Regenerative Grazing to Mitigate Climate Change (2019-2020)


The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states that previous climate change predictions were drastic underestimates and warming must be capped at 1.5 degrees to avoid extreme climate disruptions. There is potential for agriculture, representing 13.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, to cut its emissions and store additional CO2 in soil.

Cattle are the largest contributor to agriculture emissions, but recent research shows promising results for pasture-based carbon sequestration as a climate solution in the southeast U.S. This is further validated by’s evaluation of climate solutions that includes silvopasture, regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture and managed grazing all within the top 20 most impactful efforts.

Industrial cattle production is dominant in the United States but globally contributes only 10% of total beef produced. Targeting pastured cattle could build an agriculture emissions solution that prioritizes equity by supporting U.S. farmers (who are often excluded by USDA and Farm Bill policies) but is also globally applicable. Small-scale systems are more adaptable, while support for graziers assists rural economic development and resilience-building for the impacts of climate change.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will pursue:

  1. Research and education in the policy, history and market contexts that inform farming systems
  2. Implementation and assessment of pilot carbon offset project in coordination with the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative
  3. Development of a carbon offset protocol for pasture-based rotational grazing systems.

The carbon offset protocol is the primary deliverable that the team will work toward, and progress toward this protocol will contribute to the first and second goals.

The team will determine the most effective direction for the carbon offset protocol by working with experts from the North Carolina State Extension Cooperative, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and others to establish methodologies for tracking and monitoring the following parameters: soil carbon, fertilizer applied, fuel use, supplemental feed and other methods for reducing emissions (e.g., seaweed feed-amendments for methane reduction).

To increase understanding of the competing priorities with which graziers must contend, the team will conduct field research at pilot sites and explore diverse historical perspectives. Team members will also investigate existing agricultural policies, including the federal Farm Bill, to understand the incentives that drive current farming practices. The interplay between policy and ecosystem service markets will, in large part, shape the direction that climate adaption takes. The project team will assess the landscape for agricultural and climate policy and recommend policy changes at the state and national levels to promote on-farm practices that improve soil and transform small-scale farms into carbon sinks.

The project seeks to identify the most effective point in the small-scale pastured cattle supply chain to insert the additional revenue generated by carbon offsets. To provide the best solution for farmers, the team will engage local meat aggregator Firsthand Foods to compare the impacts of a novel product like “carbon neutral beef” with direct payments to farmers.

The team will also consider the implications for scaling these practices through existing certifications for meat production and explore application of the protocol for crop production and industrial livestock management. Throughout the project, the team will analyze data from active pilot sites and work with farm owners to ensure that graziers can respond to data requests and implement the BMPs.

Anticipated Outputs

Carbon offset protocol for pastured cattle operations; data for educational material to contribute to the field of soil science; policy recommendations to promote best practices; development and/or fostering of Amazing Grazing workshops

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 5 undergraduates and 5 graduate students.

Students with backgrounds in carbon accounting and greenhouse gas emissions, soil science, livestock and crop-based agricultural systems, agricultural and climate policy, public health and human welfare, marketing and supply chain analysis, agricultural and environmental law and social and environmental justice are encouraged to apply. Students will be sought from Duke’s law, policy, business and environment schools as well as from North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Students from farming families and students without farming experience will both add valuable perspectives to the project.

The team will be divided by student strengths and interest into three focus groups centered around science, policy and ethics. Each focus group will be led by a graduate student. Focus groups will engage in weekly meetings to prepare for biweekly meetings of the entire team, which will be roundtable assemblies for discussion, project updates and goal setting.

One student from each focus group will be represented in traveling research units for trips to each regional pilot site (mountains, piedmont and coastal plain) to gather data, conduct interviews and prepare reports to be shared with the team. Ideally, these trips will include paired visits to farms that are not implementing pastured cattle grazing within the same region.

A Ph.D. candidate will lead the groups as project manager and assist with technical data analysis. That person will also be responsible for maintaining the schedule of project objectives. A team leader and ideally the project manager will accompany research units during site visits.

We also envision several trips to meet with policymakers and attend conferences, including a North Carolina State research site visit to Goldsboro CEFS research site; a policy trip to Raleigh to meet with NCDA officials; a policy trip to Washington, DC to meet with Farm Bill legislative sponsors, legislative staff and advocates; a trip to the Quivira Coalition, a regenerative grazing conference in Albuquerque, NM; a trip to the CFSA Annual Conference; a trip to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group in Little Rock, AR; a trip to Firsthand Foods production facility; and a trip to Amazing Grazing workshops. All students will have the opportunity to travel at least once.

Students on the team will gain real-world experience developing and implementing climate change solutions to address global warming. By developing a carbon offset protocol, students will have a high-level work product that underscores their ability to work within a multifaceted context to digest a technical subject matter and develop a scalable climate solution. They will gain experience in a growing economic sector with increasing relevance for companies, organizations and governments committed to addressing climate change.


Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Fall 2019: Familiarization with project types and offset markets; workplan and goal setting; trips to research sites, conferences and workshops; focus group assembly and research development; outline of grazing protocol
  • Spring 2019: Offset protocol development, review and guidance; policy trip to Washington, DC; monthly writing assignments


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters


Image: Rocks and cows, by Bob White, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Rocks and cows, by Bob White, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Matthew Arsenault, Sustainability*
  • Robert Bonnie, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Marcus Carson, DS - Admin/Support Services
  • Nathanial Colbert-Sangree, Sustainability*
  • Michelle Nowlin, Duke Law*
  • Chantal Reid, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Daniel Richter, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Leslie Wolverton, Sustainability*

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Lucy Best, Phyta
  • Sarah Blacklin, NC Choices
  • Jeffrey Creque, Marin Carbon Project
  • Jennifer Curtis, Firsthand Foods
  • Torri Estrada, Marin Carbon Project
  • Alan Franzluebbers, North Carolina State University
  • Paul Gambill, Nori
  • Eliza Harrison, Phyta
  • Anthony Myint, The Perennial and Zero Food Print
  • Matt Poore, North Carolina State University
  • Nancy Ranney, Ranney Ranch
  • Johnny Rogers, Amazing Grazing
  • Rochelle Sparko, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association