Changing Grazing Behaviour Could Help Grassland Ecosystems
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Rest-Recover-Recapture: A New Farm Bill Grazing Incentive Program
For over 25 years, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has pursued conservation efforts to benefit birds of all species across the Americas. Like other nonprofit conservation organizations, the ABC relies on partnerships with federal, private, and other nonprofits to tackle the challenges that bird species face, and habitat is a major limiting factor.
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Grassland bird populations have declined by 53 percent since 1970 and 70 species are on the precipice of extinction. Therefore, the ABC, through its 2023 Farm Bill “Bird Saver” platform, is developing and advocating for a new grazing incentive program to benefit grasslands – Rest-Recover-Recapture.
Rest-Recover-Recapture is a rotational grazing concept founded on natural grazing processes where animals like bison fed across the grasslands without feeding for too long in a given area. Grasslands evolved with “rest” and healthy grazing practices result in the following ecosystem benefits.
- Soil density and structure that allows root and water penetration of the entire soil profile
- Invigorates plants with the capacity to develop and maintain extensive rooting systems
- Develops a community of palatable forage plants with high rooting mass and depth
- Creates stable, resilient primary productivity above and below ground
- Reduced compaction and increased soil carbon relative to continuous grazing
- Potential climate change mitigation opportunities through carbon sequestration
There are two possible avenues to fund Rest-Recover-Recapture. The first option is under existing Farm Bill programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, etcetera. This would allow a per-acre incentive to rest grazing lands in addition to the other program incentives. The second option is to stand up Rest-Recover-Recapture as its own program, which would also be available in addition to other programs but may provide greater incentives for grazing under its own authorization.
Currently, the premise of Rest-Recover-Recapture as a standalone program includes a 10-year contract to rest each pasture for a full year, including the full grassland growing season, at least twice throughout the contract period. The following diagram provides an example of the concept in practice.
Figure credit: the American Bird Conservancy2.
The ecosystem benefits are apparent, but what does the farmer/rancher stand to gain? Possible outcomes are:
- $13 per acre rested each year
- Better forage for livestock, which equals a higher return at the market
The pros and cons of each option vary. A Rest-Recover-Recapture standalone program would provide the greatest benefit on the ground, but the Natural Resource Conservation Service which facilitates the Farm Bill is consistently unable to execute these programs to their maximum potential. More money may be left on the table at the end of a given year a new program may “compete” with others like CRP for implementation.
Including incentives to rest grazing lands through existing programs may lead to more acreage being rested, but would the benefits realized equate to what could be captured through a more structured standalone program?
“A standalone program would give the most lift but is the least likely outcome at this time. Our strategy is to offer either, both, or reasonable alternatives” says Steve Riley, the ABC Director of Farm Bill Policy.
Regardless of the future Rest-Recover-Recapture implementation vehicle, ensuring rest is incentivized for grazing lands is paramount to realizing long-term grasslands ecosystem benefits. Look for future Harvesting Nature news releases to learn more about advocating for this program.
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 Byrnes, RC., DJ Eastburn, KW Tate, and LM Roche. 2018. A global meta-analysis of grazing impacts on soil health indicators. Journal of Environmental Quality doi:10.2134/jeq2017.08.0313