Education is the key. If the USDA were to begin to advocate the use of sound grassfarming techniques, that would be a big step in the right direction. Let's make sure they choose to take that step.
Summaries of Studies
When properly managed, raising animals on pasture instead of factory farms is a net benefit to the environment. To begin with, a diet of grazed grass requires much less fossil fuel than a feedlot diet of dried corn and soy. On pasture, grazing animals do their own fertilizing and harvesting. The ground is covered with greens all year round, so it does an excellent job of harvesting solar energy and holding on to top soil and moisture. As you will read in the bulletins below, grazed pasture removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more effectively than any land use, including forestland and ungrazed prairie, helping to slow global warming.
It’s a different story in a confinement operation. Here, the animals are crowded into sheds or kept outdoors on barren land and all their feed is shipped to them from distant fields. On those fields, the crops are treated with fossil-fuel based fertilizers, sprayed with pesticides, and planted, tilled, and harvested with heavy equipment. Each of these operations requires non-renewable fuel. Then the feed is shipped to feed manufacturers where it is dried, flaked or pelleted, and mixed with other ingredients and then, finally, shipped to the waiting animals, using yet more fossil fuel.
There is also a day-for-night difference in “manure management” on the two systems. On well-managed pasture-based farms, the animals spread their manure evenly over the soil where it becomes a natural source of organic fertilizer. The manure improves the quality of the grass, which increases the rate of gain of the animals. It’s a closed, sustainable system.
On factory farms, the excrement builds up in the feedlots and sheds where it fouls the air and releases ammonia and other gasses to the eco-system. The fumes stress and sicken the animals and farm workers, and they lower the quality of life of people in nearby homes. To get rid of the waste, it is shipped to nearby fields where it overloads the land with nutrients. The excess nitrogen and phosphorous pollute the soil and ground water and drain off into streams, rivers, and estuaries where it can create “dead zones” that threaten the fish population.
The news bulletins below provide more detailed information about the environmental benefits of keeping animals home on the range.
Keep ‘Em Moving to Reduce Greenhouse Gasses
All ruminants—including cattle, sheep, bison, and goats—belch up a significant amount of methane gas as they digest their grass-based diet. Methane gas is a potent contributor to global warming, so reducing methane production is an important step in protecting the environment.
Animal scientists have discovered that dividing pasture land into separate areas or “paddocks” and carefully managing the movement of cattle through those paddocks produces the highest quality grasses. Cattle that graze on this succulent grass produce as much as 20 percent less methane. This style of ranching is called “Management Intensive Grazing” or MiG, and it’s practiced by most of the ranchers on eatwild.com.
DeRamus, H. A., T. C. Clement, D. D. Giampola, and P. C. Dickison. "Methane Emissions of Beef Cattle on Forages: Efficiency of Grazing Management Systems." J Environ Qual 32, no. 1 (2003): 269-77.
Long-Lived Cows Reduce Global Warming
Bossy has a short lifespan when she is raised in a confinement dairy, which is the way most cows are raised today. She provides a very high volume of milk, partly due to hormone injections and a high-grain diet, but she lasts for only 2-3 years. Then infertility, disease, physical problems, or inflammation end her milking career, and she is sold at auction for hamburger.
Cows raised on grass are healthier and more fertile, making them good milk producers for up to twelve years. These long-lived and more contented cows may reduce greenhouse gas production (methane) between 10 and 11 percent according to a British Study.
Garnsworthy, P.C., The environmental impact of fertility in dairy cows: a modeling approach to predict methane and ammonia emissions, Animal Feed Science & Technology, 2004. 112: 211-223.
Pasture reduces topsoil erosion by 93 percent
Currently, the United States is losing three billion tons of nutrient-rich topsoil each year. Growing corn and soy for animal feed using conventional methods causes a significant amount of this soil loss. Compared with row crops, pasture reduces soil loss by as much as 93 percent.
(Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Robert P. Stone and Neil Moore, Fact Sheet 95-089 )
The Sierra Club recommends grass-fed beef
The Sierra Club recognizes the ecological advantages of raising cattle on pasture and therefore endorses grass-fed beef. The following remarks appear on its website: "Spared of the necessity of antibiotics and pesticides, grass-fed beef is also friendlier to the environment. Ranchers in the grass-fed market tend to be keen stewards of the land, concerned with proper grazing techniques and the nurturing of native grasses. Indeed, many such ranchers think of themselves as grass farmers first, cattle ranchers second."
Organic beef came in second. "If you can't find grass-fed beef, consider organic beef as a next best choice. While organically raised animals may still be confined in feeding operations and finished on grain rather than natural forage, they should at least be free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides."
"Green grazing" brings back native plants
A growing number of grassfarmers are practicing "green grazing" or "conservation grazing," a type of management that is specifically designed to restore grazing land to a more natural and sustainable condition.
The T.O. Cattle Company in San Juan Bautista, California has been practicing green grazing since 1993. This process involves carefully controlling herd size and herd movement to "mimic natural disturbance of native ungulates on the landscape." In other words, the cattle are managed so that they have a similar impact on the land as native grazers, which in California include Tule elk, pronghorn, and deer.
Careful monitoring of the project shows that green grazing has: 1) increased the number and vigor of native plants, 2) increased the vegetative cover of stream banks, 3) expanded wetlands, 4) hastened the natural decomposition of cow manure, and 5) extended the growing season of the grassland. In addition, from 1998 to 2000, the percentage of perennial grasses increased from 40 to 50 percent.
Results of this grazing experiment were presented at the Society for Range Management – 2001 Annual Conference in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Lambs control insects and increase crop yield
Insects can take a toll on alfalfa in the winter months. The usual procedure is to spray the fields with insecticides. A group of forward-thinking California scientists decided to apply lambs instead. Letting the lambs graze the winter stubble eliminated the insect problem and also increased the next year's hay crop by 14% over untreated land and 24% over fields treated with the insecticide Lorsban. Let little lambs eat ivy and alfalfa.
(J.N. Guerrero et al. J. of Animal Science Vol 80, Supplement 2, p. 126. "Grazing lambs control insects in alfalfa.")
Grassland may absorb more CO2 than trees
It's a well known fact that trees draw carbon dioxide from the air and store it as carbon, thereby slowing the rate of global warming. But a new study from Duke University reveals that restoring native grasslands might be a better solution than planting trees in wetter areas of the country.
"Grasses are deceptively productive," says lead investigator Robert Jackson. "You don't see where all the carbon goes, so there is a misconception that woody species [such as trees and shrubs] store more carbon. That's just not the case." Grasses store vast amounts of carbon in their underground root mass.
Raising cattle on grass is one way to make it financially feasible to expand our native grasslands. Although cows generate their own greenhouse gasses, the net effect of raising ruminants on pasture is to slow global warming.
For a more detailed summary of this research, go to: http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/aug2002/2002-08-08-07.asp
Jackson, R. B., J. L. Banner, E. G. Jobbagy, W. T. Pockman, and D. H. Wall. "Ecosystem Carbon Loss with Woody Plant
As the controversy about global warming heats up, more attention is being focused on the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by ruminants. Methane gas, a by-product of rumen digestion, is even more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping the sun's heat, making it a legitimate cause for concern. However, the production of methane gas is only a part of the complex environmental equation. An organization called the Institute for Environmental Research and Education or IERE has been comparing the overall impact on greenhouse gasses of raising animals on pasture or in a typical feedlot.
In the graph below, you can see IERE's side-by-side comparison of the two systems. The black bars represent feedlot animals and the green bars represent pastured animals. Although an animal raised on pasture actually produces more methane (represented by the bars in the category labeled "enteric") the pasture itself reduces the CO2 in the air through a process called "carbon sequestration." The net result is represented in the final bars on the right.
The verdict: fattening ruminants in a feedlot makes a significant contribution to global warming, while raising them on pasture may offset the animals' methane production and actually reduce greenhouse gasses.
A team of researchers from Colorado State University led by Richard H. Hart studied plant communities in an area of Colorado that had been either protected from cattle grazing or grazed lightly, moderately, or heavily for 55 years. According to the investigators, "plant species biodiversity was greatest on the moderately-grazed pasture. It had more kinds of plants than the lightly or heavily grazed pastures and was not as completely dominated by the most common species as the ungrazed exclosures. Diversity was least in the ungrazed exclosures, which were overrun by plains pricklypear cactus." The researchers went on to say that "Rangeland today, moderately or heavily grazed by cattle, looks much like the same rangeland looked in the 1800s, before the Great Plains were settled." (Learn more by reading Plant Biodiversity on Shortgrass Steppe after 55 Years of Zero, Light, Moderate, or Heavy Cattle Grazing.)
In a conventional feedlot operation, large amounts of manure are deposited in a relatively small space that is devoid of living plants. Because there is an over-abundance of manure and nothing to fertilize, the manure becomes a "waste management problem" rather than a natural resource. Feedlot operators spend millions of dollars a year trying to curb the offensive odors, groundwater contamination, and surface runoff.
In sharp contrast, when animals are finished on pasture, their manure is deposited naturally over a large area of grassland, allowing the nutrients to be put to immediate use. In the photo at right, you can see a vivid illustration of how plant growth is encouraged by a well-managed grazing program. The aerial photograph shows grazing land managed by the T.O. Cattle Company a family-owned business that produces grass-finished beef. (Click on the photo for larger version) The photo was taken less than a year after Joe and Julie Morris began grazing their animals. The large triangular area of dark green just below the center of the photo is the land grazed by the cattle. The lighter green and less fertile areas surrounding the grazed land were either totally rested or less intensively grazed.
Increasing pasture land would help reduce global warming
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are increasing in the Earth's atmosphere, leading to changes in our global climate. The grasses and legumes found in pasture are highly effective at removing excess carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in the soil as carbon, a phenomenon known as "carbon sequestration." Soils in the grazing land in the Great Plains have over 40 tons of carbon per acre, while cultivated soils have only 26. In recent years, land that had been planted in row crops was allowed to revert back to pasture as part of the US government's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The pasture land gained an average of one-half ton of carbon per acre per year during the first 5 years after planting. This means that 18 million tons of carbon were removed from the atmosphere each year as a result of farmers putting over 36 million acres of land into the conservation program.
Grazing better for the soil than growing grain
Six Minnesota pasture-based ranchers asked researchers to compare the health of their soil with soil from neighboring farms that produced corn, soybean, oats, or hay. At the end of four years of monitoring, researchers concluded that the carefully managed grazed land had:
- 53% greater soil stability
- 131% more earthworms
- Substantially more organic matter
- Less nitrate pollution of groundwater
- Improved stream quality
- Better habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife
Depending on the way that cattle are managed, they can either devastate a landscape or greatly improve the health of the soil. To be listed on our Eatwild Pastured Products Directory, producers must certify that they use best management practices.
("Managed Grazing as an Alternative Manure Management Strategy," Jay Dorsey, Jodi Dansingburg, Richard Ness, USDA-ARS, Land Stewardship Project.)
Grazed pasture is the best land use for storing carbon
Growing plants take carbon dioxide out of the air and "fix" it into the soil as organic matter. The more carbon dioxide that's taken out of the air, the lower the rate of global warming. Until recently, forested land and ungrazed grasslands were thought to be the best "sinks" or storehouses for carbon. The study iillustrated below concluded that well managed grazed pasture may be far better.
"Soil Organic Carbon in fields of switch grass and row crops as well as woodlots and pastures across the Chariton Valley, Iowa." Final Report. Lee Burras and Julie McLaughlin, Iowa State University, January 25, 2002.
Mother Nature knows better once again
The concentration of carbon dioxide in our air is rapidly rising, a condition that contributes to the greenhouse effect and potential global warming. The more of the carbon that can be contained in the soil, however, the less that escapes into the air. A report released by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service finds that soil stores 2 to 3 times more carbon when the grass was grazed than when it was harvested for hay or not harvested at all.
Another benefit of grazing, the researchers noted, was that grazing also reduces costs by lowering needs for herbicides and producing income from the livestock. They estimated that even putting as little as 10 percent of existing cropland into rotation with grazing would produce significant cost reductions.
More information is available online at http://ars.usda.gov/is/pr.
Growing corn and soy causes six times more soil erosion than pasture
Farming cannot be sustainable if the topsoil is constantly being eroded. Currently, the United States is losing three billion tons of nutrient-rich topsoil each year. The graph below shows the results of a new study from the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms Program. Compared with grazed pasture, gently sloped land devoted to soy and corn production lost six times more topsoil each year. According to Dennis Frame, director of Discovery Farms, if the trend of selling cows and moving to grain production doesn't cease, soil erosion and nutrient losses will continue to climb.
(Article online at MyCattle.com)
-- Read the latest reports on global warming here: Is Global Warming for Real?
-- Read about the environmental benefits of grassfarming here Grassfarming Can Help to Reverse Global Warming, and here Reversing Global Climate Change with Holistic Management
-- Read about how cows can be part of the global warming solution, and dispel some common myths about cows and methane. U.N. Blames Cows for Global Warming -- Unjustly
-- Read about the battle over raw milk here.
-- Go to my blog posting about soy, to learn about the health hazards associated with the consumption of soy foods. A tremendous amount of information about soy is available through the Weston A. Price Foundation, among others.
Monsanto's Harvest of Fear By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele Vanity Fair. May 2008 Issue. Monsanto already dominates America's food chain with its genetically modified seeds ...
-- Read about the Clintons and their ties to Monsanto at Our Food, Monsanto & the Clintons.