Ecologically-friendlier ranching

Something positive this week.

Here is an article about ranchers turning towards managing their cattle in ways that more closely mimic how wild herbivores would move across landscape, with benefits to the plant communities – which leads to economic benefits to the ranchers, because the food their cattle depend on doesn’t get overgrazed and become an insufficient food source.

“In the beginning, I ranched like everyone else,” said David, referring to his management style, “which means I lost money.”

David followed what is sometimes called the “Columbus school” of ranching: turn the cows out in May, and go discover them in October. It’s a strategy that often leads to overgrazing, especially along creeks and rivers, where cattle like to linger. Plants, once bitten, need time to recover and grow before being bitten again. If they are bitten too frequently, especially in dry times, they can use up their root reserves and die—which is bad news for the cattle (not to mention the plant). Since ranchers often work on a razor-thin profit margin, it doesn’t take too many months of drought and overgrazing before the bottom line begins to wither too.

. . .

In 1990, David enrolled in a seminar taught by Kirk Gadzia, a certified instructor in what was then called Holistic Resource Management—a method of cattle management that emphasizes tight control over the timing, intensity, and frequency of cattle impact on the land, mimicking the behavior of wild herbivores, such as bison, so that both the land and the animals remain healthy. “Timing” means not only the time of year but how much time, measured in days rather than the standard unit of months, the cattle will spend in a particular paddock. “Intensity” means how many animals are in the herd for that period of time. “Frequency” means how long the land is rested before a herd returns.

All three elements are carefully mapped out on a chart, which is why this strategy of ranching is often called “planned grazing.” The movement of the cattle herd from one paddock or pasture to another is carefully designed, often with the needs of wildlife in mind.

. . .

Observing the migratory behavior of wild grazers in Africa, Allan Savory noticed that nature, often in the form of predators, kept herbivores on the move, which gives plants time to recover from the pressure of grazing. He also noticed that because herbivores tended to travel in large herds, their hooves had a significant ground-disturbing impact (think of what a patch of prairie would have looked like after a million-head herd of bison moved through), which he observed to be good for seed germination, among other things. In other words, plants can tolerate heavy grazing and perhaps even require it in certain circumstances. The key, of course, was that the animals moved on—and didn’t return for the rest of the year.

Savory also observed that too much rest was as bad for the land as too much grazing—meaning that plants can choke themselves with abundance in the absence of herbivory and fire, prohibiting juvenile plants from getting established (not mowing your lawn all summer is a crude, but apt, analogy). In dry climates, one of the chief ways old and dead grass gets recycled is through the stomachs of grazers, such as deer, antelope, bison, sheep, grasshoppers, or cattle. Animals, of course, return nutrients to the soil in the form of waste products. Fire is another way to recycle grass, though this can be risky business in a drought. If you’ve burned up all the grass, exposing the soil, and the rains don’t arrive on time—you and the land could be in trouble.

The bottom line of Savory’s thinking is this: animals should be managed in a manner consistent with nature’s model of herbivory.

This may not be as good for the land as if it were still populated by herds of wild herbivores, and their natural predators, but if the ecosystem no longer has those populations of animals (and it does not, and it will not, as long as a lot of people want to keep eating domestic meat animals), then emulating it as much as possible with our domestic animals is surely better than “old style” ranching.

I do have personal reasons for hoping this can be done sustainably: I’m not healthy, and I do not function well, without eating beef pretty frequently, and I dislike contributing to a process that is harmful to the bigger picture. However, I am currently able to buy grass-fed beef from a small, local ranch that treats its animals very well, and in addition to fitting into my ethical values, it is the tastiest most delicious beef I have ever had. Like, I never really loved beef until now.

Another article, focused on adding compost to grasslands to improve their ability to hold carbon, has this:

When [John Wick] bought the ranch in 1998, he didn’t want anything to do with agriculture, he told the group of nonprofit administrators and government conservationists munching on pastries in his sun room. He liked birds and wild things, not hulking domestic bovines that frequently met him on his own porch. So he got rid of the cattle in hopes of creating wilderness.

But Jeff Creque, an ecologist that Wick had hired, suggested that the land might be healthier if it were grazed. And indeed, after a couple years of strictly controlled grazing, he saw a huge increase in wildlife. His meadowlark population rose from five to over a hundred. Eagles showed up. Predators moved in. As Wick spoke, a bobcat kitten appeared outside the window and came gamboling toward the house.

. . .

It does sound good, almost too good to be true. And, of course, there are a couple of problems.

The first problem has to do with cows and compost. Both create methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But the negative effect of these methane emissions did not outweigh that ton of carbon. And when Silver’s team did a full lifecycle analysis, they found there was more to the story. There are always emissions associated with cows and compost, and, when considered in sum, the methods of the Marin Carbon project actually amounted to a huge reduction from business as usual. That’s largely because there’s often no market for the compost we produce. The fact that the Marin Carbon Project created a use for that compost put the lifecycle analysis back in the green, in a big way.

An additional article on beef and environmental impacts (covers a lot of the same material, but adds some additional sources):

And on “regenerative farming” as a way to improve the carbon sequestration of soils:


About Fjothr Lokakvan

More or less Northern Tradition polytheist.
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