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.

Week One: Making Sense of the Louisiana Purchase

Tuesday, May 16 2017, It was my first full day of work as the new intern here at Rock Hills Ranch. Gray puffy clouds filled the vast prairie sky as I waited to witness the hidden South Dakota sunset for the second time. The bitter 40 degree winds bit at my shivering skin while it rolled across the green hills of the pasture. My head was hung. I stared at the ground watching my faithful cowboy boots take each step across the dark clay soil. Perhaps, the only things that reminded me of my Virginia home were the black-hided cattle tending to their new spring-born calves. Luke and I were conversing as we walked toward the newest addition to the ranch with intentions of tagging its ear. The conversation died in a split instant, along with any sense of security I had previously possessed, when my ears intercepted an alarming noise. “WOAH!!!,” Luke shouted. Without delay, my eyes rose from the fertile ground to see cow Y170 charging right at us. I quickly ran for my life as I sought the shelter of the Honda Pioneer. Terrorized and afraid, I hid behind the ATV. Luke however, had a much different reaction. After the initial fleeing, he handled the situation with experience and composure. The mother was calmed, the calf tagged, and the day went on. On the way back to the barn, I found new insight into American history as I thought, “No wonder France sold this land to Jefferson for so cheap. The weather is frigid, the wind never rests, and even the cattle are mean.” What a welcome to the West.

My name is Tucker Wyatt. I am a 19 year old full-time college student from the college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. I enjoy hiking, fishing, kayaking, the MLB, the NFL, and writing country music with my best friend, Megan (yes, she is a guitar). I am the second oldest of six kids; Anna (20), myself (19), Jane (17), Lizzy (13), Kitty (11), and Bridget (7). No, your eyes are not deceiving you. I am the only boy with five sisters. Even our family dog is a female. My father, Bill, is the Director of Communications and University Spokesperson for James Madison University (Go Dukes!) and my mother Carey is a stay-at-home mom. We’re a loud and rowdy crew and I miss them already. Just a few short weeks ago, I graduated with my Associate’s Degree from Virginia Tech in Applied Agricultural Management with a concentration in Agribusiness. (LET’S GO, HOKIES!) After my time here at Rock Hills, I will be pursuing my Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Economics as a cadet at Virginia Military Institute. Upon my graduation from VMI, I aim to pursue my juris doctor in the hopes of one day getting involved with ag law and policy.

I spent the early years of my childhood in Glen Burnie, Maryland which is a suburb just south of Baltimore. So how does a kid from the big city end up working cattle on a ranch in South Dakota? Well, in short, he found his passion. Agriculture. As you might imagine, my pursuit of finding my place in the agricultural industry is quite different than most. When I first moved down to Rockingham County, two days after my 10th birthday, I was not a fan of the rural character of the “friendly city.” Slowly but surely however, thanks to the influence of my dearest friends, I found myself adopting more Virginian habits such as hunting, fishing, and listening to country music. By the time I got to Harrisonburg High School I was a natural want-to-be country boy who was only concerned at the time with a girlfriend, Toyota pickup truck, and playing baseball and football. During my junior year in the Governor’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Academy, my Honors Geoscience instructor told me that she knew of a job where I could make $40 dollars for each 2-hour shift I worked. With gas prices around $3.00 per gallon, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the shifts would consist of milking cows or even that each shift started at either 3 am or 3 pm. While the initial adjustment to the job was rough to say the least, over time I began to take pride in playing my role in providing our region with nutritious dairy products. During the next several months, I became fascinated with the question, “How do so many people get fed by so few farmers and ranchers?” That very question led me to pursue my degree in agriculture from Virginia Tech. During my time there, I not only pursued ag in the classroom but also in extra curriculars. I pledged Alpha Zeta which is a professional honors fraternity for students studying agriculture and natural resources as well as the Collegiate Beef Leadership Council of Virginia Tech. I have learned so much through these organizations and the college itself and I am proud to call myself an advocate for our industry.

But why a ranch internship in South Dakota? Well, during my studies, I have developed a particular interest in beef cattle. Not only am I infatuated with a well-marbled steak and cowboy culture, but I really appreciate that the beef industry has remained largely in the hands of family operations compared to a world of other ag industries that seems to be gravitating toward consolidation and large corporate ownership. When I was applying for summer internships, I was hoping that I would find one that would help me gain valuable insight and knowledge that would assist me in becoming a better advocate for the industry and its operators as I pursue my ambitions of public policy and ag law. Although I have only been here for a short time, there is no doubt in my mind that I am in the right place. The Perman family is not only a proactive member and advocate of the beef industry but they are fountains of knowledge concerning production, marketing, and current issues facing the beef community. I have learned so much already and look forward to working for some of the best in the business this summer. Thanks for taking the time to read my first post and I look forward to keeping you posted as the summer goes on!

I wear lots of hats.

I wear lots of hats.

One thing we are never short of is hats.  Every seed supplier, feed salesman, equipment dealership, and co-op seem to be very concerned that we might get a tan forehead.

I used to get attached to my “favorite” work hat.  That was a problem, because it would get dirty and smelly.  Washing it solved that, but brought up an equally troublesome problem – washing it always made it fit differently.  So it was no longer my favorite anymore.

I have since become less attached to my work hats.  I have become a cap casanova – love ’em and leave ’em. When they get dirty and/or smelly, I kick ’em to the curb.  And why not?  I have been going through them at a rate of one per month for two summers now (winter hats are a different story – I’m totally committed there) and have yet to see the bottom of the hat pile.  Right now, of the two I wear, one is from a bull sale I went to three years ago; the other I bought in high school (at least 13 years ago).   I think I might be close to having a balanced hat budget though.  Income is the same as outgo based on what I’m seeing.


I wear lots of hats.

Most small business owners probably are like me in this regard – jack of all trades, master of none.  As a rancher, no two days seems the same.  No two hours even seem the same sometime.  Today I worked as our human resource person, market analyst, webmaster, government agency liason, IT help desk, vehicle fleet maintenance manager, and herd foreman.  I think I deserve a raise.  I’ll have to talk to myself about that later.