LUBBOCK, Texas — Researchers from Texas Tech’s Department of Plant and Soil Science are using a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Services to study how farmers and ranchers in West Texas can operate efficiently while reducing carbon emissions.

“There are lots of interesting things about the pastures going on out here that we think contribute toward ecological benefits,” said Chuck West, Professor Emeritus of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech.

At the university’s research farm in New Deal, researchers are collaborating with Dr. Veronica-Acosta Martinez, a soil microbiologist, with USDA-ARS, Lubbock, for the project as well. Together they are working to find agricultural solutions based on soil composition that can help farming and ranching practices become more profitable and sustainable.

One of their biggest focuses is reducing irrigation needs – especially as droughts pose big challenges for farmers.

“We are looking at grazing systems, forage crops, pastures, that do not need to use so much water for irrigation,” said West. “So we’re cutting back on the irrigation. But that can produce cattle profitably.”

This project will study the methods and benefits of conserving resources like water while reducing carbon emissions. The team is led by primary investigator and assistant professor of soil microbiology and biochemistry, Lindsey Slaughter.

“We’re trying to find out how we can optimize the way that [soil] bacteria are able to consume one of the more detrimental greenhouse gases in this case — it’s methane,” said Slaughter.

In order to reduce emissions and function more efficiently overall, it comes down to the grass and legumes they’re growing and what it can put back into the soil.

“We’ve been looking at growing grasses, especially a perennial grass called old world bluestem,” said West. ‘Which is quite drought tolerant, very, very hardy, a persistent grass, and also adding alfalfa to it.”

The more diverse plants in an ecosystem, the more it adds to the biodiversity of that area — both above ground and underground. As a part of this project, researchers are planting alfalfa and other legumes that add nitrogen to soil. That in turn helps the soil retain water and nutrients.

“Bacteria living on the roots capture nitrogen from the air, feed it to the alfalfa plant, the alfalfa plant grows well — and a lot of protein in there,” said West. 

With more protein and less fiber in alfalfa compared with other types of grass, cattle gain weight more quickly without the added methane, or gas, that comes with other less diverse diets.

“We put on no more than nine inches of irrigation water per year,” said West. “And this way, we are using that water efficiently because it’s resulting in more weight gain by the animals.” 

Slaughter explained that the goal of the project is to study the best way to use limited resources to maximize agricultural outputs.

“We’re trying to help reduce resource inputs, but increase that resource efficiency in the soil environment, while also protecting those soils with that permanent grasses that would be growing above that,” said Slaughter.

Nitrogen from the alfalfa also acts as a natural fertilizer, pumping natural nitrogen into the ground. This could be a more cost effective and efficient solution opposed to nitrogen fertilizers added annually that can cost farmers a lot of money. 

Although many of these changes may be happening underground, Slaughter explained that overtime, the benefits will show in cattle productivity.

“You see the result of that when there’s less water that’s needed to go on those pastures in order to make them productive,” said Slaughter. “[Or] when they survive the next drought with minimal input and minimal help from you.”

Slaughter said she hopes this will provide more information on how farmers can preserve resources and work efficiently while reducing their carbon footprint.

“It will also help us determine exactly or quantify exactly how much methane can be consumed in that soil environment that may contribute to offsetting some of that methane production by cattle,” said Slaughter.

The findings from this research could be applied to industrial agriculture practices which could be a game-changer for the total carbon footprint of both the farming and ranching industries.

Slaughter said she hopes that research on the whole-system benefits to animals, plants and soils will help encourage farmers in the region to consider incorporating more perennial forages into their agricultural operations.