Herbivores, and especially livestock have been blamed for ruining the environment. Environmental scientists claim that overgrazing by livestock, namely cows, has resulted in desertification (land turning to desert.) It’s true that mismanaged livestock has caused environmental damage, but this does not mean that livestock itself is to blame.
For decades, the official policy to protect and restore land in national parks and elsewhere was to eliminate livestock. This policy has not been proven to work. Land in national parks is no better than it was before, much of it is worse. Nature doesn’t abandon land, she fills it with animals.
Grasslands developed over millennia with large numbers of herbivores. Huge herds of buffalo, elk, gazelles, zebras, and other even larger herbivores that have gone extinct. These animals lived in tight herds to protect themselves from pack hunting carnivores. A large herd of herbivores would quickly defecate all over the ground and their food, forcing them to move to fresh ground. This prevented them from overgrazing the grass.
What Happens When We Abandon Land?
Grass, once it is fully grown, must decay or be removed before the next year’s growing season. If it’s not, the grass and soil begin to die. If grass cannot decay biologically, it shifts to oxidation. This is the brown grass you see in pasture that’s not been grazed recently. Oxidation can take up to 60 years to complete in drier environments. Meanwhile, this dead grass smothers new growth, leading to a shift toward woody shrubs with bare ground in between.
Bare ground cannot hold water and is easily eroded. In my article, The Conventional Food System is Fragile, I wrote about how erosion has affected cropland. In America, we’ve lost as much as 30% of our topsoil in the last 200 years.[3, 5] That’s the power of erosion.
Fire is another hazard created by abandoning grassland. Dead, dry grass is very susceptible to fire. Just look at california. Not only is fire dangerous to humans and wildlife, it’s dangerous for the environment. French research has shown that a one and a half acre grassland fire releases more carbon dioxide than 3,694 cars per second and more nitrous oxide than about 1,400 cars per second. Biomass burning accounts for 40 percent of C02 production annually.
One of the reasons, that desert stays desert is because the ground cannot hold water. Soil needs organic matter to hold water. It needs plant matter to protect it from the hot sun and it needs organic materials to hold onto water. Without these two things, water runs right off and evaporates within hours after rainfall ends.
Grass Wants to be Cut
When a plant, such as grass, reaches maturity, it stops growing and begins to die off. This is the brown grass you see in many pastures. The life cycle of a grass plant is short, only a couple months. When grass reaches the end of its life, it wants to be pruned off so it can start over. Without that pruning, the leaves are left to decompose on their own.
You might think that animals trampling and eating grass would kill it. But that’s not true. Grasses are specifically designed to lose significant parts of itself, yet thrive afterward. Think of cutting the grass in your lawn. That’s a violent endeavor. You’re taking a fast spinning sharp blade and cutting the top few inches off the plant. Imagine if someone came along and cut your arms off. Would you thrive afterward? No. But grass does. Grass loves to be mowed, weeds do not. This is grass’ competitive advantage.
How Do We Maintain Billions of Acres?
Your first thought might be to use large lawn mowers, also known as brush hogs. It makes sense at first, homeowners use lawnmowers. Why not use them on grasslands? Well, for one, there’s over 12 billion acres of dry rangeland that needs to be cared for. Does anyone really think that mowing 12 billion acres is realistic? Even if we only mowed 1 billion acres, who’s going to pay for it? To put this in context, 1 billion acres would be like mowing every single acre in Alaska, Texas, and California.
Not only would this be expensive in terms of dollars, it would burn up a lot of fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels in the name of carbon sequestration. Sounds like a recipe for success to me. So, i’ll consider that a no for the majority of grasslands.
Our second method to maintain grassland is to burn off the dead vegetation, to make way for new growth. The forest service has used this method to restore land and to prevent wildfires. I’ve already established how polluting a grassland fire is. Not to mention how big a threat it is to wildlife and people’s homes. I’m going to say that burning is not the solution. Just ask any californian if they’d like more grassland to burn.
We Need Livestock to Mow Grass
The third solution would be to use animals. Animals don’t run on fossil fuels and don’t cost money to run, other than management costs. The idea behind abandonment is to let the wildlife return to haw they grazed hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, we simply do not have the numbers of wildlife required to maintain grasslands. Not only do we have too few animals, but the prairies in north america and other countries has been divided up by human settlement. People live there. That interrupts the natural migration patterns of wildlife.
If we can’t rely on wildlife, then how about livestock? Using electric fence, livestock can be managed in a way that mimics the wild herds that built prairies around the world. Now to make the animal rights people happy, let’s suppose we run these millions of herbivores for the sole purpose of mowing grass, letting them die of old age or predators. Okay, who pays for it? We end up with the same problem we had with mowing.
When you run a herd of livestock without harvesting any of them. They become recreational. Someone has to pay the ranchers to manage these herds. They can’t manage themselves. But, when you allow the ranchers to sell their animals, suddenly this becomes a business that can pay for itself. It’s sustainable. It doesn’t need a check from the government or a non-profit.
Don’t Blame the Cow
One of the hurdles to using cows to maintain grassland is that cows produce methane during digestion. Because of this environmentalist and vegans want cows to be eliminated. This is a problem that can be overcome with proper management. Methane production is aggravated when livestock eat poor quality grass. This happens with continuous grazing where the pasture quality declines over time.
Yes, it’s true that cows produce methane. However, when managed properly, their carbon sequestration more than offsets their methane output. Research at the University of Louisiana has demonstrated that enteric methane emissions can be notably cut when cattle are regularly moved on to fresh pastures.
Cows have also been unfairly blamed for ruining the environment by overgrazing land until it turns to desert. As if cows have a personal vendetta against the climate. This is simply not true. Cows are a tool, they can be used to restore the environment, or misused and end up destroying the environment.
As an example, let’s use a kitchen knife. Knives can be very useful. They can turn a pile of vegetables and meat into a delicious stew. But that very same knife can also be used to murder someone. That’s not the knife’s fault. No one blames the knife for a stabbing.
In the same way, no one should blame the cow for harming the environment. The ones to blame are the ranchers who leave them to overgraze, and the environmentalists who remove them only to find the land degrades even faster with zero grazing.
Livestock Can Sequester Carbon
“A growing body of research shows that livestock grazing can enhance biodiversity.”
Ecosystems of California – university textbook
Since I’ve established that livestock are the only viable option in maintaining land, let’s talk about how they can also help to fight climate change. To understand this, you should understand a little about how grass grows. Grass goes through roughly three stages as it grows. The first is when it’s small, either a seedling or just been mowed. The second is the growth spurt on the way to maturity, this is when most of the carbon sequestration happens. The third stage is maturity. This is when grass stops growing and will eventually go dormant.
As you probably concluded, we want to keep grass in the growth spurt stage a much as possible. The only way to do that, is to keep mowing it. And the best way to mow it is with livestock.
Data collected from the Michigan State University proves just how beneficial managed grazing can be. The cattle raised in feedlots averaged over three times as much carbon emissions per kilogram as cattle raised in managed grazing. Their carbon sequestration vastly out weighted any slight increase in methane production. In April 2014, Seth Itzkan published a 34 page paper where he concluded that holistic managed grazing could sequester between 25 and 60 tons of carbon per hectare per year.
Effective sequestration isn’t just about growing more plant matter. Carbon sequestration means putting carbon into the soil. This is how the fertile soils of the midwest were formed. Carbon is sequestered in a cooperative process between plants and mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. A protein called glomalin holds the carbon, making up 15% to 20% of the organic matter in the soil.
Livestock is the only farming method to achieve this. When you till soil, the mycorrhizal fungi are injured, reducing carbon sequestration. The UK Soil Association found that plowing up grazing lands in the UK results in 1.6 million tons of carbon releasing into the air every year.
Support Sustainable Farms, Fight Climate Change
One of the most effective ways for you to fight climate change is by changing your eating habits. The UK soil association found that organic farming increases soil carbon levels. And not just a little bit, the average carbon levels were over 20% higher than non-organic farming.
Sustainable farming doesn’t pollute. It doesn’t stink up the neighborhood. It doesn’t truck its food all over the world. Sustainable farmers try to leave the environment better than they found it. They feed their cows grass instead of grain. They grow their crops with little to no tillage. They raise animals outside, a revolutionary idea nowadays.
There’s yet another reason to buy food from a sustainable farm, economics. When you buy grass finished beef instead of feedlot beef, you’re voting with your dollars. Buying from a small sustainable farm means a lot more than buying from a billion dollar food company. While a huge food company will hardly notice your lost purchase, your small farm purchases may mean the difference between that farmer needing a day job and being able to go full-time. That’s why local farmers are so grateful to their customers.
- Food, Energy, and Society, David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, 2007
- Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2014
- Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, 2012