Enhancing Biodiversity: The Critical Role of Grazing 

Biodiversity is more than a buzzword. It is a critical component of shaping the future of healthy and productive working lands. At AgSpire, we believe that understanding and harnessing biodiversity is not merely about compliance; it’s about adopting a transformative approach that elevates the land’s productivity and resilience for future generations.  

In the realm of ranching, biodiversity encompasses a range of plant species, soil organisms, insects, and wildlife, each playing a vital role in nutrient cycling, soil health, and forage quality. This rich diversity is an ally in building robust grazing systems, capable of withstanding environmental stresses. More importantly, it directly contributes to improved herd health and overall productivity.  

As our team develops programs related to grazing management and advises ranchers, here are four ways we can contribute to enhanced biodiversity – and deliver positive impact for ranchers: 

> The Synergy of Grazing and Plant Growth 

For grazing management to truly be effective, it must be underpinned by a deep understanding of the plant growth patterns for all the species present in the field. By aligning grazing intensity and timing with these plant growth patterns, ranchers can see a more a more consistent supply of forage while also promoting the long-term health of plant communities.  

When visiting a ranch, our technical advisors help analyze current plant community types to understand their growth cycles and timing, and using this knowledge to make informed grazing decisions. 

AgSpire advisor works with a rancher to analyze his pasture and plan for improvements.

> Rest, Rotation, and Resilience 

While rest and rotation are commonly associated with forage management, they are equally crucial for nurturing biodiversity. Properly timed rest periods allow for the establishment of new plant communities, vital for maintaining a diverse ecosystem. Appropriate rest can be challenging, especially during extreme weather conditions, but the long-term resilience and health of biodiverse grazing acres are invaluable assets during tough times. 

> Rangeland Succession: A Strategic Approach 

Rangeland succession – or the replacement of unhealthy plant communities by another – is just like managing a herd’s genetics; it requires a hands-on, strategic approach with long term vision. This process can significantly impact your land and herd – for better or worse – and therefore, must be guided intentionally. Practices like diverse seeding, controlled burns, and managed grazing are key to fostering a variety of plant species that support a healthier ecosystem. 

> Legumes: A Natural Boost to Your Grazing Lands 

Incorporating legumes pasturelands is a game-changer. These nitrogen-fixing plants enhance soil fertility, reduce fertilizer needs, and provide high-quality forage for livestock. By incorporating legumes, a rancher is not only improving soil health but also boosting the protein intake for their cattle.

About the Author

DREW SLATTERY
Senior Sustainability Project Manager

Drew Slattery, with his extensive experience in the regenerative agriculture and corporate sustainability realm, is committed to enhancing the impact on natural resources and the climate across global supply chains.

Throughout his career, Drew has partnered with leading agricultural and food brands to evolve their supply chains for greater sustainability and reduced carbon footprints. This has given him a broad range of expertise – from remote sensing, to ag media, producer  engagement, behavior change programming, and corporate sustainability – and experience working with the beef, dairy, row crop, and specialty crop sectors.

Planning Your 2024 Scope 3 Approach

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect back on 2023 and evaluate what to incorporate into your company’s scope 3 approach for the year ahead. At AgSpire, we were particularly excited about the following developments that will create infrastructure for more on the ground scope 3 outcomes, streamlined claimability, and more payments to producers in the coming year.  

  • ESMC became the first user of SustainCERT’s market-first value chain decarbonization impact solution, which will enable more co-claiming of shared scope 3 intervention outcomes.  
  • Verra launched a scope 3 Standard Program Development Group that will work to ensure Verra’s scope 3 program is designed to unlock immediate and large-scale investment in credible supply chain action.  
  • Science Based Targets Network released the first science-based targets for nature – specifically related to freshwater and land.  
  • Athian announced the establishment of the first-of-its-kind voluntary livestock carbon insetting marketplace.  
  • More than 120 USDA Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities Grants were signed into action and are now in the process of generating outcomes and paying producers.  
  • NRCS awarded more than $1 billion across 81 projects under its Regional Conservation Partnership Program that prioritize the scaling of climate-smart practices.  

Needless to say, there are a multitude of opportunities through which to generate progress. But how do you pick? With only a handful of growing seasons left until 2030 – the deadline for many companies to achieve their near-term science-based targets – even the smallest component of your scope 3 approach needs to have purpose and value.

Here are three ways to ensure you are moving into 2024 with focus and impact:  

> Manage Costs: To scale programs and achieve a greater impact, managing costs is paramount. Careful prioritization and strategic utilization of available resources will help manage costs. 

GHG Protocol makes a clear differentiation between what is required and what is recommended. Prioritize the essentials to ensure your cost of carbon stays within budget. Additionally, public funding mechanisms or other financial partners can be leveraged to amplify the reach and magnitude of outcomes you hope to generate.  

> Watch the Evolving Standards: GHG Protocol has stated that their Land Sector & Removals Guidance is scheduled to be finalized for implementation in 2024. Focus on adhering to those requirements that should not change and those where multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Value Change Initiative are amassing valuable feedback.  

> Provide Programmatic Assistance to Farmers: Technical assistance is just one form of support that producers need to participate in sustainability programs. Most programs also require large amounts of data collection, data cleaning, reporting, and in some cases, audit time to allow buyers to claim outcomes. As GHG Protocol requirements become clearer, so will the need to help producers accomplish these tasks. 

About the Author

ZACH PINTO
Director, Carbon & Ecosystem Service Markets

Zach promotes company strategy and client success by assisting industry groups, food and ag companies, and farmers on their sustainability goals. Zach has worked on carbon issues for stakeholders across the agriculture value chain and in a wide array of commodities, developing expertise in farm-level carbon accounting, MRV platform usage, voluntary and compliance market schemes, science-based targets, ESG reporting, and strategic planning.

First Practices Implemented Under USDA Climate-Smart Commodities Programs

After the announcement of the Climate-Smart Commodity projects last year, we’ve entered an exciting new phase of this work: implementation. Following a successful first enrollment season, the AgSpire technical assistance team is now working with farmers and ranchers enrolled in our programs to select and implement new practices like cover cropping, reduced and no-tillage, perennial seedings, holistic grazing, and nutrient management – among others. Our team works with each enrolled producer to help identify the best options and practices for his or her operation and goals. This month, we’ve seen the first cover crops planted, grazing plans implemented, and soil samples pulled.

During the winter season, cover crops are a primary focus. Cover crops are plants grown to produce living “cover” on fallow ground between subsequent cash crops. This living cover provides so many benefits: erosion is reduced, soil health indicators are increased, water availability and infiltration are enhanced, weeds are suppressed, pest and disease cycles are broken, and biodiversity is increased.

Despite these manifold benefits, matching the right cover with the right field at the correct time can seem complicated and overwhelming when first starting to use cover crops in a rotation. Timing, winter moisture, soil type, equipment needs, and need for forage can all factor into if, when, and how to use cover crops. We strive to help farmers overcome these challenges, focusing on the core goals they are attempting to achieve through the practice, while experimenting, learning, and adapting to what works the best for their farm. 

A Deep Dive into Cover Crop Benefits 

Typical fallow periods in the upper Midwest and Great Plains – where our grant programs are currently focused – tend to range from October to late May. Close to six months of the year with nothing growing!  During fallow months, soil erosion and movement is so evident and common place that there is a colloquial term for it: “Snirt,” the combination of snow and dirt. In most cases topsoil from nearby fields is blown into ditches where it mixes with snow, leaving a pile of soil in the ditch in the spring once the snow melts. The topsoil that is left in the ditch is the highest fertility, most productive soils. Some estimates indicate that the loss of major nutrients in one inch of topsoil costs farmers roughly $688.40 per acre (NDSU Extensions, Crop and Pest Report).

Cover crops play a major role in combating this erosion, helping ensure that the healthiest soils are held in place and available for spring planting. The vibrant, green, living vegetation growing in a winter field means the soil is covered and protected from the impacts of wind and water, holding the topsoil in place. 

While this above-ground benefit is easy to see, much of the benefit that a cover crop offers is found beneath the ground, not immediately visible to us: 

> Water Retention: Living vegetation and expansive root systems increase water infiltration and absorption by creating pores and channels within the soil profile, granting water the opportunity to soak in, like a sponge, and reduce runoff over the soil surface, directly into drainage ditches and waterways. When water is absorbed, it is conserved, and utilized by plants and other terrestrial organisms.

> Biodiversity: Typical ecosystems of the upper Midwest evolved with around 10-30 species of grasses, broadleaves, and woody species of vegetation covering the landscape. Countless species of insects, and various forms of wildlife co-evolved to develop natural ecosystems that were highly diverse and intricate. By grazing the high nutrient, protein packed forage provided during usually lean winter months enables producers to mimic mother nature and harness the positive effects of a healthy soil and ecosystem.

> Carbon Capture: Plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make carbon-based molecules through photosynthesis. Much of the exudates produced by plants are utilized by microorganisms within the soil. Over time, a buildup of carbon-based, humic materials increases and are gradually built into soil organic matter. These natural systems make agricultural soils a vast “sink” for carbon sequestration and contribute positively to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and climate change mitigation. 

About the Author

DEREK VER HELST
Senior Conservation Agronomist

Derek has over 15 years of experience working with landowners and corporations to design, manage, and validate research trials, maximizing short- and long-term crop outputs. With a continued passion for conservation and the natural ecosystem, he is focused on the natural symbiosis organisms have with one another in the environment. Always eager to learn, he is continuously expanding his knowledge of soil health, chemistry, and pest disease management.

Derek holds a bachelor’s degree in Biology from South Dakota State University and a master’s degree in Agronomy from Iowa State University. He is also a Certified Crop Advisor and Technical Service Provider through NRCS.

4 Considerations for Successful Farm-Level Interventions

In the private sector to date, more than 50 US-based food and agriculture companies have set rigorous greenhouse gas reduction targets – leading to a widespread focus on reducing the largest portion of their footprints: Scope 3 emissions. These include all upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions that fall outside of a company’s direct control, typically within their upstream or downstream supply chains.

As the largest source of emissions, Scope 3 also offers the greatest opportunity for reductions. For the ag and food companies we work with, farm-level interventions hold immense potential both for reductions and removals. Despite this potential, successful farm-level interventions can be complex and challenging to design and implement. Many companies have conducted supply shed hotspot analyses and even identified strategic interventions to implement – but are struggling to truly generate results on the ground.

At AgSpire, we drive success down to the ground level with a simple approach: putting the producer first. By using that as our guide, we are able to amplify and accelerate results – delivering benefit throughout the supply chain, from the farmers and ranchers on the ground, to the companies we work with, and ultimately to our environment at large.

When designing a farm-level program, here are four ways in which putting the producer first can lead to measurable progress: 

  1. Get Regional: The US EPA currently breaks ecosystem management into 12 ecoregions across the continental US – each with different climates, weather patterns, soils, water sources, and plant species. As such, growing corn in South Dakota, for example, looks very different than growing corn in Kansas. In a Scope 3 program, this may mean approaching growers in different regions with entirely customized opportunities, practices, and incentives – based on the context, markets, and ecosystems of those localities. This regional approach helps accelerate adoption and lead to better outcomes.
  2. Design for Resilience: It is imperative to remember that implementing practice changes of any kind creates financial risk for the farmer – including additional input costs or investments in new equipment or other infrastructure, for example. This risk can create challenges for program recruitment, enrollment, and even program retention. That said, designing programs that simultaneously reduce GHG emission and create on-farm benefit through a positive return on investment in the form of improved profitability, enhanced farm resilience, shrunken costs, or greater productivity go a long way to creating producer motivation and interest.
  3. Build with Empathy: Despite the credibility that comes with rigorous models, standards, protocols, and verification practices, these requirements don’t always align with how a producer runs their operation. For example, not all producers keep 3-5 years’ worth of records on file at any given time at the level needed to enter the most rigorous carbon programs. Understanding these realities and adapting program requirements helps lower barriers that might keep an interested farmer or rancher from participating or changing practices.
  4. Provide Support: On-the-ground success is dependent on helping connect producers with the right practices, programs, and incentive mix for their operation. Providing producers with technical assistance to successfully implement the practices and financial assistance needed to cover the financial burden of tackling the change can be a significant motivator for participation and on-going retention.

About the Author

ZACH PINTO
Director of Carbon & Ecosystem Service Markets

Zach promotes company strategy and client success by assisting industry groups, food and ag companies, and farmers on their sustainability goals. Zach has worked on carbon issues for stakeholders across the agriculture value chain and in a wide array of commodities, developing expertise in farm-level carbon accounting, MRV platform usage, voluntary and compliance market schemes, science-based targets, ESG reporting, and strategic planning.

Facilitating Landscape Change

As a trusted advisor to the ranchers we work with, my goal is to understand the ranching operation, its business goals, and the environment where it exists. With that baseline understanding, I help the ranchers find the best path to reach their goals and improve their long-term sustainability and resilience.

This spring, that work took me to a small community in the Northwest US, where I worked with several ranchers in the same geographic area. Ranging in size and approach, I worked with them to meet their goals: enhance biodiversity, improve weather resilience, conserve grazing land, and simplify operations to improve management.

Despite operations that looked and functioned very differently, each rancher was affected by a common concern around the availability of irrigation water. In this project cohort, each rancher was located within a few miles of each other, where they shared one reservoir for irrigation. The irrigation practices they used at the time were water-intensive flood tactics, contributing to the depletion of the reservoir each summer. This limited forage output – affecting the viability of their ranching operations. By coming together as a group, the ranchers were able to learn about water conservation opportunities from one another, including potential ways to upgrade their irrigation equipment.

While individual efforts make a difference, the collective impact of working in a clustered geographic area revealed the power to bring about landscape-level changes. This collaborative approach enables producers, organizations, communities, and/or governments to pool their efforts and tackle complex challenges. The cumulative effect of these endeavors leads to significant impact, especially for shared resources like water.

About the Author

MATTHEW DELBAR
Grazing and Rangeland Advisor

Matthew brings vast experience managing and restoring rangeland ecosystems and an excitement to expand his knowledge of restoration and sustainability on working landscapes. Prior to joining AgSpire, he was a rangeland management specialist at USDA-NRCS Field Office in California.

Matthew holds a bachelor’s degree in Rangeland conservation and agricultural economics from the University of Idaho. He also holds NEPA and Wildland Restoration certifications and is a certified Technical Service Provider (TSP) through NRCS in 10 states and across 6 practices.

He maintains strong ties to his family’s ranch operations in California where they raise cattle, sheep, hay, and timber.

AgSpire Launches The SustainAg Network

AgSpire unveiled our latest initiative – The SustainAg Network – which connects farmers and ranchers who are interested in conservation, sustainability, and regenerative practices with the programs and market opportunities that incentivize and reward those positive practices.

“As the implementing partner on multiple USDA Climate-Smart Commodity Grants and other grants, and with clients leading the way in launching on-the-ground sustainability projects, AgSpire is uniquely positioned to bring opportunities to producers and partner with them to deliver meaningful results for their operations and the environment,” said AgSpire CEO, Aline DeLucia.

AgSpire offers holistic, end-to-end sustainability services, to drive real progress on the land through implementation of regenerative agriculture practices. With this formalized network of producers, we will be able to accelerate adoption of practices, matching interested farmers and ranchers with opportunities that advance sustainability goals for our partners.

Enabling On-the-Ground Impact

“The producers we’ve met with are eager to invest in their land, improve their natural resources, and implement new and better management practices. The programs offered within The SustainAg Network help producers do just that – giving them the resources and technical assistance needed to succeed,” said Ryan Eichler, Director of Producer Programs at AgSpire.

In his capacity at AgSpire, Ryan is responsible for growing the reach of the network. He kicked off this effort last week at the 100th annual meeting of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, meeting with ranchers around the region. With our soft launch, more than 50 farmers and ranchers in the Northern Great Plains have already indicated their interest to join The SustainAg Network. Our team of advisors will work with those producers to learn more about their operations, providing guidance on the programs they could qualify for and that would be most beneficial on the ground.

Realizing Real Outcomes

Our initial programs are heavily focused on grazing systems, forage, specialty oilseeds, and climate-smart corn in the Great Plains and Midwest, and are expected to impact over four-million acres over the next five years. Our commitment to thoughtful program design, MMRV, and successful on-the-ground implementation results in measurable and claimable environmental outcomes, including captured and stored carbon, improved water usage and quality, enhanced biodiversity, and healthier soils.

“With the interest that The SustainAg Network has garnered through this initial launch, we are well on our way toward meeting our first-year enrollment targets for our program offerings – with many more producers looking for additional opportunities and programs to participate in,” Ryan continued.

To learn more about The SustainAg Network, our services, and how to partner with our network:

Supporting Pollinators with Regenerative Agriculture

As crops are planted and start to emerge across the country, the critical role of pollinators are ever more evident. These beneficial insects play a critical role in our global ecosystems – and especially in our agriculture and food systems.

Regenerative practices like cover crops, diverse seedings in pastures, and insectary strips are ways that farmers and ranchers can help support pollinators, providing food and habitat for them to thrive.

AgSpire’s Dale Strickler works with farmers and ranchers around the country to find the best management practices to build resilience, conserve natural resources, and improve sustainability. In this Mini Podcast episode, Dale shares more about supporting pollinators – and some of the other benefits that these management practices offer to our agricultural lands.

YouTube >>> How Regenerative Agriculture Supports Pollinators with Dale Strickler

Designing for Drought Resilience

by Dale Strickler 

Less than 100 years ago, the Dust Bowl wreaked havoc on our nation’s farms and ranches, with drastic and lasting impacts across the land. While this prolonged time of drought underscored just how important water is – we also learned about the critical role that agriculture management plays in capturing and using rainfall when it does come for improved climate resilience.

Capturing Rainfall  

Research by Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service found that, on average, only 18% of rainfall is being captured by crops and used to grow food. A staggering 59% evaporates, while 23% falls prey to run off. The year that study was conducted, Oklahoma farmers produced an average of 33 bushels of wheat on only 6.2 inches of soil moisture, after factoring in what was lost to run off and evaporation. 

These figures help us understand that practices that improve water infiltration would allow farmers and ranchers to capture and use five times as much naturally falling moisture.

Of course, better utilizing rainfall would have an incredible impact on yields – but there are also important co-benefits for our environment and society.

Improved water infiltration lessens the dependence on additional irrigation, preserving fresh water sources for needed drinking water. At the same time, we see decreased run-off and erosion, keeping rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water cleaner.

As we collectively asses water risks and their role in resilience, geographically-specific interventions to improve water infiltration are critical.

A Case Study 

For inspiration on designing for drought resilience, let’s look at one of the driest and hottest places: Al Baydha, Saudi Arabia. There, the average rainfall is just 2.5”, while temperatures can climb to 120°F in the summer.

In 2011, a project was launched to design terraces, turning the bare rock and dirt into a thriving pasture for grazing. Capitalizing on every drop of rain, the landscape was transformed in just a few short years. 

 Lessons Learned 

While terraces aren’t the solution for every farm or ranch facing drought conditions, this project inspires us as to what is possible. There are hundreds of other techniques that farmers and ranchers can deploy to capture the full benefit of their natural rainfall. Some of these techniques include:

  • Eliminate Soil Tillage: Tillage exposes the soil to the pounding effects of rainfall, which leads to compaction layers at the soil surface that impedes the further downward movement of water.
  • Leverage Crop Residue: Another major step is to leave as much residue on the soil surface as possible, to cushion the impact of falling raindrops and reduce erosion. 
  • Utilize Cover Crops: A third major action to benefit infiltration is the replacement of fallow periods with cover crops. While cover crops use more moisture during their active growth than a soil that is being fallowed, the difference is not as great as many might expect.

Especially when used together, these practices help compound rates of water infiltration over time. For example, even after termination of the cover crop, the much higher rate of infiltration from the cover crop residue will make each successive rainfall event more efficient, if the mulch is left intact and not tilled under. After they decay, cover crop roots can leave large macropores in the soil that act as easy entry points for rainwater to enter the profile.  

These solutions, along with many more in a regenerative toolbelt, help farmers and ranchers maximize the benefit of natural rainfall – which lessens the environmental impacts on aquifers, rivers, lakes, and local drinking water.

Next Steps and Learn More

To learn more about the right water-wise management solutions to reach your business and land goals, Contact Us.

For Companies: Water stewardship throughout the value chain is a key part of climate resilience and action. The practices outlined in this article provide a plethora of benefits – from improved water infiltration as mentioned, to carbon sequestration and soil health, to enhanced biodiversity. Our team helps drive results toward these commitments, finding the right solutions to meet your goals.

For Farmers: Capturing and using rainfall to its maximum benefit has lasting benefit, economically and agronomically. Our landowner advisors help assess your land and goals, creating a customized plan to optimize water availability for crops and lessen downstream water impacts.

Additional Resources:

  • https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/june/farmers-employ-strategies-to-reduce-risk-of-drought-damages/
  • https://www.climatehubs.usda.gov/hubs/midwest/topic/sare-resource-cultivating-climate-resilience-farms-and-ranches

About the Author

DALE STRICKLER

Landowner Advisor

With more than 30 years of experience in agronomy, pasture management, and soil and crop advising, Dale brings an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge to AgSpire’s work.

With a keen curiosity to find innovative solutions, combined with a thorough understanding of the realities of modern production agriculture, Dale is especially adept in developing highly effective management systems in challenging climates and soil types

He has also authored three books, including The Drought Resilient Farm, Managing Pasture, and The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil, which was named a top ten farming book for 2021 by Modern Farmer.

Agriculture’s Environmental Solutions

by Jared Knock

News headlines tell us of rising food costs and shortages, rising global temperatures, changing weather patterns, biodiversity loss, depleted soil, and clean water shortages. 

But today, on National Ag Day, we want to share a different headline: 

Agriculture is part of the solution. 

Everyday, farmers and ranchers around the world work in the soil – hands-on with our most precious resources and the building blocks of life. Because of this shear proximity to nature, farmers and ranchers have a dynamic relationship and important impact on natural systems.  

Unlike the finite stocks of copper, lithium, or cobalt, the stocks of agriculture can replenish and grow over time. With careful management, farmers and ranchers can add practices that promote stronger ecosystem health – while also building their own business resilience. This means that those hands working in the soil have the potential to regenerate our natural resources; clean our water and air; and provide abundant, nutritious, and diverse foods for a growing population. 

Earlier this month, the AgSpire team talked with farmers from around the country at the largest farmer-led trade show in the country. Time and time again, we heard from those farmers about wanting to find nature-based solutions to care for their land and optimize its potential – not just in the near term, but for generations to come. 

Through techniques like interseeding, cover cropping, reduced and no tillage, and holistic grazing, we see farm- and ranch-level benefits like:  

  • Improved soil health and fertility, which lessens our need for synthetic, emissions-intensive fertilizers 
  • Better water retention and filtration, which leads to drought resilience in arid environments and better down-stream water quality in wetter environments 
  • Enhanced biodiversity from the soil to the sky, supporting pollinators, wildlife, and complex ecosystems 

We know that there is immense potential in our industry – and we are working across the agriculture value chain to unlock that potential and highlight the solutions that are inherent within agriculture. 

We often think that these solutions all start with a seed. But, in reality, it all starts with the farmer or rancher. On National Ag Day, we celebrate these farmers and ranchers – and will continue our work to ensure they are part of the solution. 

Learn more about our work across the ag value chain to advance agriculture’s environmental solutions.

About the Author

JARED KNOCK

VP, Business Development

Jared has 25 years of experience on the land as a part-owner of a diversified livestock and crop farm in Eastern South Dakota, raising cattle, sheep, hogs, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, alfalfa, rye, and cover crops. Through the lessons learned on his own land, Jared is passionate about equipping fellow farmers and ranchers to enable greater resilience and functionality through positive land management and grazing practices.

Jared’s expertise has been further honed through his background in livestock genetics, seed sales, business development, and as co-host of the Roots + Ruminants Podcast. Jared has a degree in Animal Science from South Dakota State University and China Agricultural University in Beijing.

 

Unlocking Biochar’s Potential

by Derek Ver Helst

A proven way to sequester carbon and a soil amendment showing benefit for farmers – it’s no wonder that biochar is gaining traction in sustainable agriculture conversations.

Terra Preta

As we seek new ways to mitigate atmospheric changes, biochar presents a promising proposition – especially in agriculture communities that can use it as a soil amendment to contribute to soil health. As the availability and accessibility of biochar has increased in recent years, many farmers have seen increased yields, coupled with a decreased need for synthetic inputs – all thanks to biochar applications.

While the use of biochar might be a new practice to US farms, it’s not a new practice globally. In fact, it dates back 2500 years, with origins in the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous people of the region burned forest debris and covered the burning biomass with soil. The resulting ‘man-made’ soil (referred to as Terra Preta) was found to be far more productive than any of the native soils.

We now understand that it offers many agronomic benefits for soil, including increased water infiltration and holding capacity, microbiome health, and nutrient content.

The Science of Biochar Carbon Capture

Biochar is the lightweight, black carbon residue produced via a process called pyrolysis. It is produced using the most abundant carbon sources on Earth as feedstocks: forest and crop residues, grasses, animal waste, and food waste. By heating these feedstocks to extreme temperatures in an environment without oxygen, the molecular bonds break, producing three different forms of carbon: stable carbon, ash, and volatile compounds.

The biochar carbon that is created in this process is indefinitely stable and can stay sequestered in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years. This makes it a valuable carbon sink – as the feedstocks absorb carbon as they grow, and the conversion to biochar prevents the emissions that would have been released as the natural wastes decomposed.

Due to its ability to enhance soil carbon sequestration, biochar presents great opportunities both for insetting and offsetting to meet sustainability commitments. The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) has highlighted biochar in their new Forest, Land and Agriculture Science Based Target-Setting Guidance as a key insetting strategy for companies with land-based footprints to use in reaching their targets. Similarly, Verra has created a methodology for biochar to be used as an offsetting strategy due to the carbon storage associated with the production and use of biochar.

Improving Our Soils

Like most solutions within agriculture, biochar isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, many factors determine the best types to use, as well as the optimum application techniques, rates, and timing.

Depending on the feedstock used and the temperature at which the biochar is produced, there is wide variety in the physiochemical composition of biochar – offering different benefits to soils. For example, a biochar produced from hazelnut shells will have a different physiochemical makeup than one made from ash tree sawdust. There are two main characteristics to consider, based on these physiochemical differences:

  • The porosity of biochar, which has the largest impact in how it reacts with water and nutrients in the soil profile. Internal structures in the feedstock such as the phloem and xylem define the porosity of the biochar it produces.
  • The amount of nutrients, which are determined by the chemical characteristics of the feedstock, along with oxidation/reduction reaction catalyst, pH buffering and CEC capabilities.

Learn More & Next Steps

For Farmers: USDA-NRCS has deployed new EQIP practice codes to encourage biochar use adoption (Codes 336/808 are referred to as the “Soil Carbon Amendment” practices). Read more from NRCS

For Companies: With its carbon sequestration potential, biochar can be an incredibly effective way to address Scope 3 emissions – either through credits or supporting its use in agriculture. Read this case study from Microsoft

Here at AgSpire, we are utilizing biochar in climate-smart commodity programs and look forward to incorporating the benefits of biochar more broadly. Contact us to learn more about how our advisory and implementation assistance services can help with your sustainability or land goals.

About the Author

DEREK VER HELST
Senior Conservation Agronomist

Derek has over 15 years of experience working with landowners and corporations to design, manage, and validate research trials, maximizing short- and long-term crop outputs. With a continued passion for conservation and the natural ecosystem, he is focused on the natural symbiosis organisms have with one another in the environment. Always eager to learn, he is continuously expanding his knowledge of soil health, chemistry, and pest disease management.

Derek holds a bachelor’s degree in Biology from South Dakota State University and a master’s degree in Agronomy from Iowa State University. He is also a Certified Crop Advisor.