Carbon-Sink on the Range?
Air Date: Week of December 7, 2007
TheBuffaloGuys.com is a coalition of ten buffalo ranchers from the American West who claim that raising buffalo for meat is carbon neutral. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with rancher Ken Klemm to find out just how carbon neutral buffalo really are.
GELLERMAN: From car standards that save energy to beasts that just might help save the planet. A recent ad in the New York Times caught my eye. 1t was for buffalo meat. ‘Taste positive—carbon neutral,’ said the ad. It seems a group of ranchers that call themselves ‘the buffalo guys’ claim animals that once roamed the Great Plains can cool the climate. They’re raising 3,000 head of bison on ranches in western states, and are shipping steaks and buffalo burgers nationwide. Ken Klemm is one of the Buffalo guys. And Ken, do you really think that buffalo can help fix climate change?
GELLERMAN: Convince me.
KLEMM: Well, if you need healthy grasslands to take the carbon out of the atmosphere, buffalo are a key tool in creating and maintaining healthy grasslands to remove the legacy carbon. They do not require a lot of the feeds and care that cattle require because they’re uniquely adapted to the environment. So you don’t have to run a tractor to cut hay, you don’t have to haul the hay off and then haul the hay back to feed them. You don’t need to put them in feedlots and haul the feed to them to get them to market weight. They just need to be fed well right on the range where they’re at. So they’re uniquely adapted to the environment and in so doing they don’t need a lot of chemical-based additives and barns and hay is brought to them and all the many things that cattle would need.
GELLERMAN: Well, take me through this process, because I want to understand how it’s different than say just cows, cattle.
KLEMM: Mmm Hmm. Well, buffalo—first of all, there are billions of acres of land that are dry grazing lands, and buffalo are uniquely adapted to dry grazing lands. Cattle are uniquely adapted to humid grazing lands. Buffalo have sharp hooves for instance, which are designed to actually cut the grass and cut the soil as they walk in the dry lands and help do a little mini roto-tiller action.
Their manure is different. It breaks down much faster in the dry environments. They remain in large herds and stay together and they’re much more powerful so they have greater impact on the land, which is important. You have to stir the land up. A healthy grassland is not a rested grassland. A healthy grassland gets grazed when it needs to be grazed, and rested when it needs to be rested. That’s how you keep a dry grassland healthy. And buffalo are uniquely adapted to that as they coevolved with the grasslands for millennia.
GELLERMAN: So the grass absorbs the carbon dioxide out of the air, the bison churn up the grasslands, eat the grass, sequester the carbon, and then we eat the bison, or the buffalo?
KLEMM: That’s right. They eat the grass. The manure falls to the earth and the microorganisms take that manure, which is just what they’re used to having, and put it in the soil. And the grass is healthy, creates more roots. Puts in—of course the roots is where a lot of carbon is stored, and then we’re actually building soil—a quarter inch, an inch, that adds up.
GELLERMAN: Now don’t buffalo produce methane as an end product?
KLEMM: Well the studies that I’ve read show that methane is only produced in large quantities when the animals are on feedlots. And feedlots, of course, the animals are force fed grain, and it changes their digestive system and makes it, makes them produce a lot of methane. Grazing animals, as near as science can tell, does not, there’s no methane problem.
GELLERMAN: And methane of course is a greenhouse gas.
KLEMM: It is. It’s actually worse than carbon.
GELLERMAN: Now you have buffalo ranches in Kansas and Wyoming, right?
KLEMM: Yes, we do. Kansas and Wyoming and Colorado—and Montana.
GELLERMAN: Now I’m out here in Boston. You must be emitting carbon to transport the meat here to Boston.
KLEMM: Yes, I’m sure we are. Yes, I’m sure we are. Transportation is part of an issue.
GELLERMAN: So it’s not exactly carbon neutral.
KLEMM: Well, I guess we’d have to sit down and do the math, wouldn’t we? But I know that if you take ten million acres and heal the desertified land, that it would remove a gigaton of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s a lot of carbon. And then that would put it in the soil. So, the carbon that’s created in producing the meat—there can be a lot of it that is stored in the soil.
GELLERMAN: You know, I’ve always wanted to ask someone this question: do deer and antelope really play where buffalo roam?
KLEMM: (laughs) Well, the deer don’t play with the antelope, I know that for sure. But they play with each other. And there are—I mean, that’s all part of the ecosystem—the buffalo and the deer and the antelope, and of course before the elk were pushed out of the ecosystem, there was actually a lot of elk there. There were 60 million buffalo as estimated on the American grasslands, which is the greatest mammal mass in the world, even greater than any of the African herds of any specie, and of course right below that would have been the elk, and then there would have been deer and antelope below that.
GELLERMAN: How many buffalo are there in the United States now?
KLEMM: The U.S. and Canada together have about 500,000. We slaughter about 50,000 head a year in the United States and in the United States there’s about 120,000 cattle killed every day. We kill about 50,000 a year. So, by noon on one day of slaughtering cattle, we would be done slaughtering all the buffalo in the United States.
GELLERMAN: Ken Klemm is one of the buffalo guys. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Mr. Klemm.
KLEMM: Oh, the pleasure’s been mine and I’m grateful that we’ve had this time to talk.
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