Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems (Dec 2020)

Ecosystem Impacts and Productive Capacity of a Multi-Species Pastured Livestock System

  • Jason E. Rowntree,
  • Paige L. Stanley,
  • Isabella C. F. Maciel,
  • Mariko Thorbecke,
  • Steven T. Rosenzweig,
  • Dennis W. Hancock,
  • Aidee Guzman,
  • Matt R. Raven

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 4


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Regenerative agriculture is a newly codified approach to agriculture that emphasizes reducing reliance on exogeneous inputs, as well as restoring and enhancing ecosystem services such as soil carbon (C) sequestration. These regenerative agriculture principles suggest that modern livestock systems can be redesigned to better capitalize on animals' ecological niche as biological up cyclers and may be necessary to fully regenerate some landscapes. One example is a multispecies pasture rotation (MSPR) system, which symbiotically stacks multiple animal production enterprises (i.e., chickens, cattle, sheep, and pigs) on one landscape. We conducted a whole-farm life cycle assessment (LCA) of an MSPR in the southeastern United States that was originally converted from degraded cropland. We compared the production outputs, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, land footprints, and soil health outcomes to a conventional, commodity (COM) production system of each respective species. Our 20-year MSPR chronosequence of soil C and other soil health indicators shows dramatic improvement since establishment, sequestering an average of 2.29 Mg C ha−1 yr−1. Incorporation of soil C sequestration into the LCA reduced net GHG emissions of the MSPR by 80%, resulting in a footprint 66% lower than COM. However, when comparing required land between the two systems for food production, MSPR required 2.5 times more land when compared to COM. Thus, while our model indicates that MSPR can simultaneously produce protein while regenerating land, a considerably greater land area is needed when compared to COM. Our results present an important yet paradoxical conclusion on land and food production balance. Should society prioritize an input-intensive, COM system that produces more food from a smaller yet degrading land base? Or, alternatively, should systems such as MSPR that produce less food on a larger, but more ecologically functional landscape be more highly prioritized? These complexities must be considered in the global debate of agricultural practice and land. Our results indicate MSPRs are a useful model for alternative livestock production systems with improved environmental outcomes, but in this study may present considerable land-use tradeoffs.