Forage growers may someday get a few extra dollars an acre for healthy hay fields and pastures — all because of global warming and the need to keep carbon in the soil.

“More carbon sequestered in the soil means less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” says Barbara Frase, a biologist at Bradley University in Peoria, IL. “That helps mitigate the greenhouse effect and reduces associated climate changes such as global warming.”

As concern over global warming has grown, government and private industry have worked to provide monetary incentives to landowners who use those carbon-storing methods.

Studies have shown that well-managed forage lands can sequester from 200 lbs up to a ton of carbon per acre per year, says Tom Lucas with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Buffalo, OK. Overgrazed lands, on the other hand, can lose nearly 400 lbs of carbon per acre annually. Tilling or overgrazing ground breaks down plant material that releases carbon into the atmosphere.

Carbon “trades” are already reality. Some involve individuals or companies needing to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

An Iowa company, for example, has worked with conventional-till farmers who converted to minimum- and no-till. The total carbon reduction from this change was calculated into carbon emission reduction credits (CERCs). A CERC is equal to 1 metric ton of sequestered carbon. Those credits were sold to a Canadian utility group seeking to offset carbon emissions from its operations.

“This was a 10-year agreement with an average annual payment of $6 per acre so long as the producers stay with their end of the bargain,” Lucas says.

Carbon credits are also traded for stored carbon. One such trade involved forest land in the Northwest.

Frase admits that these carbon trading mechanisms are in their infancy. But, she adds, “It's likely that a substantial market for carbon credits could develop.” Permanently established forage lands could qualify for either type of trade.

Before carbon payments become commonplace, more research is needed to determine how much carbon is stored in soil managed one way vs. another. The NRCS, U.S. Department of Energy, universities and private firms are working on ways to calculate this. Initial estimates indicate that established forage lands sequester some of the highest amounts of carbon per acre.

Lucas believes producers with properly managed grasslands will be among the first to sell credits. “Once a major emitting company makes a purchase of grassland carbon credits, I believe others will quickly follow,” he adds.

Until that happens, producers are advised to stay abreast of legislation that affects carbon credits locally or nationally.

Lucas says there is also talk of paying producers for past management efforts. So growers who make conservation improvements should keep records to verify changes later.

Another tip for growers who sell carbon emission credits: Avoid long-term contracts at first. Most sources expect prices to rise in the future.