Cattle, Catfish and Cover Crops: Alabama Farms Play Role in Slowing Climate Change

Chickens are part of system of different types of animals that has been used to regenerate the nutrient-depleted soil at Bois d’Arc Farm. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

This is the last in a series of four stories about how changing weather patterns are and will affect the Black Belt.

Once a swath of tall-grass prairie of unparalleled fertility and diversity, the Alabama Black Belt’s rich land was depleted by the practice of farming one or two crops, initially cotton and later corn and soybeans, on a large scale.

But more beneficial farming and ranching practices are taking hold in Alabama, and some in the state’s western Black Belt region are taking leadership roles.

A family in Pickens County uses no-till row farming, combined with regular rotation of crops and use of cover crops, to help rebuild once-rich prairie soil. A farm in Perry County enhances those practices by using primarily compost and organic fertilizers and by rotating different animal species through its pastures.

Progressive agricultural practices already are helping feed the planet’s increasing population. Now new ways of treating the land are seen as an important piece of a complex effort to slow the impact of accelerating climate change, as described in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on Climate Change and the Land.

Most climate change emphasis has been on displacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy. But emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases continue to rise in the face of pledges from the Paris and Spain climate summits, according to other United Nations reports. It’s become increasingly evident that strategy will take too long to avoid major consequences of higher temperatures responsible for more severe storms, intense rainfall and flooding, as well as longer periods of drought.

2019 was the second-warmest year since the temperatures began to be recorded, in 1850, according to the research group Berkeley Earth.

Technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere have not fully emerged, and it’s not clear they can be scaled up enough to make a difference, either.

 All-of-Above Approach

Thus, an all-of-the-above approach is gaining favor, and among the options is to adapt agricultural practices to keep carbon stored in the ground, as well as make use of farming practices that conserve water and other natural resources. The IPCC report said there is no cheaper and more effective approach than through climate-friendly farming practices that can bank carbon in the soil.

That means not burning or clear-cutting large forests for agricultural use, as presently occurs in tropical rain forests. Fortunately, Alabama has not stripped its land of forests to make way for agriculture, housing or urban development. A rough balance exists between forest lands being developed and agricultural land being allowed to revert into forests, according to analysis of the annual forest inventory taken by the Alabama Forestry Commission.

Land for new shopping, residential and industrial developments in places such as Shelby and Baldwin counties, for example, are offset by abandoned pasture that is allowed to re-seed in trees.

In politically conservative Alabama, plenty of people don’t agree that humans have a hand in climate change. Richy Naisbett, a cattle farmer in Marengo County, has a more nuanced stance.

“People are rightly concerned about warming temperatures and rising sea levels,” he said. “We’d be fools to think that the human race has not contributed to the decline of the world’s well-being. Think how we build homes in natural floodplains, or create the Dust Bowl by failing to use sound practices to prevent wind erosion. But most of us who work the land in production agriculture believe climate change is mostly a natural occurrence.” He pointed to oyster shells found in his Black Belt soil as evidence that the planet has undergone such changes for tens of millions of years.

Regardless of why climate is undergoing change, Naisbett said, “I believe that those of us who work in agriculture do something every single day to protect and enhance our environment. No other profession can attest to that like we can, although, yes, everyone should strive to protect what we have. We are constantly aware of our responsibilities as stewards of the land.”

Yet, he said, some corporations around the world “cheat and cut corners on air, water and soil protection to improve their profit margin. In agriculture, however, that would be a direct contradiction to our survival, something we have no financial incentive to do.”

Morning on the Bois d’Arc Farm. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

The rancher recently considered buying additional pasture to increase his herd size, but that would require employing more cattle hands. “Finding people willing to do ranch work is almost impossible these days,” Naisbett said. “But if I put in a pond to catch rainwater runoff, I could irrigate my pasture, grow more grass and allow me to farm more cattle on the same amount of land.”

His large pond filled quickly with rainfall, allowing him to bank water for any dry spells that loomed ahead.

Irrigation works for others, too. Although the initial cost for digging wells, pumping from waterways and digging ponds has made its adoption slow, its use is increasing, with irrigated acres in Alabama growing  by about 25% since 2012, according to Mary Johns of the Alabama Farmers Federation, known as Alfa.

She said, “I can’t think of any (farmers) who have told me they’re adding irrigation or changing management practices due to climate change. They are looking for ways to mitigate risk as production costs increase and potential profit margins shrink.”

Johns said, “Irrigation and drought-resistant varieties can help ensure good yields during a dry year. Dealing with the uncertainty of weather, whether or not (there is) enough rain or too much rain, has always been a part of farming.”

Alfa is part of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which opposes most government measures aimed at curbing climate change. That includes any law or regulation requiring greenhouse gas emissions be reported and legislation that would make the nation less competitive in global marketplace initiatives. BirminghamWatch partner InsideClimate News has documented the Farm Bureau’s stance in the article “How the Farm Bureau’s Climate Agenda is Failing Its Farmers.”

Yet, there may be cracks in that stance. Last month, Politico’s Morning Energy newsletter noted that American agriculture leaders, including the Farm Bureau president and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, met with green groups and anti-hunger advocates behind closed doors to discuss how to pivot agriculture to help combat climate change.

The newsletter quoted ProPublica’s Helena Bottemiller Evich: “The veil of secrecy attested to just how sensitive the topic remains, but… the group coalesced around big ideas like the need to pay farmers to use their land to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, participants told Politico.”

Auburn University experts address the effects of climate change and recently received the state’s first National Science Foundation Research Traineeship award. The traineeship helps educate up to dozens of graduate students to help farmers, urban planners and others address resiliency to climate-related hazards and disasters, from flooding and drought to hurricanes and tornados.

Project leader Karen McNeal said, “The world gets hit with numerous climate hazards every year, causing great economic impact. We need to be ready to respond to that.” Teaching trainees how to communicate the science of climate change to the agricultural and other economic sectors will be one of the project’s objectives, she said.

Researcher Puneet Srivastava, co-principal investigator, has published widely on water availability, drought and other issues. He was an author of a study published last year that used a novel technique to conclude that droughts in the Southeast will become more severe in the future.

Progressive Farming

Cattle farming often is criticized as being resource-heavy and methane-producing. But some farmers are employing methods that reduce impacts from cattle farming and even make cows part of the solution. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

Cattle production is often criticized for its carbon footprint and production of methane emissions produced by ruminant animals. But while beef will always be resource-intensive, West Alabama ranchers such as Naisbett, and Ben Moore of Bois d’Arc Farm near Marion said improving the efficiency of production can reduce land use and methane emissions, and rotational grazing and other practices can increase productivity and soil health.

Increased use of irrigation, for example, can boost the quantity and quality of feed, allowing cows to grow faster, increasing the number of cows per acre, and reducing methane emissions per pound of meat, Naisbett said.  Cross-fencing of ranches allows for better management of resources. Cattle rotate through different paddocks, preventing over-grazing of any one space. This also boosts productivity and enhances soil health while reducing emissions, he said.

Methane traps heat in the atmosphere even more efficiently than carbon dioxide. About 40% of the annual methane emissions come from natural sources, mainly boggy wetlands, while human activity is responsible for 60% worldwide, according to National Geographic. Cows and other ruminant farm animals contribute 40% of that, while farming rice in paddies (20%), oil and gas drilling (25%), and landfills and sewage treatment (14%) contribute the rest.

Beef production in the U.S. is more efficient in use of land, feed, fuel and other supplies. In March, a comprehensive government study of beef cattle production from birth to slaughter found the life cycle accounted for 3.3% of all U.S. GHG emissions By comparison, transportation and electricity generation together made up 56% of the total in 2016 and agriculture in general 9%.

The study also found that cattle consumed 2.6 pounds of grain per pound of cut weight, which it said was comparable to that of pork and poultry.

Moore manages 4,000 acres of pasture at Bois d’Arc Farm, an organic operation where cows, sheep and chickens are integrated into a system that is regenerating the nutrient-depleted soil to its prairie richness.

A Rhode Island Red on the Bois d’Arc Farm. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

“We’re practicing what’s called adaptive, multi-paddock grazing,” Moore said, herding a high-density of cows through a succession of small paddocks for short periods of time. This allows time for the sections of pasture to rest and recover, he said.

While the grazing land of most ranches is dominated by a single, cultivated species of grass, like fescue or ryegrass, Moore’s pasture sways with a diverse variety of tall grasses and other plants and weeds fed by the manure and droppings of a herd of sheep and hundreds of free-range chickens. Pollinators such as butterflies and other insects populate the fields as well.

“The cows take right to the tall plants, even the ones with woody stems. They strip the leaves and leave the stalks, which are trampled down and regenerate the soil as they decompose,” he said. The deep roots of many pasture plants, as opposed to grasses, make the earth porous and allow rainwater and oxygen to enter what was hard soil only a couple of years ago, he said.

Water for the cows comes from wells, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for meat marketed as organic, grass-fed beef. Supplemental feeding with hay or other forage is seldom required, Moore said.

The chickens, guarded by trained dogs, range freely and produce eggs sold along with the farm’s organic vegetables and herbs at markets and restaurants in Birmingham and other cities and in weekly boxed deliveries to customers around the region.

Sequestering Carbon

Keeping carbon sequestered means farmers will have to lessen their dependence on the plow to prepare the land for crops. No-till, punch-planting, and other methods of farming and ranching greatly reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

The Dee River Ranch in Aliceville in Pickens County and the Bois d’Arc Farm are practitioners of such methods of soil conservation.

The farming part of BDA is managed by Kyle Platt, who spent years in traditional tilled farming. “No-till saves an incredible amount of labor and, with other methods like using cover crops, helps replenish the soil,” he said.

Platt has seven acres under cultivation, which may seem small, but regenerative agriculture practices allow crops to be grown almost year-round.

Picking Swiss chard. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

The near-continuous production raises annual capacity by another acre or two, he said. Between crops, some beds are briefly covered by heavy landscape tarpaulins to allow organic material to decompose more quickly and to keep weeds from emerging. The only additives may be compost, organic fertilizer, and — to help reduce the natural acidity of the Black Belt soil — a little Epsom salts for its magnesium. In addition to minimizing weeding, the tarps help attract earthworms toward the surface to help with the breakdown of organic matter. “It’s always covered, and we never step on it, so it doesn’t get compacted,” he said.

Platt reached down and grabbed a double handful of soil from the garden. “A year ago, this was so hard I couldn’t put even a finger in it, and now there’s a lot of depth. And now we have all the different fungi and other biological organisms that make this a living soil.”

Mike Dee operates the no-till, 10,000-acre Dee River Ranch with his sister Annie on behalf of their 10 other siblings, growing corn and soybeans as well as a tree farm. It’s not an organic farm, but the soil is regenerated to preserve the organic material.

“This soil used to look like modeling clay, with no cracks, air or bugs — definitely not hospitable for a plant’s root system,” Mike Dee said. “No-till helps build the whole living profile in our topsoil, where moisture can infiltrate and roots grow.”

Instead of plowing organic matter under after harvesting, the decomposing plants pull carbon back into the ground, he said. “We want to hold as much of that carbon profile in the soil for purposes of the environment — that’s one thing — but also for the next generation of plants, trees, crops or pasture.”

The farmers rotate crops regularly and rest areas in cover crops that include oats, which fixes nitrogen back into the soil, and daikon radishes. The radishes have an extra-long taproot that breaks up the clay and ensures moisture and oxygen can get deep into the soil.

The farm also conserves water and reduces costs through irrigating. The system pulls water from a 120-acre reservoir that collects rain from a 500-acre area. The family considered pumping water from the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, “but we thought about what would happen if there’s a real drought and the river runs low. The reservoir gives us stored water that I can use when I need it. That’s most efficient,” he said.

The amount of water Dee requires for his crops would be greater if no-till farming had not improved the soil’s ability to retain moisture, he said.

While the number of no-till and other soil conservation methods is slowly growing, and politicians and economists are beginning to encourage them, only under 5% of croplands in the nation receive funds under the two largest conservation programs, according to a recent study.

Wider use of these principles may be encouraged by private efforts. One, by Indigo Agriculture, plans to pay farmers for sequestering carbon through regenerative agriculture. Dee has joined the program, in hopes it will improve his bottom line and help justify adoption of the farm’s methods.

West Alabama has a surfeit of water, about 56 inches annually, and largely escaped the worst consequences of drought last year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In years of major drought, however, some farmers pump water from large rivers where water quantity is not likely to create a shortage. But smaller waterways can run dry from lack of rainfall or overuse for irrigation. That can create problems if one farmer pumps out so much water that none is left for farms downstream.

No Water Management Plan

The potential competition for water is one reason state agencies and conservation groups have long lobbied for a comprehensive water management plan. The only nearby state without a plan, Alabama places no restrictions on how much a landowner can take from a waterway on or adjacent to his property, and civil court is the only recourse for those who believe an upstream farmer or industry has left them high-and-dry. State agencies are still in the process of assessing data that could lead to a formal plan to guide water usage.

Specialists at Auburn University and the University of Alabama at Huntsville are studying the state’s watersheds to determine how much water could be drawn out for irrigation without causing a noticeable impact on water quantity in those basins. Most irrigation is in the northern and the southeastern part of the state, but watersheds across the state must be assessed in order for farmers to receive federal funding for new irrigation systems.

Catfish Farming

Warming temperatures and efficient management of water also play a role in the Black Belt’s catfish farming industry. Alabama ranks as one of the top three catfish farming states in the nation, with its 17,500 acres of ponds producing about one-third of the nation’s commercially farmed catfish. Thousands of ponds dot the Black Belt landscape, radiating out from Hale County, which leads in production and where the industry was introduced in the late 1960s. Greene, Dallas and Perry counties are other major producers.

Alabama ranks as one of the top three catfish farming states in the nation. (Source: Michael Clemmer)

On a recent overcast afternoon, Tim Wenger was driving a feed truck up and down the western end of a nine-acre pond outside his parents’ home in Hale County, blowing soy-based food pellets into the water. The pellets floated on the surface, and the water was rippling and splashing as the catfish came to feed.

Around the pond, paddle-wheel aerators, looking like miniature relics from steamboat days, sat idle. The aerators become operational when needed — most often during hot summer nights — to maintain the oxygen level the catfish need to thrive.

“This here is slow,” Wenger said as he watched the catfish churn to the surface of a nine-acre pond to eat soybean-based food pellets. “They’re eating slow compared to summertime.” When the pond water warms up to a desired level, such as 85 degrees, the catfish eat more, and that means more meat at harvest time.

“Warmer’s better,” Wenger said. “If it warms up 20 degrees, we might be able to raise 18,000 pounds to the acre instead of 10.”

While warming temperatures could lead to hotter summers in which the fish would eat less, warmer winters might offer two months more of premium feed time, Wenger said.

Wenger and Mike Owens, another catfish farmer in Hale County, keep a daily eye on the temperature in the ponds.

Owens manages more than 100 ponds of about 10 acres each. In total, the ponds produce an average of 10,000,000 pounds of meat a year. He said catfish can tolerate some changes in water temperatures as long as it is kept relatively stable.

“But when water temperatures rise into the 90s for periods of time, the fish will not eat as consistently, and feeding levels per day will drop off,” he said.

Ordinarily, water supply is not a problem. To initially fill the five-foot-deep ponds, wells draw from regularly recharged aquifers several hundred feet underground, or pump from nearby rivers and tributaries. Due to the heavily clay soil of the Black Belt, the ponds serve as “bathtub” reservoirs with little water seeping out.

The ponds experience up to 18 inches of evaporation annually, mostly in summertime. Farmers count on heavy winter and spring rains to bring the water levels back to normal. If there’s too much rain from the increasingly intense storms, the ponds can fill to the brim, absorbing more water as a hedge against flooding, which is expected to increase with higher temperatures and more intense rain.

Tom Gordon contributed to this story.

More stories in the series

Sunday: In West Alabama, Life Is Hard. Warmer Weather Forecasts Worse Problems

Monday: Audubon Study Finds Warming Climate May Be Inhospitable to Alabama State Bird

Tuesday: Wood Pellet Plants in Job-Hungry Southern Towns Prompt Environmentalists’ Warnings