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The beef industry is casting itself as one of the last lines ofdefence in protecting Canada's native grasslands — the rippling expanse of natural prairie that once covered a significant swath of the western provinces but which has been largely lost over the past century to crop farming and urban development.

Ecologists say only 18 to 25 per cent of Canada's natural grasslands remain. Much of that land is owned or managed by livestock producers, who use it to graze cattle. 

Now, the Canadian Cattle Association industry group is calling on the federal government to fund a program that would pay ranchers for maintaining those grasslands rather than plowing them under or selling the land to a developer.

"The whole idea would be a voluntary system that ranchers could opt into in order to really augment their income and support the conservation of grasslands across the country," said Canadian Cattle Association vice-president Tyler Fulton.

Fulton's organization has partnered with conservation groups Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, both of whom have committed tocouplingany government dollars received with private donations in order to get more money into the hands of ranchers.

In order to provide enough of an incentive for ranchers to maintain their grasslands, the groups are seeking $175 million in funding. They say this would be enough for a five-year pilot project that could conserve up to 750,000 acres of native grasslands from conversion to cropland and other development.

"There's obviously lots of different factors that would go into the conservation value of the land, but broadly ... we're probably thinking (ranchers should receive) about anywhere from $10 to $20 an acre," Fulton said. 

Tom Lynch-Staunton, a regional vice-president atthe Nature Conservancy of Canada, said today's ranchers face a host of financial pressures to sell off their herds and convert their pasture land to other uses — from the lack of a retirement succession plan to the consecutive droughts that have forced some Western Canadian producers to downsize or exit the industry.

"Even in the last 10 years, we estimate that we've lost about 150,000 acres per year of natural grassland," Lynch-Staunton said. 

"We're still seeing them being lost, and we really believe that these grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world and we need to try to keep what's remaining."

Grasslands are home to hundreds of species of birds, wildlife and insects. They also reduce erosion and flooding and promote pollination by providing habitats for bees.

Importantly, they also function as massive carbon sinks. Mark Boyce, a University of Alberta ecology professor, said grasslands have proven to be surprisingly effective at carbon sequestration — a naturally occurring process whereby the soils in grasslands store carbon dioxide in the form of broken-down plant matter and prevent it from getting into the atmosphere.

Estimates suggest that worldwide, grasslands hold around 30 per cent of global terrestrial carbon stocks — making them acriticalpiece of the arsenal in the fight against climate change.

"In Alberta, grasslands are better than forests for sequestering carbon," Boyce said.

"With forests, every 80 to 120 years they go up in smoke and that lets all that carbon back into the atmosphere. Whereas the carbon in grassland soils is a sink that's there for thousands of years. It stays there unless that soil is broken or cultivated."  

The carbon sequestration role of grasslands matters to the beef industry, which is under huge pressure to address its carbon footprint. Currently, the beef industry is responsible for 24 per cent of Canada's total emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas that is a byproduct of cattle digestion, meaning it is emitted into the atmosphere every time a cow belches or passes gas.

Many environmentalists have suggested that reducing beef consumption or adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet is one of the simplest things consumers can do to help the planet.

Whether carbon sequestration through grasslands preservation will be enough to offset the beef industry's methane problem is a sticky question, Boyce said. He added in order to optimize carbon sequestration, ranchers need to care for their pastures properly using techniques such as rotational grazing that allow the grasses time to rest and regenerate. 

"It certainly isn't all rosy in the context of having cattle — the negative side of it is the methane emissions,"  Boyce said. 

"But we don't have a better system, and I don't know of an alternative scheme for managing and preserving our native grasslands that is better."

At her ranch west of Calgary, where her family has grazed cattle for nearly 140 years, Cherie Copithorne-Barnes said managing grasslands effectively is both an art and a science.

"It's about moving those cattle around and making sure that you create that cycle that just works for both the animal and the plants," she said.

Copithorne-Barnes points out that before Europeans settled the Prairies, Canada's grasslands were home to large herds of bison that played an important ecological role in keeping the ecosystem healthy.

Today, cattle can and do fulfil many of those functions, she said.

"The grasslands are alive, so you have to continuously keep clipping that grass in order for that plant to keep re-growing and re-sequestering that carbon back down into the soil," Copithorne-Barnes said.

"And then of course with the manure that's left behind by these grazing animals, you've got an instant fertilizer for it to help promote the grass growth."

Up until now, cattle producers have had no way to account for the good they are doing for the planet, Copithorne-Barnes said. That's why it's so important to measure the impact of grasslands preservation, and ensure ranchers get paid for it.

"One of the things our cattle industry is being so chastised for is our greenhouse gas emissions, but nobody has come to an agreement on how we measure the carbon sequestration we're actually creating," she said.

"How do we get credit for what we're doing?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.

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The Canadian Press

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