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Missouri could offset carbon emissions from agriculture by conserving the soil, report says

A field of rye
Stephen Ausmus | U.S. Department of Agriculture
A report from the nonprofit climate science group Climate Central says that Missouri farmers could greatly offset emissions by planting cover crops and using other practices known for improving soil productivity.

Farmers and ranchers in Missouri could help cut the state’s contribution to climate change by using practices that store carbon from the atmosphere in the soil, according to a climate science report released this month.

In Missouri, many farmers use no-till or reduced-till practices, which means not using mechanical equipment to overturn the soil. They do this to improve soil health and prevent erosion, but research also shows that no-till farming can store carbon in the soil. Missouri could cut carbon dioxide emissions further if farmers adopted more practices that not only enhances soil quality, but also promotes carbon sequestration, concludes the report from Climate Central, a nonprofit climate science group.

The report estimates that Missouri could save up to 6.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, which is more than twice the amount of the city of Columbia emits in a year. It recommends that ranchers practice rotational grazing, in which livestock are moved regularly around the pasture to allow other areas to recover.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that Missouri farmers could also plant more cover crops, like rye and barley, that are used to prevent pests and improve soil productivity, said Eric Larson, an energy researcher at Princeton University.

“Things like cover cropping, rotational grazing for cattle — those are practiced to a much less extent right now,” Larson said. “There’s a pretty large scope of improvement that would benefit both the farmer and the climate.”

Agriculture represents the U.S.’s fifth largest contributor to climate change, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In turn, farmers around the world also have been greatly affected by climate change. In Missouri, rising global temperatures are expected to lead to more heavy rains and droughts and longer growing seasons.

Larson notes that getting farmers on board with planting cover crops and using other conservation practices could be tough. Compared to other practices, cover crops has the most potential to store carbon in the soil.

“There needs to be more understanding amongst farmers,” he said. “There needs to be more education, more information available.”

Half of Missouri’s farmers are already practicing no-till farming, said Ray Massey, a University of Missouri economist who communicates with farmers about conservation practices.

“[The report] doesn’t give credit for the work that farmers have already done,” Massey said.

But he does agree that more Missouri farmers could plant cover crops. Massey often tries to convince farmers to take advantage of three-year, federal subsidies aimed at encouraging farmers to do so. In 2016, the USDA gave $1.7 million to farmers to help plant more cover crops. However, cover crops are expensive and farmers often don't see an immediate benefit, Massey said. They’re useful in preventing soil erosion, but farmers can’t harvest them.

“When the farmer looks at it, he’s saying, ‘Yes, I want to adopt it, but if I farm 1,000 acres and I’m spending $30 an acre to plant it, I’m spending $30,000 with no harvest at the end,’” Massey said. “There’s a lot that can be done with $30,000.”

Therefore, farmers are more likely to choose a tactic, such as no till farming, that accomplishes the same goal of improving soil productivity without losing money, he said. While there is a long-term societal benefit to planting cover crops, ultimately farmers are focused on what their yield and profits will be like in a year.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.