A new type of pasture management is taking place at the Ted Chamberlin Ranch in Los Olivos, where third-generation ranch managers Russell Chamberlin and his cousin Mary Heyden are using compost to enrich the soil, produce increased forage, hold more water in the land, and also sequester more carbon underground.
The Amazing Ability of Pasture Grass to Sequester Carbon
Century-Old Chamberlin Ranch Turns to New Techniques That Improve Rangeland and So Much More
Thursday, April 19, 2018
A buzz has been generating in California agriculture circles over the possibilities of carbon ranching. It’s not about producing carbon, as it might sound, but about putting more carbon back into the ground, naturally, through grasses. The theory goes like this: Native grasses send roots as deep as six feet underground, breathing in carbon dioxide as they breathe out oxygen. At a number of test acres across California, including at the Ted Chamberlin Ranch near Los Olivos, adding a thin layer of compost has created more topsoil, which feeds the microbes below ground, which enrich the grasses, which draw more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and hold it in their roots deep in the soil. Add cattle to the mix, and voilà! Carbon ranching.
What really got people excited about this simple layer of compost is that it sequesters carbon now. “We don’t have to wait for Elon Musk to geo-engineer something from space,” laughed Sigrid Wright, who heads Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council (CEC). Wright and an alphabet soup of agencies have been working together with the Chamberlin Ranch on a 60-acre demonstration project through California’s Healthy Soils Initiative.
In the test acre’s first growing season — which had 24 inches of rain — Russell Chamberlin shows the grasses on the composted section at right, which grew taller by February 2017, and absorbed more carbon, than the non-composted grasses at left.
For Russell Chamberlin — who wears a white Stetson as did his father, Willy Chamberlin, the popular, no-nonsense county supervisor who died in 2015 — it’s a way to improve the pasturelands, which he manages with his cousin Mary Heyden. “When I came back to the ranch in 2008, after going to college and working in Northern California, I was interested in how to improve the rangeland, in forage production,” he said. “Work in Marin on compost on rangeland had generated a lot of excitement and attention. So as I learned more about grazing, I got interested in making the ranch a learning site for these practices.”
Heyden — whose mother, Helen, was born on the ranch — grew up in Chicago but spent long summers on the ranch. And she loved it. Now, with the assent of their extended family, the two have become the third generation of Chamberlin land managers, which now includes exploring how carbon ranching would work on their cattle ranch’s 8,000 acres.
“We completed our Carbon Farm Plan in January 2016,” Chamberlin said, “with a great network and team of people from the CEC, the Cachuma Resource Conservation District, the county Air Pollution Control District, the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, UCSB, [UC] Berkeley, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and maybe a few more.”
Bromus hordeaceous (Soft chess)
Between the drought years and fluctuating market prices, cattle ranchers must roll the dice every season. Heyden said that when a new technique can improve their soil and have carbon-absorbing benefits, she felt it was a matter of good stewardship to explore it. “Weather systems have changed dramatically, more and more every year,” she noted. “In this area, with compost, the land stays cooler and wetter,” producing more and better grasses.
Astonishing rates of increased carbon sequestration — 45-50 percent more carbon was pulled underground by the composted area than in the control area — were achieved by the Marin Carbon Project in an area that averages 24-32 inches of rain. The project came out of a ranch that turned into a weed jungle after new owners ended the cattle operation in the hope of creating a “natural” setting for their art studio. John Wick and his wife, author and illustrator Peggy Rathmann, asked rangeland expert Jeff Creque for help in 2008. Returning cattle to the land and some intensive herding were so successful that Wick and Creque plunged into the possibilities, enriching the land with compost to remove more carbon from the air. The Marin Carbon Project was born.
But will it work in Santa Barbara County?
Santa Barbara’s is a vastly more arid climate with often disappointing rainfall. The Chamberlin Ranch’s first-year result at the university test sites increased the forage by 16 percent — carbon absorption improved in equal portion — with 24 inches of rain. The compost used was brought down from Marin — which makes its own — for an apples-to-apples study, but whether Santa Barbara’s results will match Marin’s is an open question.
By Paul Wellman
Chamberlin shows the different grasses in the pasture and explains how careful grazing gives deep-rooted perennial grasses an edge.
It currently takes 15-20 acres to support a cow grazing in Santa Barbara County, as opposed to eight acres in Marin. The Chamberlin Ranch’s carbon practices are just starting to be put in place — of the 34 possible protocols, it’s instituting about a dozen — so a comparison is difficult. A much larger test area, 60 acres, will be composted in November; compost is applied once every decade or so, Creque said. And they’re still working out smaller paddocks, larger herds, water supply, and quicker rotations through the pastures, Heyden and Chamberlin said.
Then there’s the availability of compost. To cover one acre in a quarter inch of topsoil takes about 34 cubic yards of material. The area’s certified compost maker, Engel & Gray in Santa Maria, is supplying the compost for the 60-acre study and makes about 100,000 cubic yards per year, Bob Engel said. Its permit allows four times that quantity.
The Tajiguas Landfill is another source of compost. The state requires landfills to divert much of its organic material in order to reduce greenhouse gases. To deal with that mandate, the county has been working on an anaerobic digester for the past 10 years to consume the organics and produce a megawatt of electricity with the resulting methane. But using that organic matter to create compost, Wright argued, “is a higher and better use” given what is now known about its role in burying carbon. “We’re not opposed to the digester,” she added quickly, although the cost has risen to more than $120 million and its funding is now on the county’s shoulders and not the private sector as originally envisioned. Compost would simply be a better use of what remains of the landfill’s lifetime, she said.