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Stakeholders launch million-acre grazing initiative

Collaboration will scale up sustainable cattle grazing and connect ranchers across Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The Walmart Foundation, Cargill and McDonald’s are investing more than $6 million in an initiative led by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that aims to make lasting improvements to the grasslands of the northern Great Plains (NGP).

The new program, known as the Ranch Systems & Viability Planning (RSVP) network, will support ranchers across the eco-region — focusing primarily on Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota — with technical expertise, training and tools to help advance grazing practices that improve the health of the land. By improving management of 1 million acres over five years and avoiding conversion, this effort will result in increased carbon storage and sequestration, improved water infiltration and better outcomes for biodiversity.

“Collaborative efforts like this can accelerate innovative, sustainable solutions and support ranchers in the beef supply chain,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer for Walmart and president of the Walmart Foundation. “Sustainable grazing practices that improve soil health, absorb carbon and reduce water consumption can help to protect the land and people who depend on it.”

The program supports the Walmart Foundation’s focus to bring more sustainable, regenerative practices to the beef industry. The foundation aims to build connections that can accelerate systems change and form communities of practice with grantees and leaders to share learnings, advance best practices, foster collaboration and scale collective impact. Investing in conservation activities in the NGP supports the stewards of those lands and contributes to climate resilience efforts.

As ranchers continue to adapt their plans to improve conservation and economic outcomes and share peer-to-peer learning, through the RSVP network, WWF will work with ranchers on private and tribal lands to provide extension services in one-on-one and group workshops, offer ongoing technical expertise and provide cost sharing and monitoring to help ranchers design, document and implement ranch plans.

“Ranchers are the most important stewards of the grasslands of the northern Great Plains. As managers of over 70% of the remaining intact grasslands within this region, they hold the keys to its future,” Martha Kauffman, managing director of the WWF NGP program, said. “The RSVP network will support ranching partners in planning and improving the resiliency of their operations so they continue to provide habitat for wildlife, store carbon, filter clean water, produce nutritious food and support communities for generations to come.”

The partnership also supports McDonald’s ambition to use its scale and many relationships from the farm to the restaurant to help significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and evolve the food system for a resilient and sustainable future. As the first restaurant company in the world to set an approved science-based target on climate action, McDonald’s is partnering across the supply chain to employ diverse strategies that scale up action across the industry.

“I’m proud of McDonald’s investment in programs like the Ranch Systems & Viability Planning network. These partnerships bring producers, suppliers, [non-government organizations] and brands to the table to drive the widespread adoption of more sustainable and regenerative practices that reduce emissions, mitigate climate change and support livelihoods,” said Francesca DeBiase, McDonald’s executive vice president and chief supply chain and sustainability officer. “This innovative work is an important step toward scaling climate solutions across the supply chain, building resiliency and achieving McDonald’s science-based climate target to significantly reduce emissions across our offices, restaurants and supply chain by 2030.”

The project is now part of Cargill’s BeefUp Sustainability initiative, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the company’s beef supply chain 30% by 2030, measured on a per pound of beef basis against a 2017 baseline. Earlier this year, Cargill launched two other programs to support this goal, including a grassland restoration effort and an initiative to implement proven soil health practices in cattle feed.

“We believe beef cattle can be a force for good and one of the ways we can address some of our shared challenges by preserving wildlife and drawing down carbon," said Heather Tansey, sustainability lead for Cargill’s protein and animal nutrition and health businesses. “This initiative is a testament to that. I’m inspired by the efforts of ranchers who live this belief each day and grateful for our partners who join us lending scale, resources and experience to advance realistic solutions that address climate change.”

According to the initiative, the NGP eco-region, which comprises approximately 25% of the total area of the North American Great Plains, remains largely intact, thanks, in part, to its harsh climate, which has made agricultural expansion relatively difficult until recent decades. In fact, the NGP still supports 1,595 species of plants that provide habitat for 300 species of birds, 95 species of mammals and 28 species of reptiles. The Missouri and South Saskatchewan rivers, in addition to smaller prairie streams, riparian and wetlands habitats, provide habitat for 13 species of amphibians and 121 species of fish.

The remaining healthy ecosystems within the region are maintained largely by hardworking ranching communities.

“Grasslands have evolved to be grazed, and cattle grazing, when managed well, can deliver many conservation benefits, including healthy grasslands, improved soil and the preservation of key habitats,” the stakeholders noted.

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