Grass Ranchers, Carbon Cowboys: Yolo Land & Cattle Company

The family trade at Yolo Land & Cattle Company

New Names for Old Ways

At home on his family’s cattle ranch in central California, Scott Stone feels good about the future of agriculture.

"I think more and more people will see that working landscapes not only feed the world, they truly can save the world. Ag can do it all.”

The old herd management practices Scott learned from his father have new relevance. Scientists are learning more about how grazing animals both renew soil and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.

“Many scientific studies coming out recently support the way we have been managing our rangelands for years. It is pretty exciting to see how things are rapidly changing for farmers and ranchers regarding soil health and how it affects everything we do.”

Climate scientists say curbing our emissions won’t do enough to stop the trajectory of climate change. “Carbon farming” is a method of cutting existing atmospheric carbon, using photosynthesis to draw greenhouse gases back into the earth. Certain soil treatments may help maximize its carbon storage capacity.

Soil health is one of the core concerns for ranchers like Scott. Without good soil, they don’t have grass. No grass, no cattle.

Karen and Scott Stone of Yolo Land & Cattle Co.

Science Catching Up with Cowboy Wisdom

The Stones are among a growing cohort of ranchers who believe their time-honored methods of conscientious land management are the answer to climate fears.

“Science is bringing awareness to open space cattle ranching,” says Karen Stone. “Not only are we beef producers; we’re healing the earth. We’re providing this process that is benefiting this earth—not just for today, but for forever. These are long, long-term benefits.”

Soil management techniques championed by climate scientists, such as composting and rotational grazing, have been long-standard practice at Yolo Land & Cattle Company.

“We are always trying to implement practices that improve our soils and ranches on a watershed-wide basis,” says Scott.

Rotational grazing mimics the natural movement of animals in the wild by keeping cattle moving from pasture to pasture rather than confined for long stretches of time. Composting keeps soil fed and may even cause grass to soak up more carbon, whereas other applications such as manure release methane during decomposition.

Scott and Karen hosted their first soil carbon workshop at the ranch in the fall of 2019 so others could learn about rangeland soil carbon storage and see their compost trial sites and 50-acre compost application firsthand. For over a decade, they’ve also partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Audubon California, and Yolo County Resource Conservation District in a perennial grasses study where researchers examine the amount of carbon sequestered in the roots of certain perennial grasses on the ranch.

Austin, Colton, Karen, and Scott Stone at home on the ranch

The Stones take a careful approach designed to benefit all the resources found on the ranch; not only beef but also clean air, wildlife, water.

“We’re getting much better water retention,” Scott says. “If you don’t have bare ground and you have good grasses, and you’ve been taking care of it with rotational grazing and composting, you can actually sustain more groundwater recharge from storms that come through.”

Before regenerative agriculture and soil carbon sequestration entered the national consciousness on climate health, families in agriculture called them good management. Best practices, effective techniques, plain common sense in maintaining the health of their one major resource and family inheritance: acres of American grassland.

“I have seen some absolutely gorgeous, high-functioning farms and ranches in Northern California that have been split apart, sold, and developed, and are no longer working landscapes,” Scott says. He lists estate taxes, government overregulation, and urban sprawl among the threats his fellow ranchers face.

“We feel grateful that this ranch will never have lights, it will never have homes, it will never have a golf course; it will be a working, open landscape,” Karen says. “Every day when I turn onto County Road 25 and start heading to the ranch, I look up at Edgar Peaks and I say, Thank you, God, for this beautiful landscape and the privilege to be a steward of this land.”

Gathering at the Stone family ranch in Yolo County, California

This post was originally written for the California Rangeland Trust.

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