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.
Recently I toured the Sand Ranch in Forbes North Dakota. I started the day by checking cows looking them over for any health problems. Then Melanie (the new August intern) and I took off for North Dakota. As we arrived we registered and paid our dues for the dinner that was going to be provided! We all piled on to flatbed trailers and fixed our keasters on some good ole hay benches. One of the first things I noticed was the use of permanent two strand high tensile wire fence. They used to have 16 pastures that encompassed 2300 acres. This high tensile wire plus poly wire have turned 16 into 65 pastures in just four years. This then allows them to experiment and have such a cushion of grass. For instance, if they wanted to try using grazing weed control in a certain pasture that has a lot of wormwood they can graze it heavily. If it does not work out then they have 64 other pastures to go into. Their average pasture size is forty acres. Then they use poly wire to make those into twenty acre paddocks. Another advantage to doing this is to use a high intensity stock grazing. They had three to four herds and combined them all into one herd. By doing this they have seen a large amount of native grasses come back into their pastures along with a vast amount of diversity.
Another thing I found very interesting is a twelve foot tire tank with a curb stop floatation device in it. They also had calf water fabricated to allow calves to water. They found that a problem created by this high intensity style of grazing was the capacity of the water tanks for the calves as well as the cows.
Cody and Deanna talked a lot on improving the quality of life, being able to spend time with their family and not letting the ranch run their lives. One of the things that they have done is to put up little to no hay for the winter. Instead they stock pile grass on pasture. They hit the corn fields in the winter and then in the early spring they have grass stockpiled to use before the growing season. Not having to spend so much time haying has allowed the growth of another business, a custom saddle making business.
On the tour we stopped by crop land that the family has owned for only four years. The ground was very mismanaged when they purchased it. The effects of tillage and no cover crop usage caused the top soil on these hills to sluff away, so they have been bale grazing the hills to try and return the top soil and allow grass to grow there.
It was a wonderful experience to me to see people thinking out side of the box that I feel a lot of people get stuck into. A special thanks to Cody and Deanna Sand for allowing the tour on their place. It gave me a lot of ideas and confidence to go out and try some of these practices out when I manage or own my own ranch.