The pasture isn’t always greener on the other side: Or is it?
Since being established in 1928, the Michigan State University (MSU) Lake City Research Center (LCRC) has been a leader in studying forage and beef production systems and potato breeding and genetics. Now, with many research milestones under its belt, the center is venturing where no other university has gone before.
LCRC is the first accredited Savory Institute hub to be affiliated with a university. The Savory Institute, which currently has 30 global hubs and plans to expand to 100 by 2025, was co-founded by Allan Savory in 2003. Savory founded the non-governmental organization in an effort to encourage a comprehensive systems approach in agriculture to manage resources, particularly grassland degradation. The approach has become known as holistic management.
Savory’s method takes into consideration not one, but several factors impacting ecosystem health and is said to mimic nature’s way of regenerating overgrazed land, increasing its biodiversity, improving water retention and soil health, and sequestering carbon. The hubs provide holistic management training and implementation support for farmers, ranchers and land managers. The specific charge of the new Savory hub in Lake City, the first of its kind to be associated with a university, is to examine soil health and carbon sequestration in pasturelands.
In June a working group with members from the United States and as far away as China, Australia and Europe convened for a week at the MSU research facility in Lake City. Their mission was to develop the metrics to use in ranking regenerative grasslands and determine a set standard for a beef marketing label to be announced this fall. The group was led by Pablo Borelli, who directs a Savory Institute hub in Argentina.
“Grasslands are Savory’s wheelhouse,” Borelli said. “A big portion of what we do is on ecosystem processes, degrading grasslands. For example, in California we’ve seen that damage from drought and lack of water can be restored with proper grazing techniques – those mimicking the natural grazing of bison and elk herds that roamed the land.”
Meeting participants sniffed the soil, counted cow pies and inspected grasslands for insects, among many activities, all in an effort to create a list of outcome-based criteria for rating grasslands.
“The purpose of this meeting was to develop and agree on a set of global standards across the Savory Hub structure to monitor carbon in a land-to-market approach,” said Doug Carmichael, farm manager of the LCRC. “Effectively they want to develop a food label that states the food you are buying is coming from a farm that is restoring the existing land’s tilth.”
Jason Rowntree, MSU cattle researcher and faculty coordinator at LCRC, said that holistic management, an ecosystem management practice based on an array of various inputs, is at the heart of the Savory program. Holistic management takes a 10,000-foot view of a subject, according to Rowntree, while most research is focused on one specific topic.
“When we do research, we tend to reduce agriculture into different disciplines [from] which we get good data, no doubt about that,” said Rowntree. “But at the same time we don’t tend to look at it as a functioning system. If we take one aspect out of a functioning system to do research, that whole system has changed because [only] that one part was looked at.”
Rowntree said he is pleased that the leaders of the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are forward thinking in allowing for innovative approaches such as this project. He said another goal of the summer 2016 meeting was to train the trainers, who will become third-party verifiers, on how to rate grasslands. In late 2016, the Savory Institute expects to announce a beef marketing label related to the holistic management practices they advocate.
“In the process, we are hoping to create one of the largest global databases for monitoring ecosystem services, with MSU serving as the data analysis arm,” said Rowntree.
MSU is playing a key role in supplying the scientific rigor to a grasslands monitoring process that is easy for farmers and ranchers to understand and consider adopting, Rowntree continued. Once the monitoring system is launched, producers will be able to enroll their farms with the hub and work to become certified as regenerative grasslands operators.
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