To Audubon’s Marshall Johnson, the relationship between cattle, birds, and even neutralizing ranching’s greenhouse gas output is both logical and obvious. With 84 percent of American grasslands privately owned and 95 percent of all grassland birds living on cattle ranches, it’s not hard to see why Johnson, the National Audubon Society’s vice president for Conservation Ranching, sees the nation’s ranchers as key to conserving one of North America’s most imperiled ecosystems. But unlike many who cast cattle as the villainous “black hats” in the effort to slow global climate change, Johnson sees cattle – raised sustainably – as part of the climate solution.
“We have a pretty simple kind of approach,” he said. “No cows, no grass, no birds. Everything is interrelated”
Since 2012, Johnson has led the expansion of Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative (ACR) to encompass more than 70 ranches on more than two million acres of land. As of June, 2021, Audubon is preparing to double the program’s acreage through a partnership with Panorama Organic Grass-Fed Meats, the nation’s largest producer of premium, grass-fed beef. The partnership will enable Panorama to add Audubon’s “grazed on bird-friendly land” seal alongside those certifying its meat as organically and humanely raised, and put meat from ACR-certified lands in front of millions more consumers.
“There’s so much value alignment between how Audubon is going about this program and how Panorama Organic has sustained and grown its brand over the years,” he said. “So bringing these two brands together really was, from the outset, a win-win situation.”
To participate in ACR, ranchers adopt “regenerative grazing practices” that mimic the grazing practices of historic bison herds that once roamed the plains. The techniques allow a variety of native grasses to grow and thrive by allowing pastures to rest and recover. That, in turn, provides habitat for imperiled grassland birds, whose numbers have declined by more than 50 percent over the past 50 years – part of a broader loss of nearly three billion North American birds. ACR ranchers receive a “bird friendly” certification and seal from Audubon. The program also requires that livestock be able to freely graze on open grassland, prohibits use of animal by-products or antibiotics in feed, prohibits use of feedlots, and includes monitoring for animal health and welfare. In return for their efforts, ranchers receive a premium price for their products, which bear Audubon’s “grazed on bird-friendly land” certification seal.
That seal speaks to real change. According to the "bird friendliness index" developed by Audubon's science team to compare ACR-certified ranches with nearby, conventional ones, grassland bird abundance jumped by more than a third under ACR protocols. Initiatives like ACR inspired a recent, Audubon-sponsored bill in the California Legislature that would create financial incentives for ranchers to adopt similar practices in the Golden State.
For Panorama General Manager Kay Cornelius, herself a fourth-generation rancher, teaming up with Audubon made sense not just for birds, but for Panorama Organic ranchers and consumers, as well. “There’s plenty of overlap between the Audubon standards and our own, which makes it easy for our ranchers,” said Cornelius. “We’re happy we can add that environmental seal to our label so consumers will understand the impact of their purchases when they buy Panorama Organic meats.”
Panorama touts stewardship as a cornerstone of its operations. Its 34 ranching partners manage about a million acres of organic land across the Western U.S., a number Cornelius expects to double by 2030. In addition to complying with USDA Organic and Global Animal Partnership Step 4 animal welfare standards, each ranch will follow a specific habitat management plan developed with an Audubon rangeland ecologist. Those plans include protocols to enhance soil quality; increase species diversity in terms of the plant life that benefits pollinators, like bees and butterflies; and to restore habitat for grassland birds and other animals. Practices like rotational grazing can mimic the effects of historic herds of bison, which evolved over millions of years alongside native grass species and birds. Johnson says the benefits are global.
“Grasslands are a dynamic ecosystem and are the tip of a carbon sequestration iceberg,” said Johnson. “What you see is not what you get. A three-foot tall prairie plant has a root system that extends more than three to four times that beneath the surface, and that’s where the magic happens. Those deep root systems can sequester more than five to 15 metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere per acre every yearper acre.”
Why do birds matter, especially to ranchers? “It’s a cascade effect,” said Johnson. “Birds go silent, and that’s an indication that we’re losing pollinators. When we lose grasslands, we diminish the ability of soils to function at their highest ability. We release carbon from the soils and into the atmosphere and we also degrade the ability of the soils to filter and discharge water to recharge our aquifers, rivers, and streams. Birds are a great indicator of the bigger calamity we’re in the midst of.”
Panorama’s long-term commitment to conservation offers consumers an opportunity to participate in a meaningful effort to solve some of the significant problems facing the planet. “Picking up a package of Panorama organic grass-fed steaks or ground beef costs only a few dollars more than commodity beef and gives consumers a vote on changing the environment,” said Cornelius. People can feel good that when they purchase one of our steaks, they have an impact on soils, biodiversity, and bird life right here in the United States. And we’re very proud of that.”