Good land management needs farm animals

Vegetarians are bad for the environment

CO2 contributes to climate change, although it works in complex ways. For example, higher concentrations of CO2 helps plants grow. Trees require less water when there is more CO2, so can we expect MORE forest growth, a benefit of climate change? A more straightforward factor in climate change, and maybe a bigger factor, is land use. As grasslands turn to deserts, climate gets worse. An unusual solution might be MORE cows and sheep.  

Watch this TED talk. Think about grasslands. Grasslands co-evolved with large grazing animals. It is easy to see how grazing animals depend on the grass they eat. It is harder, and maybe even counterintuitive, to see how grasslands depend on large grazing animals. In fact, years ago we were taught that grazing destroyed grasslands. But like everything else in nature, it was more complex than that.

Just as the difference between a lifesaving medicine and a deadly poison is often in the dosage, whether grazing animals destroy grasslands or save them depends both on the amount and on how it is done. Overgrazing makes semi-arid grasslands into deserts, but so does under grazing.

Alan Savory, the man featured in the TED talk, was surprised when he studied parkland that had been protected from grazing. As you can see if you look at the TED talk, some lands that were green and prosperous when a park was established and livestock was excluded, were in much worse shape thirty years later. Far from recovering in the absence of grazing, they degraded further.

Grazing good and bad

It is not a simple matter of finding the right number of animals to graze a field. More important is HOW they do it. I would think that a herd of animals spread evenly over a field would be optimal. They would nip off the top of the grass evenly, never trampling too much. But this is wrong. The grass needs to be grazed heavily and trampled down and then it needs to rest. The best thing to do is put lots of animals into concentrated areas but to move them around. Where the animals have been, it looks “overgrazed” and it would be if they stayed, but they don’t. The grass gets a chance to grow back and when it does it is stronger.

It starts to make sense when you think of how you might work your own lawn. If you just let the grass grow w/o ever cutting, raking or fertilizing, the grass gets patchy and starts to die. Grass thrives best when it is clipped down and the resulting thatch removed. Grazing animals do this and provide fertilizer in the process.

The best thing about this method of grassland restoration is that it is sustainable and profitable. This means that farmers can use it, stay in business and benefit the environment at the same time. In the long run they can graze MORE animals on the same land because the method also restores and builds soils.

Soil is the basis of all our prosperity, but we usually just treat it like dirt. A healthy soil gives us many benefits. Besides growing better plans, healthy soil can absorb water better. Pastures with strong soils resist drought better. There is another advantage important today. Strong soils sequester carbon.

Before I finish, let me make a few points clearer. First, this grazing method is used for grasslands that don’t get much rain or get rain in large doses, as in wet and dry seasons. In places where it rains all year around, such as in Western Europe or Eastern North America, you can let grazing animal just spread out. This is because the grass grows back quickly and, as importantly, the residue rots rapidly in the humid environment. Neither of these things happens in the drier places. That is why you need the grazing animals deployed in intense groups. Second, MORE animals can be grazed on the same land. It is a real win-win. Farmers and ranchers benefit directly by being sustainable. And finally, eating meat is good. In many of these drier areas, grazing animals are the most efficient makers of food. If the system is done properly, there were will more animals than the land can support. Some need to be removed and if there is not a strong market for them, farmers will be unable to support sustainability. Sustainable agriculture and strong markets are mutually supportive.

On a related topic, I saw on an article on Globo Rural about a multiple land use with cattle. On a farm in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, they divide their land into five sections. Four of the five are planted in soy. The last one is corn with grass planted under it. After the corn is harvested, they put cattle on the land to eat the grass. They move around the fields, so that every five times the field is in corn followed by cattle. This increases profits on the farm, improves that soil and reduces inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.

We really can be sustainable w/o radically changing our ways of life. Profit is not only compatible with a good environment; it is a necessity. Strong markets and sustainability go together. And clearly meat-eaters are better for the environment than vegetarians.