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The Grazier's Gazette

Environmental story of pasture-raised beef is being missed

Pasture-raised cattle have a lot more to offer than lean, tasty beef. Their environmental story is being missed.

There are a number of groups of people who feel a need to crusade against animal agriculture of any sort. Some of these groups use opposition to animal agriculture as a tool to further political agendas and some groups are sincere in their beliefs that, for humane reasons, animals should not be part of food and fiber production. The first set of people will be little influenced by anything that I or anyone else could say; their political beliefs are their religion and as such not debatable.

Related: Here's how to manage livestock and pastures for what you want

The second set of people are by and large more open to reason. These are the groups that post videos of animal abuse on social media and they are driven by a desire to reduce the suffering of animals. I am not going to fault them for this attitude. There are far too many incidences of true animal abuse that need to be corrected and we do not further the cause of animal agriculture by denying the obvious. We need to reform those areas where abuse occurs and explain that true stockmen are deeply concerned with the well being of our animals. Many of the activists are committed and sincere and we need to make allies of them in our efforts to improve animal welfare.

There is a need to educate the public, and some farmers/ranchers, on animal husbandry. Joel Salatin tells of a neighbor repeatedly reporting him for animal abuse because the cattle he was moving through a series of paddocks, "Had no hay." The cattle were gaining weight on good pasture but all the neighbor, who was not a farmer, could see was that they had no hay when all the other animals in the area were being fed. My father-in-law, who was a very good stockman, had a similar blind spot when it came to his horses and this caused one of the few conflicts ever between us.

Each of his horses had its' own stall and was fed oats every morning before going out to work or pasture. My saddle horses lived in the horse trap with shade and a wind break and ate grass with hay supplied when grass was short. My father-in-law felt I was not taking proper care of my horses even though his horses fought respiratory problems all winter and mine were seldom if ever sick. In both cases the problem was perception rather than actuality.

It is my opinion, that animals are happiest and most likely to be stress free (read productive) when they are managed under conditions as close as possible to the ones under which their species evolved. For herd animals: cattle, bison, horses, sheep, goats, and even hogs, management mimicking these conditions would be moving regularly as a herd to fresh pasture.

Today, I am not going to get into the debate over animal confinement operations except to observe that these were developed for the benefit of the farmer rather than for the animals. The main point of this column is that management techniques exist that are highly beneficial to the animals and the stockmen while at the same time very beneficial to the environment. Planned high stock density grazing mimics how the natural grasslands of the world were created and maintained. Where nature used predators, we use fencing or herding to bunch animals and move them constantly to fresh pasture that has recovered from it's last grazing.

Done properly the results are similar with dramatic increases in soil organic matter content, up to 2,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year, according to USDA research. This ton of carbon added to the soil removes some 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; I don't know if reducing CO2 levels in the air is beneficial or not but I do know that adding carbon to the soil is highly beneficial in several ways.

Related: I'm counting the many splendored purposes of a cow

As soil carbon increases, soil life from bacteria to mycorrhizal fungi to earthworms increase. Increased soil life causes more mineral nutrients to be made available to plant life and the increased plant root growth stimulates more soil life and more carbon sequestration. The soil life in healthy pasture soil also uses for food more methane than grazing animals produce. This is a roundabout way to say that grazing animals under good grazing management build healthy topsoil.

This topsoil and accompanying improved plant growth increases the amount of water taken in and held by the soil. The total effect can be to dramatically improve the local water cycle and make more water available to all. This effect will also began to reverse the desertification that is currently devastating millions of acres every year. We have a very good story to tell and we need to get on with the telling. Whether the goal is to preserve public land grazing or to lease the neighbor's 40 for pasture, how well we tell our story will be important.

TAGS: Livestock
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