put to work on the farm, and start to point folks in the direction of what that means in terms of policy.”

Pilot projects

The final piece of the project is piloting the protocol to test it under actual field conditions in each province.

The results of the pilot projects will be used to test the protocol under commercial conditions, to understand any challenges that producers may face in applying the protocol and to promote and advance the concept of advanced forage management in sequestering soil carbon. It will also help create localized verifiable data on what the forage industry contributes in carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation.

The pilot project sites will also showcase the benefits of using the high-performance forage-management BMPs for farmers.

This article was published in the 2019 issue of the Forage & Grassland Guide. Original article found at

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Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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