by Kayla Sargent
Montana ranchers have the opportunity to adjust their grazing practices in order to increase carrying capacity, and get paid to do it. Acknowledging the critical role that livestock and grasslands grazing systems play on the environment, NativeEnergy, a carbon project developer, in partnership with Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE), has launched the Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative.
Four ranches in Sweet Grass and Musselshell counties are taking advantage of the chance to increase their profitability on multiple levels through the program. By implementing holistic management techniques like high intensity, rotational grazing, the ranchers are eligible for carbon credit payments made by NativeEnergy. NativeEnergy sells carbon credits to companies nationwide hoping to offset their carbon footprints for a more sustainable future.
“I’d love to add carbon as an income portfolio to our business. Most ranchers today are looking for ways to add another income portfolio,” Bill Milton, a Roundup, Montana rancher participating in the project, said. “But, primarily the practices help me capture more water in the ground, increase my carrying capacity… The payment for it is just icing on the cake.”
Milton said he began implementing more holistic management and regenerative agriculture practices on his ranch in the 1980’s after attending an Alan Savory class. The Savory Institute works with land stewards across the globe to implement practices that result in healthier grasslands through the use of properly managed livestock. Healthy grasslands are more drought resilient, productive, and they sequester carbon.
Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the lead concessioner for Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, approached NativeEnergy in hopes of launching a local project in line with the company’s sustainability mission, explained Soils for the Future founder Dr. Mark Ritchie, lead scientist in the project. Xanterra Sustainability Director Dylan Hoffman said 60 percent of the food they serve in Yellowstone National Park is sustainably sourced and their interest was sparked in the project as a way to “help support food production systems that feed our guests.” Dr. Ritchie has spent time studying carbon sequestration in grasslands globally and knew this was the perfect project for Montana ranches.
Dr. Ritchie set to work developing a model to measure carbon sequestration on Montana grasslands. Over the coming summer, 160 site samples across all of eastern Montana will be pulled in order to set a baseline carbon measurement. Sampling a broad array of ranches will allow for the “seamless” integration of other participants into the project, Dr. Ritchie said.
In the meantime, ranchers who sign up for the project are to commit to carbon monitoring for 30 years, something that may make new participants hesitant, Dr. Ritchie said, but is necessary to measure noticeable changes in carbon sequestration. Upon entering the project, ranchers may be eligible for startup payments in order to develop infrastructure like fencing and waterlines, offset the cost of additional labor and time, or pay for education or ranch consulting to properly implement mob grazing techniques.
“The cattle business is a business of skinny margins,” NativeEnergy CEO Jeff Bernicke said. “Investments in ranch improvements that ranch owners and managers make must have immediate returns in the coming years. However, it takes time for ecological changes to occur, outside the amount of time needed for ranch businesses to receive a return on investment.”
So NativeEnergy is implementing their Help Build™ carbon model to cover upfront investment costs for ranchers interested in participating. WSE, a nonprofit whose goal is to “preserve the best of the West in a way that promotes rural economic prosperity,” partnered in the project to connect NativeEnergy with Montana ranches, Executive Director Lill Erickson explained.
“Ranchers’ ability to stay on the land is directly related to their profitability and they are our firewall against some of this development coming our way,” Erickson said. “This program could mean real increases in profitability for those pivotal operations.”
In fact, Erickson said some could see at least a 15-25 percent increase in profitability. WSE is assisting interested ranchers through the process of signing up, developing an annual grazing plan that fits project specifications, and then following up year after year to ensure it is benefitting the rancher.
WSE also helped organize a kickoff event at Indreland Angus near Big Timber, Montana. Pulling together NativeEnergy representatives, potential carbon credit purchasers, soil scientists, ranch consultants, and Montana ranchers led to colorful conversations highlighting the critical role intact grassland grazing systems play in the ecosystem and climate change.
“Every crowd is diverse, if we focus on the 80 or 90 percent we can agree on rather than that we don’t, we can move forward and make progress,” Roger Indreland said while welcoming the group to his ranch.
Potential investors participating in a soil health field day complete with pasture and cattle tours included Patagonia, Disney, Xanterra, Everlane, Allbirds, Organic Valley, and Timberland. Many of those companies have hefty emission reduction, and even carbon neutral goals and said purchasing carbon offsets is critical in meeting those goals.
“We sit at a desk in our California office most days, so getting out on a ranch is helpful,” Patagonia representative Ellisa Foster said. “Keeping in mind what is helpful to ranchers and those that know the land best helps us make decisions that are best for you.”
Foster said Patagonia has partnered with South African ranchers for ten years now and the company is interested in “finding ways to quantify how great ranching practices can capture carbon.”
Walt Disney Company Senior Manager for Corporate Citizenship, Lisa Shibata, said Disney has been participating in the carbon market for ten years. Shibata seeks out meaningful carbon market investments that are helpful to local communities and came to Montana “to learn about what ranchers are doing to help.”
In turn, ranchers shared information about their industry, but more importantly, why many of them remain in the business and have made the decision to change to more sustainable practices.
“If I’m going to be able to pass this on to my son, Ronnie, and his son, I have got to do something different,” Greycliff, Montana rancher Kevin Halverson said.
He said on his ranch he has been practicing the concept for “a number of years” but they intend to intensify the practices through the Carbon project. He said the practices allow them to graze on green forage longer and be as low input as possible.
Halverson’s son Ron echoed his sentiment about the “lifestyle career.” “I like cows, wildlife, and sheep and this helps promote that. It’s slow, so you have to be patient, but it’s fun learning and it’s an interesting journey.”
The project is actively recruiting participating ranchers. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to visit www.westernsustainabilityexchange.org/soil-carbon or contact WSE Ranching Programs Director Chris Mehus at firstname.lastname@example.org.BACK