Loy Sneary’s herd spends each day eating, sleeping, and—perhaps most crucially—pooping in a cozy little paddock. Steel cables and fence posts separate the six hundred head of cattle from a larger pasture on the four-thousand-acre Matagorda County ranch, about 90 miles southwest of Houston. Limited to roaming just twelve to sixteen acres, the bovines rejuvenate the land merely by existing upon it, fertilizing it with their waste and trampling native grass seeds beneath their hooves, all of which spurs new growth to replace the grass they’ve consumed. The next day, the steel fence and the herd are moved to occupy a new patch of ground, leaving the last paddock time to recover.
This method, known as high stock density grazing, is good for the cattle, who have plenty of grass to eat each day, because no area of the ranch gets overgrazed. It’s good for Sneary, whose herd has increased by 30 percent during the past two years thanks to the land producing more grass than with conventional grazing. And it’s good for the planet, because cattle-fertilized soil produces healthier grass that draws more carbon dioxide from the air—leaving less of the greenhouse gas to contribute to climate change.
Sneary practices what’s known as regenerative ranching, a method of land and animal management that prioritizes soil health and aims for long-term sustainability. The land gets tilled and fertilized by the cattle, and because the herd is frequently rotated (sometimes as often as twice daily), the animals never remain in one spot long enough to irreparably damage the grass. These practices seek to mimic natural cycles. They’re part of a growing agricultural movement, an effort to address the effects of climate change without doing away with the livestock industry as a whole, which accounts for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide—a majority of that from beef production. Sneary has embraced regenerative practices for five years, after he learned such methods could increase his herd count, and thus his bottom line.
And now Sneary has an additional financial incentive to remain a regenerative rancher. At the end of January, he was one of the first six ranchers in Texas to get paid for the carbon that he’s sequestered in his land. A San Antonio–based start-up called Grassroots Carbon distributed $200,000 to ranchers whose soil was measured last summer by a third-party working group called BCarbon, based at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The BCarbon group pulled samples from several feet underground, measured them in a lab, and assigned one “carbon credit” for every metric ton of carbon found (equivalent to the emissions of a car driving 2,500 miles). The number of metric tons sequestered determined how much cash each rancher received.
Many major companies are striving for carbon neutrality, either because they operate in an area that regulates greenhouse gas emissions (such as California and Japan), or—as is the case in Texas—because it’s good PR. Even oil giants ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have declared their net-zero intentions. Grassroots Carbon acts as a broker between landowners, including Sneary, and companies such as Marathon Oil and Shopify that want to offset their carbon footprints. (It works on a profit-sharing model, with Grassroots Carbon retaining a percentage of the money earned by the landowners.)
Grassroots Carbon also offers assistance to ranchers looking to implement a regenerative ranching program, including grazing management software called Pasture Map, but there are heavy start-up costs involved. In Sneary’s case, that included paying for all of that steel wire for the temporary fencing and installing twelve miles of underground water line so that his cattle could stay hydrated no matter where their paddock was set up. The payments that Grassroots Carbon brokers can offset these initial costs, which could enable more ranchers to invest in making the switch to regenerative methods. So far Grassroots has worked only with ranchers who were already using regenerative practices, but they hope news of the payments will incentivize others looking to make a change.
This arrangement is the brainchild of Henk Mooiweer, a former organic chemist who spent thirty years working for Shell, where he led the “gamechanger” department, through which the oil company invested in innovative energy programs. It was there, in 2014, that he first learned how much carbon can be stored in soil that has been regeneratively farmed and ranched (one study estimates that global croplands could store an additional 1.85 gigatons of carbon each year, enough to offset the emissions of the entire global transportation sector). Four years later, Mooiweer left Shell to form Soil Value Exchange, the company that would become Grassroots Carbon in 2021, when it merged with Pasture Map. “Of course, nature has been doing this for hundreds of millions of years; soil is a super important part of the carbon cycle,” Mooiweer told me. “We can store all of a company’s carbon emissions in soil—all its past emissions and its future emissions—by just managing grasslands in a different way.”
Grassroots Carbon is far from alone in the United States in aiming to promote regenerative agriculture via payments for sequestering greenhouse gases. The federal Department of Agriculture recently announced it will spend $1 billion on projects designed to encourage the curbing of emissions and the storage of carbon. Other private-sector efforts include the Bayer Carbon Initiative, Indigo, Nori, Nutrien, and TruCarbon. But Grassroots Carbon says the $200,000 it distributed last month represents the first time that American ranchers have been paid for earning carbon credits.
Yet the benefit of carbon capture in soil isn’t settled science. Recent studies have yielded promising results, including one from Michigan State in 2018 that found a ranch employing regenerative paddock grazing techniques similar to those used by Sneary had stored more carbon in its soil than the operation emitted—methane-laden cow farts and all. But because regenerative practices are a new trend, there are no long-term studies showing whether the amount of carbon that can be stored in the soil diminishes over time. And some critics consider the very idea of regenerative agriculture to be a myth, not so much a solution to climate change as an attempt by the meat industry to rebrand itself.
Still, all ranches partnering with Grassroots Carbon enter ten-year contracts, which means their soil will be tested annually for a full decade, perhaps more frequently at some point. Even if their amount of carbon stored drops, the contracts keep ranchers incentivized to adopt additional regenerative practices to increase carbon sequestration however they can.
It’s not a guarantee, but it’s welcome help nonetheless to ranchers such as Sneary, whose family has been raising cattle in Matagorda County for generations, even as it’s become harder and less profitable to do so. “Even if someone’s goal is not to rebuild the soil and sequester more carbon, if a rancher is interested in increasing their bottom line—and all of us are—this is a good way to do that,” Sneary says.