Cows and climate change

Recent stories on my news feed have made bold declarations about how cattle are even bigger contributors to climate change than they previously thought (they already thought they were bad).  Their conclusions are mostly focused on greenhouse gases – how much methane cows produce, and the carbon implications of raising cattle.  I’m not a scientist, so it would be presumptuous of me to offer my opinion of the data or research they are using.  I think I can, however, point out some data points that are absent from virtually every anti-cow article I’ve ever read.
Should cattle be removed from certain regions, namely those which historically have had large grazing ruminants like the Great Plains, what would the impact be on the other species that depend on their presence for ecosystem function?  Is it logical to believe that removing cattle would not have a negative effect on these environments?  What will be done to fill the hole left by cattle?  They provide biological and mechanical services which are critical to a healthy prairie ecosystem.  (Bison and elk, which occupied this role prior to European settlement in the Great Plains, are both ruminants, so the methane component would be similar to cattle.)  And there are other aspects of climate change that would be impacted by an unhealthy prairie – less plant growth (less carbon sequestration), higher soil temperatures (less below-ground biological activity & more evaporation), poor water infiltration (more erosion and poorer water quality downstream), to name a few.
Speaking of bison and elk, I have yet to hear someone opposed to cattle for environmental reasons say that the vast herds of bison and elk that grazed North America prior to European settlers were ever a problem, and their near-extinction was actually a good thing.   If the methane cattle produce is so terrible, would the bison not have been equally as bad?
I would agree with those who oppose cutting down rainforests to make room for cattle.  Wholesale change of an ecosystem by man is something that generally has consequences.  For those who wish to critique modern beef production, there is room for that discussion.  However, to completely write off all beef production as detrimental to the planet’s health demonstrates a lack of critical thought and understanding of how different ecosystems function.
There has to be a balance.  Any rational person believes this.  Unfortunately, the cows and climate change debate is as polarized and dogmatic as any topic you’ll find.  But really, it isn’t rocket science.  When man makes drastic changes to an ecosystem, it’s generally a bad idea – whether that be putting cows where they don’t belong, or removing them from where they do.  We need to become observers of nature and mimic what it does, rather than believe we have all the answers.  We might find a more nuanced approach is the right one.


We’ve had nothing but polled black cattle around here for the better part of 30 years, give or take a few red recessive genes and a brief trial with some Hereford bulls.  That changed the last day of March when 12 red-hided horned bulls arrived from Llano, Texas.

Akaushi (pronounced “ak-a-ooshee”) cattle, also known as Red Wagyu or Japanese Red, were imported to the US from Japan in the early 1990’s.  They produce very high quality beef, similar to that of the more common black wagyu, although some beef snobs would tell you the reds aren’t on par with the blacks.  I suppose Ferrari owners look down on Corvettes also.  Just a quick note here – “wagyu” simply means “Japanese cow”.  Akaushi acutally means “red cow” in Japanese.

After speaking to a number of people and reading every article I could find about them, I decided they would be a good choice for a terminal cross on our Angus cows.  They should bring $75-100 per head over our straight Angus calves if sold at weaning.  If we were to retain ownership and market them on a grid, it could be double that.

I can get used to the red hide and deal with the horns for that kind of premium.

Lack of ideas, not so much.

It has been a long time since I have actually posted here myself, so I thought I better before you all thing I don’t do anything around here.  I’ve enjoyed delegating the website journal to the interns but I don’t have any here now, so it’s up to me.

In an industry as steeped in tradition and history as ranching, you might think not much changes from year to year.   That may be true on some levels, but in many ways it is false.  For our operation, there are constant changes.  We are always looking for new and better ways to do things.  Innovation and adaptation to the environment we do business in is as important to ranching as it is to any other business.

“Lack of money is not an obstacle.  Lack of ideas is an obstacle.”
Ken Hakuta

“Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”
Albert Szent-George

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”
W. Edwards Deming

These quotes, and others similar to them, have rolled around in my head a lot this winter.  I have some new ideas we’re trying out this year.  Here’s a few of them.

Tire feed dispenser
Last week I cobbled together a rolling grain feeder to supplement some corn and soybean hulls to the young cows.   They are still growing themselves, plus feeding the calf in utero, so they could use a little extra feed.  You can see the feed dispenser in the photo below.

Every time the tire goes around, a small pile of grain is left on the ground.  The cows clean it up very well.  The “feeding frenzy” where I feed with this also helps break down the old dead grass, allowing those nutrients to cycle and feed the new grass coming up.

Breeding Heifer enterprise
An new venture we’re trying this year is bred heifer development.  We’ve always done our own, but this year we are doing it with the intention of selling them.  Since we don’t start breeding until July 15, our bulls are unemployed during the month of June when most other ranchers are breeding their heifers.   I bought a load of heifers to breed in June, which will then be sold as bred heifers this fall.  This allows us to pull double-duty from the bulls, spreading their cost out over more heifers.  It also allows us to better match our forage supply with our cow inventory.

Wagyu genetics
This spring I’ll be calving out a group of heifers bred to Wagyu bulls.  It’s the first year we’ve done this.  The calves will be destined for white-tablecloth restaurants and the Japanese market.  These calves will be fed for about 500 days after leaving here in the fall to maximize their meat quality.  Over 95% of them will grade USDA Prime (about 3% of cattle grade prime normally, although our Angus calves have done up to 20%).  The immediate benefit to us is they are very easy-calving.  This makes it easy on the first-calf heifers and easier on me, not having to help as many deliver their calf.

Double-cropping forage & grazing
The slim (or negative) profit margins on some crops has caused me to try an alternative plan on one field.  We will plant oats and peas in the spring, cut it for hay in June, and then plant a multi-species grazing crop immediately following the hay crop.  Assuming we get enough rain, this second crop will provide high-quality forage next fall for our young bred cows.  It will feed the soil as well.  Multi-species cover crops help sustain a diverse population of below-ground organisms, which in turn keep the soil healthy and productive.  I’ve seen this done successfully on other progressive operations, so I’m optimistic it will work for us.


Not everything I try works out.  I could do a multi-part journal series on those ideas that didn’t.  But I always learn something – even if it’s just what not to do.  That’s still a success in my mind.

I’ve survived so far.

“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Edison